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Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction

February 3, 2009

It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly
bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of
global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.

In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups
laid out plans to do just that. They called on “people of conscience
all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment
initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in
the apartheid era.” The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—BDS for short—was born.

Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS
cause, and talk of cease-fires is doing little to slow the momentum.
Support is even emerging among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the
assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and
scholars, sent a letter
to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. It calls for “the adoption
of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions” and draws a clear
parallel with the antiapartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa
was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves.… This
international backing must stop.”

Yet even in the face of these clear calls, many of us still can’t go
there. The reasons are complex, emotional and understandable. And they
simply aren’t good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective
tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active
complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy,
followed by counterarguments.

1. Punitive measures will alienate rather than persuade Israelis.
The world has tried what used to be called “constructive engagement.”
It has failed utterly. Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating
its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war
against Lebanon and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the
brutal blockade. Despite this escalation, Israel has not faced punitive
measures—quite the opposite. The weapons and $3 billion in annual aid
that the US sends to Israel is only the beginning. Throughout this key
period, Israel has enjoyed a dramatic improvement in its diplomatic,
cultural and trade relations with a variety of other allies. For
instance, in 2007 Israel became the first non–Latin American country to
sign a free-trade deal with Mercosur. In the first nine months of 2008,
Israeli exports to Canada went up 45 percent. A new trade deal with the
European Union is set to double Israel’s exports of processed food. And
on December 8, European ministers “upgraded” the EU-Israel Association
Agreement, a reward long sought by Jerusalem.*

It is in this context that Israeli leaders started their latest war:
confident they would face no meaningful costs. It is remarkable that
over seven days of wartime trading, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s
flagship index actually went up 10.7 percent. When carrots don’t work,
sticks are needed.

2. Israel is not South Africa. Of course it isn’t. The
relevance of the South African model is that it proves that BDS tactics
can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, back-room
lobbying) have failed. And there are indeed deeply distressing echoes
of South African apartheid in the occupied territories: the color-coded
IDs and travel permits, the bulldozed homes and forced displacement,
the settler-only roads. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent South African
politician, said that the architecture of segregation that he saw in
the West Bank and Gaza was “infinitely worse than apartheid.” That was in 2007, before Israel began its full-scale war against the open-air prison that is Gaza.

3. Why single out Israel when the United States, Britain and other Western countries do the same things in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the BDS strategy
should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and
trade-dependent, it could actually work.

4. Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less.
This one I’ll answer with a personal story. For eight years, my books
have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But
when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott.
On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John
Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus.
Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation
movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to
translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that
guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus’s work, and none to me. In
other words, I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.

Coming up with our modest publishing plan required dozens of phone
calls, e-mails and instant messages, stretching from Tel Aviv to
Ramallah to Paris to Toronto to Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as
you start implementing a boycott strategy, dialogue increases
dramatically. And why wouldn’t it? Building a movement requires endless
communicating, as many in the antiapartheid struggle well recall. The
argument that supporting boycotts will cut us off from one another is
particularly specious given the array of cheap information technologies
at our fingertips. We are drowning in ways to rant at one another
across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us.

Just about now, many a proud Zionist is gearing up for major
point-scoring: don’t I know that many of those very high-tech toys come
from Israeli research parks, world leaders in infotech? True enough,
but not all of them. Several days into Israel’s Gaza assault, Richard
Ramsey, the managing director of a British telecom specializing in
voice-over-internet services, sent an email to the Israeli tech firm
MobileMax. “As a result of the Israeli government action in the last
few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business
with yourself or any other Israeli company.”

Ramsey says that his decision wasn’t political; he just didn’t want to
lose customers. “We can’t afford to lose any of our clients,” he
explains, “so it was purely commercially defensive.”

It was this kind of cold business calculation that led many companies
to pull out of South Africa two decades ago. And it’s precisely the
kind of calculation that is our most realistic hope of bringing
justice, so long denied, to Palestine.

*On January 14, in response to Israel’s aggression in Gaza, the EU
called off its plans to upgrade the EU-Israel Association Agreement, a
sign of growing understanding that political sanctions can be brought
to bear to bring an end to the war.

This column was first published in The Nation

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