The widespread outrage at Israel's deadly assult on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, leading to at least 9 deaths and the detention of hundreds of activists, is galvanising millions of people to ask how they can help bring justice for Palestine.
The mass protest movement against Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza and its 1.5 million people, nearly 18 months ago, brought many people into demonstrating for Palestine for the first time. That movement led to people and organisations internationally championing boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as an ongoing, durable way of pressuring both Israel and the wider international community.
They recognised that the Israeli Defence Force's brutal 3-week offensive, which resulted in the deaths of over 1400 people in Gaza, was part of something bigger. In this country over 100,000 people marched in the largest demonstration against Israeli violence in UK history, with student occupations in solidarity with Gaza sweeping through 35 universities and colleges. This would have to be the basis for a permanent movement of solidarity, with BDS taking a central place.
On an on-going basis the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is, in this country and elsewhere, a major component of how people can put pressure on Israel. Considering the close political and economic links between the UK and Israel, it is also essential to challenge our own government and businesses that are complicit in supporting Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
Campaigns for boycotting Israeli goods and companies - championed by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other groups - are hugely resented by Israel and its supporters elsewhere. Boycotts can hit Israel where it hurts: its economy. The endorsement of boycotts by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) last year was a leap forward. The challenge is to translate that into action.
Boycotts also de-legitimise the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and serve to isolate Israel from the international community. They give hope to Palestinians while raising awareness of Israel’s actions in countries like Britain. These are all important reasons for supporting boycotts, which in recent years have been called for by scores of Palestinian organisations.
There are targeted economic boycotts, like the ‘Derail Veoila’ campaign aimed at the Israeli Veoila company. Veolia is responsible for the Jerusalem light rail transit system. This is a tramway linking illegal settlements to Israeli West Jerusalem, so it serves a crucial function in Israeli expansion of settlements.
The campaign aims to pressure Veoila to distance itself from the tramway, partly through targeting its operations in this country. This is just one example - though an especially important one - of how targeted action here can connect with the Israeli economy (and its direct political relationship to the occupation).
Palestinian organisations have themselves repeatedly called for international support in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. For example, a senior official in President Abbas’s office recently held a press conference in which he asked Arab states to stop giving contracts to Veolia.
Academic and cultural boycotts are also useful. Boycotts of co-operation with Israeli universities - the subject of much controversy - damage the standing of Israel internationally. We have recently celebrated the cancellations of concerts in Israel by Gil Scott Heron and Elvis Costello. In both cases these musicians came under intense lobbying from fans and other opponents of Israeli apartheid.
International boycotts played a crucial role in defeating the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. They affected the country’s standing in the world and helped black South Africans feel they had wider support in their struggle. This is something we should recall when the World Cup starts in South Africa: a massive global event that would be unimaginable if it weren't for the international anti-apartheid movement.
Similarly, boycott campagins today are a powerful weapon of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israeli occupation is tragically reminiscent of apartheid. Just as South African apartheid once seemed unchangeable, so it can often feel that Israel is invincible. Yet the South African example suggests otherwise, and the global public and political reaction of the last 3 days might indicate we have now - out of awful circumstances - reached a turning point.
We need a stronger movement to isolate Israel, weaken its position in the wider economic and political world, and deliver solidarity to its long-suffering victims. It is a question of standing up for the human rights of Palestinians, subjected to the hardships and indignities of life under occupation.
We don’t have to be merely bystanders, but can provide practical and useful solidarity.
See the website of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for more practical information.
Alex Snowdon is a member of Counterfire's editorial board and chair of Tyneside Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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