The Lessons of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

by Stephen Lendman
Friday, 22 January 2010

Just as civil society-led boycotts ended South African apartheid, so can they end decades of Israeli crimes of war and against humanity against Occupied Palestine. The task is to educate and inform to build global outrage to critical mass enough for change.

Established in 1989, the MA'AN Development Center is "an independent Palestinian development and training towards sustainable human development in Palestine" through its various programs. On October 31, it released a publication on the Palestinian BDS campaign titled, "Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions: Lessons learned in effective solidarity."

It's another of the many BDS initiatives multiplying to support Palestine. In July 2005, a coalition of 171 Palestinian Civil Society organizations created the global movement for "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel Until it Complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights" for Occupied Palestine, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian diaspora refugees.

MA'AN covers BDS history and outlines current efforts and challenges to be overcome. Past Palestinian boycotts showed they work. The 1936 six-month strike against the British Mandate demanded a representative government in Palestine, prohibition of land sales to Jews, a cessation of Jewish immigration, and immediate elections. The strike brought the economy to a halt and got the Peel Royal Commission to recommend limited Jewish immigration and plans for eventual partition.

In 1948, the Arab League banned all commercial and financial transactions between Israel and League members.

In 1951, each nation set up a national boycott office, linked to the Damascus headquarters. It maintained a central blacklist of companies.

In 1973, OPEC embargoed oil to America and other countries that supported Israel in the October war.

In November 1975, UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 "determine(d) that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." Under pressure from GHW Bush and Israel as a condition of its Madrid Peace Conference participation, Resolution 46/86 revoked it (in December 1991) saying only that:

"The general assembly decides to revoke the determination contained in its resolution 3379 (XXX) of November 1975."

In 1977, Arab boycott efforts began when the Carter administration called them illegal for US companies. In 1978, the Camp David Accords began normalizing Israeli-Arab relations, effectively undermining boycott efforts.

The First Intifada (1987 - 1993) reactivated them, effectively in Beit Sahour where residents took control of public affairs. Underground schools were established. The community refused to pay taxes. Military ID cards were returned, and all Israeli products were boycotted. Beit Sahour got a 1990 Nobel Peace Prize nomination and continued resisting until the Palestinian Authority (PA) took over in 1995.

In 1993, the Oslo Accords and subsequent Paris Protocols generated immediate normalization. The 1995 Taba summit decelerated boycott efforts further. The outbreak of the 2000 Second Intifada failed to reactivate them. Today, grassroots efforts lead the global BDS movement.

What Is "Normalization"

As agreed on during the first Palestinian 2007 BDS Conference:

"Normalization means to participate in any project or initiative or activity, local or international, specifically designed for gathering (either directly or indirectly) Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis whether individuals or institutions; that does not explicitly aim to expose and resist the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people."

Specifically, this includes projects:

Boycott As a Grassroots Movement

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor," to wit: the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN), the Arab League, and most other nations with few exceptions. To achieve justice, global grassroots movements must pressure official bodies to change.

In August 2002, Palestinian civil society called for a global boycott Israel campaign:

"for the sake of freedom and justice in Palestine and the world....upon the solidarity movement, NGOs, academic and cultural institutions, business companies, political parties and unions, as well as concerned individuals to strengthen and broaden the global Israel Boycott Campaign."

The campaign against South African apartheid began in 1963 when 45 prominent British playwrights refused performing rights anywhere "where discrimination is made among audiences on grounds of colour." By the 1980s, it became a near-total cultural exchange ban.

In 1965, 496 UK academics protested South Africa's racial discrimination and pledged not to accept a position in the country. Other movements advocated against bank lending, South African products, and for divestment. In the mid-1980s, students demanded their universities divest from companies doing business in or having operations in the country. Hampshire College was the first success. Others followed until apartheid finally ended in 1994.

Cultural and Academic Boycott

On April 6, 2002, UK professors Steven and Hilary Rose first presented the idea in an open letter to the London Guardian, saying:

"Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. (For its part, America) seems reluctant to act. However, there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe....many national and European cultural and research institutions....regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. Would it not therefore be timely (for a pan-European moratorium of all further support) unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians (along the lines of proposed) peace plans."

By July, 700 signatures were registered, including from 10 Israeli academics. Other initiatives followed despite start-and-stop efforts and enormous opposition. They remain viable and have spread globally.

On February 1, 2009 in Occupied Palestine, the Jerusalem-based Al-Quds University said it no longer would cooperate with Israeli academic institutions to:

"pressur(e) Israel to abide by a solution that ends the occupation, a solution that has been needed for far too long and that the international community has stopped demanding."

