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Debating Boycott

Monday 8 October 2007, by Nancy Hawker

Boycotting Israel: New Pariah on the Block,” the 13 September article in The Economist, is ostensibly a balanced piece that presents the positions of those who support and those who oppose sanctions against Israel:

The campaign for sanctions against Israel is growing. But it faces resistance and is less effective than it looks.

FOR once, Israel’s critics and cheerleaders agree on something: the Jewish state risks greater international isolation. Pro-Israel groups such as NGO Monitor and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs say a new assault is on the way. In the other camp, Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian activist group in Jerusalem, says that advocating a boycott is no longer always treated as anti-Semitism. Both sides have a motive to exaggerate such claims. But “boycotts, divestments and sanctions” (known in the activist world as “BDS”) do seem to be growing (The Economist, 13 September 2007).

However, the article gives the impression that the sanctions taken by various organizations throughout the world against Israel and in protest of its 40 year occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, is a form of ‘picking on’ Israel, a sort of new fashion to criticize Israel. The article even suggests that the churches in the United States that decided to divest from Israel did this “really” as part of the internal struggle amongst the churches themselves.

What the author neglects to note is that there are significant reasons that voices calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions from Israel are multiplying throughout the world: the utter disregard of the Israeli government and military to criticism; the continued illegal building of settlements, the blatant violations of Palestinian human rights; building of the Separation Wall (in violation of the ruling of the International Court of Justice); and a continuation of the deadly attacks against unarmed Palestinian civilians, including children; are the reason that Israel is gradually being disowned by the international community.

Israel continues to enjoy broad support from the United States (and the oil and weapons industries working with the American Congress have a budget several times larger than that of the Jewish and evangelical lobbies mentioned in the article) while world leaders tow the line in accordance with American demands (and in accordance with their own economic interests in Israel), but the voices demanding clear answers from Israel are increasing.

The comparison to South Africa is indeed apt. Concerning the question of the effectiveness of boycott, there is no lack of proof that a boycott against Israel can be more effective than the boycott against the apartheid regime (and The Economist article does not argue with this). However, the contention in the article, that Israel is a democracy, in contrast to apartheid South Africa, is highly problematic. In Israel, there is a 100% right for Jews to vote, but only 25% of the Palestinians under Israeli rule possess this fundamental democratic right. So, while Israel is formally an electoral democracy, it is highly partial and obscures the lack of substantial democracy or equality of rights.

Moreover, Israel, having declared itself to be in a “state of emergency” since its inception, conducts extrajudicial executions, allows its military to function with no real judicial oversight and awards extra legal rights and privileges to the Jews. Much of the discussion of Israel as a “democracy” is intended for public relations, and has little basis in reality. While Israel may not call what it does “separate development,” its socio-economic policies identify “national priority areas”—which include settlements and their industries in the West Bank—but neglect Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Israeli occupation policies suppress Palestinian industries in the occupied Palestinian territories, and distort economic development there to the advantage of Israel.

The Economist article further notes that the Palestinian leadership objects to boycott, but does not mention that a majority of Palestinian civil society organizations, political movements and non-violent protest groups widely support the boycott, and that more than 200 organisations signed a petition calling on the international community to boycott Israel.

The economic boycott of Israel is not a step intended solely to promote Palestinian interests. It requires great naiveté to believe that the Palestinians will agree to live under Israeli military occupation without resisting. The boycott opens the option for non-violent resistance, and it does not kill anyone. Thus, it represents an alternative form of struggle, which forces Israel to take responsibility for its actions and also forces it, in non-violent ways, to bring an end to its continuing occupation.

Nancy Hawker is a researcher studying the economies of refugee camps in the Jerusalem region.

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