Boycott, divestment, sanctions

Issue section: 

The flotilla attack sparked protests and solidarity worldwide. Phil Marfleet reports on the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which can offer a focus for solidarity with Gaza.

Gaza has been under occupation for over 40 years but international interest has seldom been as intense and international solidarity rarely as effective as since the recent killings at sea.

The Turkish organisation which led a flotilla in May is to send another convoy to break Israel's blockade: the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid (IHH) says it will send at least six more ships. A German Jewish organisation also planning to reach Gaza by boat has been inundated with requests to participate. Meanwhile demonstrations have been held in scores of cities worldwide. They have a consistent theme - that it's time to end the blockade and time to boycott Israel.

According to Robert Serry, United Nations (UN) special envoy for the Middle East peace process, "The flotilla crisis is the latest symptom of a failed [Israeli] policy. The closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip needs to come to an end." Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, goes further, arguing, "It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza. The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is now a moral and political imperative, and needs to be supported and strengthened everywhere."

Explosive issue

Given the UN's limp position on the Palestine conflict these are strong reactions - and reflect an understanding among states which dominate the organisation that Gaza has become an explosive issue, especially in Turkey and in the Arab states. After the flotilla killings Egypt opened its border crossing with Gaza at Rafah - a response to protests across the country. The Egyptian state has a long record of attacking pro-Palestinian demonstrations but could do little about recent mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria and a host of towns including Arish, Sharqiya, Damietta, Aswan, Assiut, Kafr el-Zayat, Basyoun, Qatur, Samnud, Mahalla, Tanta and Zifta. Protests on this scale indicate a national movement of solidarity - and the regime was quick to react.

Among slogans in Cairo was a pointed challenge to the state: "Down with Mubarak! Down with the wall!" - a reference to the wall along Egypt's border with Gaza, constructed on the orders of Hosni Mubarak and financed by the US. Linking Egypt's ruler with Israel's oppression is unwelcome for a regime which has been struggling to stifle prolonged industrial disputes and which faces concerted opposition in forthcoming presidential elections.

Mubarak's concession on Rafah reflects anxiety in the US about the implications of the flotilla incident: it is almost unthinkable that Egypt would reopen the crossing without US approval. President Obama's election in 2008 was followed by short-lived rhetoric from the White House about reining Israel in. Obama has since realigned with the Israeli government - only to be confronted by the flotilla incident and by problems in the Arab states and with Turkey, a key Nato ally, just as he was attempting to mobilise support for sanctions on Iran.

Even the most senior Israelis are worried by the latest turn of events: according to Meir Dagan, chief of Israel's secret service, Mossad, "Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden." Israel remains a key asset for the US - but such open talk reveals the scale of problems produced by the extreme violence of the Israeli attack and reactions across the Middle East.

Worldwide the flotilla killings have galvanised solidarity with the Palestinians. Campaigns for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) have been growing since, in 2005, the Palestine Boycott National Committee (BNC) issued a call for collective action against Israel. BDS is mushrooming: the BNC lists active support in Norway, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, Turkey, Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Spain, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US. Since the flotilla events both the South African and Swedish dockers' unions have resolved not to offload Israeli ships and in Britain the UCU Congress has taken the important step of breaking from Israel's phony union federation, the Histadrut, agreeing to establish a BDS trade union centre and to participate in annual international BDS conferences.

South African veterans of the struggle against apartheid are playing a key role. Several have visited Palestine, following up with public statements about what they witnessed there and calling for international boycott along the lines of solidarity action organised by the anti-apartheid movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Ronnie Kasrils, a key figure in the African National Congress, describes his visits to the West Bank as "a surreal trip into an apartheid state of emergency". He says he saw illegal settlements, roads reserved for the use of settlers, multiple checkpoints, and a "monstrous" wall: "I can't recall anything quite as obscene in apartheid South Africa." For Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined."

In Palestine the BNC is leading a highly effective campaign to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements: this has hit settler companies hard, as many enjoyed a captive market in the West Bank, where Palestinian industries have been destroyed by the occupation. And a group of Israelis have created Boycott - Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, involving "citizens of Israel, [who] join the Palestinian call for a BDS campaign against Israel, inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid".

Solidarity with the Palestinians has entered a new phase of collective action organised through trade unions, student unions, professional organisations, faith and community groups. Campaigns at the local level target Israel products - especially those produced in illegal settlements, labelled "Products of the West Bank", and sold widely in British supermarkets. Here a key role has been played by the leading charity War on Want and by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

Churches have been particularly active in divestment: a section of the Methodist Church in the US is the latest group to sell holdings in three major companies (Caterpillar, General Electric and Terex) that profit from Israel's occupation. Several unions in Britain have agreed new national BDS policies: in June the Unite conference voted to "vigorously promote a policy of divestment from Israeli companies"; at the UCU Congress in May delegates proposed that national action should include an end to links between British and Israeli educational institutions, and boycott by British academics of conferences and publications hosted by Israeli universities.

Eyewitness to state murder