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The seemingly intractable conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people continues not only in the streets of Gaza or Jerusalem – but also in the governmental offices and court rooms of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, among others. The issue is the decisions being taken by these countries’ leaders in 2015 and 2016 to punish criminally those who attempt to use the non-violent tool of boycotts to express their opinions and hold Israel accountable for its actions.
The boycott campaign began in 2005. Palestinian civil society organizations comprising Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and other organizations—collectively representing the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel—issued a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and the universal principles of human rights. In February 2016, more than 170 organizations have signed on to this call.
The BDS call came after 57 years of Israeli Independence and 38 years of military occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, and one year after the historic advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that found that Israel’s wall built on Occupied Palestinian Territory was illegal. Israel continued its construction of the illegal wall, unfazed by the court’s decision, so Palestinian civil society, seeing Israel’s intransigence and the failure of the peace process, took the BDS initiative to rally people around the world to hold Israel accountable until it complies with International Law.
It is noteworthy that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have not yet formally adopted the BDS call, thus making the call truly an effort of civil society.
At the outset, the BDS efforts were brushed aside as a fringe effort likely to have little impact on the conflict’s dynamics or on Israel’s powerhouse economy. Ten years later, the efforts of the BDS Movement, as well as those unaffiliated with the BDS Movement who have chosen to adopt the tools of BDS, can be found throughout the world, including on many university campuses.
Coming of Age
As Israeli pressure on Palestinians increased, particularly with the multiple military bombardments of Gaza that killed thousands of civilians, many of them children, more and more entities, such as unions and pension funds, sought tools to enable them to express their dissatisfaction with Israel’s actions. Boycotting and divestment from Israel had come of age. More and more of these entities took decisions in the spirit of the BDS call. Some called for a boycott of all of Israel, some for boycotts only of the products of Israeli settlements, and others for divesting from any firm involved in Israel’s occupation.
Israel took note. Israeli exports began to falter. Multinational companies thought twice about making investments in Israel. Academic institutions around the world began to disinvite or even refuse to consider partnerships with Israeli academic institutions. Israel’s knee-jerk reaction was to associate the BDS efforts with something it was clearly not, anti-Semitism. Some argued that the BDS efforts were an attempt to isolate Israel. When these claims fell on deaf ears, Israel began to take steps within its legal system to criminalize anyone calling for a boycott of Israel. At no point has Israel attempted to understand the BDS actions for what they are, a call to end its illegal occupation of Palestinians, to stop institutional discrimination against Palestinians citizens of Israel, and to allow Palestinian refugees to return home.
Israel then made significant efforts to get other countries to act against the growing BDS actions. It carefully picked locations where the pro-Israeli lobby is well entrenched, starting with the United States. Given the difficult relationship Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has with US President Barack Obama, addressing the issue with the help of the executive branch was a long shot, so the Israeli strategy focused on state legislations and Congress.
The pro-Israeli lobby is making its rounds in New York, Minnesota, Illinois, and other states, to get their text inserted into trade bills. The danger of the text is that it does not directly address the BDS actions but erases the Green Line (1949 Armistice Line, often referred to as the 1967 line) – making all of the occupied territory part of Israel proper. These actions are not only out of line with International Law but also with long-standing US foreign policy.
France also recently took action directly against the BDS efforts. In 2009 and 2010, 12 activists undertook BDS actions in supermarkets near the eastern city of Mulhouse. The individuals arrived at the supermarket wearing shirts emblazoned with the words, “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel.” They also handed out flyers that said that “buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.” That was too much for the French state: the 12 were arrested, found guilty, and convicted of inciting hate or discrimination.
In October 2015, the Court of Cassation in Paris confirmed the convictions of the 12 individuals by the Colmar Court of Appeals. This confirmation opened the door for further state actions against those who support BDS.
As reported on 8 December 2015 by Karina Piser on Al Jazeera America:
“Four activists who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement will be tried in a court in Toulouse, France, under a month-old precedent that rendered the movement illegal. That shift occurred on October 20, 2015, when France’s highest appeals court upheld a ruling convicting 12 activists of provoking ‘discrimination, hatred or violence’ on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion for their call to boycott Israeli products. In a statement after the decision, the activists denounced Israel’s seeming immunity to French law and likened the ruling to banning the boycott of apartheid South Africa.”
France’s actions against BDS supporters has opened a Pandora’s box in France about the freedom of expression throughout the country.
The most recent efforts against BDS have come from the United Kingdom, after several local authorities passed boycott resolutions. The councils of Leicester City, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Midlothian, and West Dunbartonshire have all implemented local bans on goods that come from Israel and its illegal settlements. Several student unions have followed suit. The UK government has taken note.
Anti-BDS efforts were announced by Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, while he was visiting Israel. Minister Hancock explained it in an article in the Jewish Chronicle on 17 February, 2016: “Those public bodies carrying out these boycotts are in effect trying to impose a localised foreign policy. Foreign policy is rightly a matter for the Foreign Office.” On the same day, in an unusual move, the British Cabinet office published new government guidance “that aims to stop inappropriate procurement boycotts by public authorities,” arguing that “Town hall boycotts undermine good community relations, …fuelling anti-Semitism.”
“As for Israel, it was a British government that made approval for a Jewish national home in Palestine conditional on no harm being done to the rights of other inhabitants. Britain signed the international conventions and UN resolutions that outlawed military occupation and settlement on Palestinian territory. And Britain is party to the EU association agreement with Israel that makes preferential trading terms conditional on respect for human rights.
If UK national government showed due diligence in implementing its own commitments on our behalf, there might be less need for individuals, elected authorities and NGOs to make good that failure in their own purchasing and investment decisions.”
Additionally, Riya Hassan, Europe Campaigns Officer with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the coalition of Palestinian organisations that leads the BDS movement, said, “This is the most pro-Israel UK government in a generation, and this government is going further than Margaret Thatcher ever went to defend South African apartheid.”