It followed Israel's Gaza attack and addressed decades of occupation and continued efforts to subvert peace and negotiations to achieve Palestinian self-determination.

Earlier in October 2003, Palestinian academics and intellectuals called on their colleagues in the international community to resist repression and injustice by boycotting Israeli academic institutions. In April 2004, the campaign was consolidated by PACBI's founding (the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel).

Palestinian academics and intellectuals launched it by "buil(ding) on the Palestinian call for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel issued in August 2002 (followed by further calls) in October 2003."

Its statement of principles read:

PACBI's call got wide support from Palestinian academia and civil society.

Church Divestment

Christian churches in America, the UK, Canada, and elsewhere have begun to call for boycotting and divesting from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation. Examples include:

Student Campaigns

Students led international protests against Operation Cast Lead. On January 13, 2009, they occupied a University of London building, igniting student occupations at 29 US and UK universities in solidarity with Gaza. They called for:

Other civil society initiatives included participants at a July 2005 UN International Civil Society Conference in support of Middle East peace unanimously adopting the Palestinian Call for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). In November 2007, the first BDS conference was held, and the Boycott National Committee (BNC) formed in the same year to build and spread boycotts as a central form of resistance.

Targeting Israeli Companies with Colonial Operations

Agrexco is the most prominent, a 50% state owned company exporting fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs from Israel and its West Bank locations. It's one of the three largest Israeli companies exporting from Occupied Palestine while labeling their products "made in Israel."

The campaign began in 2005 when activists blockaded the company's depot in Middlesex, UK, stopping all deliveries for over eight hours. Other actions followed and continue. Protestors accuse Agrexco of complicity with crimes of war and against humanity and cite the destroyed Palestinian economy forcing West Bank workers, including children, to survive on 30 shekels a day with no unions or benefits.

Lev Leviev was also targeted, the Israeli diamond mogul and real estate baron who finances Israeli colonies in the West Bank. In November 2007, a surprise protest was held at his Manhattan boutique. Others followed in different countries against his real estate partner Shaya Boymelgreen's company Green Park, including a Bi'lin village $2 million suit for building and selling settlement housing on village land in violation of international law.

"Key to the success so far has been the level of coordination and the involvement of Palestinian villages and organizations in the campaign" to:

Economic Isolation Works

Western governments supported South African apartheid until civil society group actions got corporations to divest, paving the way for government boycotts and sanctions. "The timeline of action "during the Gaza massacre suggests a similar pattern:"

Israel's Tarnished Brand Name

When sustained with enough pressure, economic boycott works. In February 2009, the Israeli Export Institute reported that 10% of 400 exporters got order cancellations over Operation Cast Lead. In March, the Israel Manufacturers Association said 21% of 90 local exporters questioned reported a drop in demand due to boycotts, mostly in UK and Scandinavian counties.

In Europe, supermarkets are re-labeling Israeli products made in Cyprus or Spain because "made in Israel" no longer sells.

The Challenge of Dependency

Since 1967, Israel forced dependency on the Territories by controlling its ports, land crossings, and airports, compounded by hundreds of West Bank checkpoints and the Separation Wall. As a result around 90% of it is with Israel, while 75% of imported goods are Israeli-made. Conditions are especially acute in Gaza because of war and closure, meaning only Israeli-approved goods can enter, and too few of those under siege.

A Working BDS Framework

Just as civil society-led boycotts ended South African apartheid, so can they end decades of Israeli crimes of war and against humanity against Occupied Palestine. They work, more than ever after human rights reports on Operation Cast Lead documented what no longer can be tolerated. The task is to build global outrage to critical mass enough for change.

Organizations in 20 countries now participate under the banner of the International Coordinating Network on Palestine (ICNP). Formed in 2002, it calls itself "a body of civil society organizations....under the auspices of the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People."

Its mission "is to strengthen the role of civil society in supporting and demanding, of governments and international institutions, the full implementation" of all Palestinian rights under international law, including to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty.

ICNP coordinates global campaigns; facilitates communication; aids local organizations' plans civil society conferences; and mobilizes global BDS support. It strives for representation on every continent in many more nations than the following now participating:

BDS initiatives include:

Beyond Boycott

Boycotting Israeli products successfully needs a transition to Palestinian ones, but much work is needed to achieve it, including effective promotion. Several organizations doing it include:

These initiatives along with a committed, grassroots global BDS movement is crucial to ending decades of subjugation under an oppressive occupier that won't quit until forced by committed pressure. BDS is the tool to do it.

Stephen Lendman

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at His blog is

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This story was published on January 22, 2010.