RAMALLAH, July 13 (JMCC) – Five years after its inception, a decentralized grassroots network promoting a comprehensive boycott of Israel
is celebrating a mounting streak of successes.
From boycotts by the unions in the UK and dockworkers in Sweden to divestment from pension funds in Norway and the United States, the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is raising fears in Israel.
Indeed, the movement is being perceived with growing alarm inside the think tanks and government briefing rooms of Tel Aviv
. The Reut Institute, an influential policy group for the Israeli government, released a series of reports describing the BDS campaign as a significant threat to Israel’s legitimacy.
By most accounts, Israeli actions that have generated worldwide condemnation have contributed tremendously to the growth of the BDS campaign.
In particular, Israel’s 23-day offensive
in the Gaza Strip
, which prompted a UN report alleging war crimes, and a May raid on a Gaza aid ship
that killed nine activists have crystallized the movement’s goals and energized its base.
But it is also the innovative nature of the movement that has allowed it to use the tools of the modern age to spread and flourish rapidly.
“It’s a self-motivating and creative movement. It is very media-oriented, especially social media. And it’s really a people’s movement,” says Ziad Yousef, an impassioned BDS activist.
“We now have the facebooks, the youtubes, the twitters. Information is more available. The discourse available can reach a wider audience.”
The movement was formalized in July 2005 when a coalition of 171 Palestinian civil society organizations inside the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, and among Palestinian refugees called on the international community to support Palestinians by boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel.
The campaign came on the anniversary of an advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague criminalizing a Wall
that Israel is building in the occupied West Bank, and calling for reparations.
Because no governments took action to uphold the ruling, activists decided to take matters into their own hands. Using the successful sanctions against apartheid South Africa as a model, Palestinians and their supporters felt that a grassroots international boycott was a final hope against a military occupation in place since 1967.
According to Veronique Duduouet, a research fellow at the Berghof Conflict Research Center in Berlin, this is what is called in the discourse of non-violent resistance as the ‘boomerang effect.’
“When local activists don’t manage by themselves to change the status-quo, they will call on allies in the international community that can then in turn pressure the regime to change its policies. So I think the BDS campaign is very much a part of that strategy.”
The success of the BDS campaign in putting pressure on Israel has inspired a similar model from the Western-backed Palestinian Authority
, which has initiated a more focused boycott of its own.
Launched in earnest in mid-2009, the Palestinian Authority is on the one hand working to “cleanse” goods produced in Israeli settlements
from Palestinian markets, while on the other hand eventually criminalizing Palestinian labor in Israeli settlements.
To some degree, the PA boycott appears to be working. In March, the Washington Post reported that at least 17 businesses in Israel’s largest settlement, Maale Adumim
, had closed down as a result of the Palestinian Authority’s boycott of settlement products. Yet, not everyone agrees that the PA boycott will force real change.
“It may have some impact on the economy of the settlements but not over the overall situation of the Israeli economy,” says Anat Kurz, Director of Research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
“I think there is a limit to what Palestinians can do because they don’t have immediate alternatives and Israel controls all bridges and everything that comes in and goes out of the West Bank. The major impact should be looked at in the emotional, political, public sentiment arena.”
The combination of the BDS and Palestinian Authority boycotts has provoked angry reactions from the Israeli government.
On June 15, 24 Israeli lawmakers submitted for approval the third in a series of bills that would make any active participation in boycotts of Israel illegal. Besides making it criminal for Israeli citizens to initiate, encourage or aid boycott against Israel or its settlements, the new law would see any funds collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority redirected to compensate Israelis hurt by the boycott.
Furthermore, all non-Israelis involved in a boycott would be banned from entering the country for at least ten years. Because everyone seeking to enter the occupied Palestinian territories must go through Israeli customs, the law has the effect of preventing anyone involved in boycotting Israel from visiting Palestinians.
“I don’t see the political and economic logic that might be underlying such a move,” says Kurz. She sees the measure as redundant of policies Israel has had in place for years.
With pressure mounting on Israel, the anti-boycott legislation may only compound the level of sympathy the outside world feels for the Palestinians.
“All these laws that are coming into being, they are just more evidence and it will bring more people into the BDS movement,” says Yousef. “I think it will backlash.”
Israeli lawmakers have pointed as their model to anti-boycott legislation in the United States, which has been in place since 1977 for the primary purpose of protecting Israel from foreign boycotts.
The Department of Commerce’s, Bureau of Industry and Security website singles out Israel as the “principle economic boycott that US companies must be concerned with today.”
“They say they value political freedom, freedom of speech, but then they continue invoking Israeli exceptionalism time and time again,” says Yousef. “But even within that they won’t be able to curtail the constitutional rights of the activists, and there will always be some space in which to engage in the movement.”
He is not the only one who feels that way.
“You can’t forbid your citizens from taking action from what they see as defending international humanitarian rights or human rights,” says Duduouet. “I find it crazy.”