Should Israel worry? The BDS movement gains momentum

Published June 23rd, 2014 - 01:32 GMT

The international movement to “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction” (BDS), aimed at convincing governments, organizations, universities and companies to boycott the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, divest from companies that aid the occupation and impose sanctions on Israel, is gaining momentum. 

On June 20, the Presbyterian Church voted to divest itself out of three United States (US) companies tied to the Israeli occupation of Palestine: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

The decision is significant as the Presbyterian Church is the largest US church to endorse divestment to date. It is one of the oldest US Protestant religious institutions, and probably the most represented in the US establishment; many early and recent US presidents followed this church. The decision signaled a decade-long debate within the church. 

The divestment decision was narrowly focused, directed at companies that closely aid Israel in enforcing its most egregious policies in the occupied territories. The decision cited the fact that Caterpillar supplies products that are used to destroy Palestinian homes, Hewlett-Packard provides logistics and technology to help enforce the naval blockade of Gaza, and Motorola Solutions provides military and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.

Although the church went out of its way to reassure Israel’s supporters that the divestment should not be construed as “alignment or endorsement of the global BDS movement,” its decision was seen as lending support to the movement, especially in the US. It was also a blow to pro-Israel groups, which have lobbied the Presbyterian Church “furiously,” according to The New York Times, during the past 10 years while the move was under debate within the church. Over 1,700 rabbis from all 50 US states signed a joint public letter addressed to the church to refrain from adopting the decision. 

The BDS movement has gained considerable support around the world since it was established in 2005, but not as much in the US. The movement is an example of the efficacy of “soft power;” it uses economic, social, cultural and political pressure on Israel. The goals of the movement are threefold: End of the occupation and settlement of Palestinian land, full equality for Arab citizens of Israel and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

BDS goals of boycott and divestment have received full backing from Richard Falk, a well-known international law scholar who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967. Falk said: “The focus on business activities is partly an expression of frustration about the inability to obtain compliance with these fundamental legal obligations of Israel and the ineffectiveness of the UN efforts to condemn settlement expansion.” 

In his 2012 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Falk recommended that “businesses highlighted in the report — as well as the many other businesses that are profiting from the Israeli settlement enterprise — should be boycotted until they bring their operations into line with international human rights and humanitarian law and standards.”

Falk specifically named three US-based companies Caterpillar, Hewlett- Packard and Motorola, the same three companies targeted by the Presbyterian Church divestment decision on Friday. He also named Israel’s Ahava, Elbit Systems and Mehadrin; Sweden’s Volvo Group and Assa Abloy; France’s Veolia Environment; United Kingdom’s G4S, Belgium’s Dexia Group, Netherlands’ Riwal Holding Group and Mexico’s Cemex. 

BDS has gained support among academics. British physicist Stephen Hawking announced his boycott of the Israeli Presidential Conference, a prestigious conference sponsored by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. Hawking had accepted the invitation to attend the conference, then declined citing his decision to respect the academic boycott against Israel, as the proper method for scientists to respond to the “explicit policy” of “systemic discrimination” against Palestinians.

Among well-known academics, authors and activists who have expressed support for BDS are: South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professors Noam Chomsky and Malcolm Levitt, and writer Alice Walker. Canadian author Naomi Klein endorsed the campaign, saying: “It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation and for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.”

Probably most BDS success has been recorded in Europe. For example, in January 2014, Danske Bank, Denmark’s largest bank, blacklisted Israel’s largest bank, Bank Hapoalim, for “acting against the rules of international humanitarian law” due to its funding of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Danske Banks has also withdrawn its investments from Africa Israel Investments Ltd. and Danya Cebus for the same reasons.

Since 2010, over 250 Irish artists have pledged to boycott Israel along with over 140 Irish academics. Also in Ireland, in March 2014 Galway Students’ Union voted to join the BDS campaign, making it the first Irish students’ union to endorse a boycott of Israel. 

In December 2013, Frans Timmermans, the Netherlands’ Foreign Minister, said during a visit to Israel, that his government was opposed to economic activities by Dutch companies in the occupied territories. Earlier in 2013, Dutch water company Vitens ended its ties with Israel pointing to alleged violations of international law. The engineering company, Royal Haskoning DHV, canceled work on a project in East Jerusalem stating that “involvement in the project could be in violation of international law.”

Neighboring Luxembourg’s state pension fund has blacklisted eight Israeli firms along with US firm Motorola Solutions for assisting in human rights violations and illegal settlements in Palestine.

In January 2014, Norway announced that its pension fund would no longer invest in two Israeli companies (Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus) “due to their contribution to serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict through the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem.” Norway’s youth group YMCA-YWCA joined the boycott in 2014, announcing that it will support “broad economic boycott of goods and services from Israel and Israeli settlements.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the international movement to boycott, divest and sanction South Africa was instrumental in ending the apartheid system. BDS could do the same for Palestine if it is able to galvanize international support and channel it toward ending the occupation.

By Abdel Aziz Aluweishag

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