Monday, September 17, 2012

Boycotting Israel: a moral imperative

The Palestinian quest for justice and freedom can be summarised in one beautiful word: sumoud. Usually, it is translated as “steadfastness” but I’m not sure the English term properly evokes the spirit that has sustained a people through many decades of dispossession.

While the situation in Palestine remains intolerable, there have been a number of signs recently that the perseverance is producing results. This has nothing to do with “leaders” like Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, whose pandering to Israeli aggression has won them much praise in the West. Instead, the gains have been made through the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that was launched in 2005.

By shaming corporations who assist human rights abuses, this initiative by ordinary Palestinians has made even the greediest look vulnerable in the face of popular outrage. Veolia, the French transport and “environmental services” giant, has lost numerous municipal contracts throughout the world over its role in building a tramway linking together illegal Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem. Agrexco, Israel’s main food exporter, went bankrupt last year, largely because conscientious European shoppers were refusing to buy the fruit and vegetables it traded.

Is the BDS campaign about to prod the European Union into action?

Eamon Gilmore, the Irish foreign minister, has stated that he wishes to have a possible ban on goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank considered when Ireland holds the EU’s rotating presidency in 2013. His willingness to put this issue on the agenda is certainly commendable. Goods from these settlements – illegal under international law – should have been prohibited long ago.

Yet by refusing to contemplate a wider boycott of Israel, Gilmore is missing (perhaps deliberately) some key points. The tomatoes and avocadoes that would be banned if his suggestion wins enough support from other EU governments cannot be deemed guilty of abetting war crimes. It is, therefore, essential to target the companies and politicians responsible for the oppression of Palestinians – or making money from that oppression.

The example of Israeli wines is illustrative. In order to conceal how grapes grown on settlements are often used in wines, the Israeli Export Institute has taken a creative approach to geography. The region of Shimson (or Samson) has been established between the mountains of Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast; part of it is in the internationally recognised state of Israel, part of it in the occupied West Bank. As this region has been imagined for the sole purpose of marketing wine, it’s not difficult for wineries to pass off fruit from illegal settlements as that grown inside Israel. The best thing to do, then, is to refuse to drink any Israeli wine. Research by Who Profits?, a project run by the Coalition of Women for Peace (a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists), has shown that the Israeli wine industry cannot be viewed separately from the occupation. Most Israeli wine exporters have some involvement with the settlements.

Those who argue that an outright ban on Israeli goods would be too drastic should study a new legal paper from Al Haq, a human rights organisation based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The paper says that when one state assists another state that has committed an unlawful act, the first state “adopts” that act and is fully answerable for it. Al Haq’s analysis has been endorsed by John Dugard, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, among other legal scholars.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the massive wall being built by Israel in the West Bank to be illegal. The ruling emphasised that other governments must not render assistance to the wall.

To its shame, the European Commission has ignored the ruling. Companies that have provided surveillance equipment to the wall – notably Elbit – have benefited considerably from scientific research grants subsequently approved by the Commission. Individual governments have hugged Elbit even tighter: the weapons-maker is leading a $1 billion programme to develop new pilotless warplanes for the British Army.

Reading official EU statements on Israel can be perplexing. Taken at face value, they infer that what Israel does in the West Bank and Gaza is some kind of aberration and that Israel is otherwise a model democracy.

In truth, there is only one state of Israel. This state discriminates against both those Palestinians who comprise about one-fifth of Israel’s population and those Palestinians who live under occupation. In July, the EU offered to strengthen its relations with Israel in about 60 different policy areas. The offer was made directly to Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, whose partly Yisrael Beitenu has sponsored a series of racist measures in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Two weeks earlier, José Manuel Barroso picked up an honorary degree from Haifa University. A founder that institution, Arnon Sofer, helped design Israel’s wall in the West Bank and has argued that Israelis should kill Palestinians “all day and every day”.

Rather than using the opportunity to condemn such blatant incitement to hatred, Barroso quoted Nelson Mandela’s observation: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

If Barroso’s speechwriters had searched a little harder they might have included a more apposite comment by Mandela: “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

Haifa University has banned protests by Palestinian students. Did Barroso decry this incomplete freedom? No, he was too busy fawning.

●First published by New Europe, 16-22 September 2012.

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