by Ilan Pappé

July 15, 2014 (TSR) – The injustice result-ing from Israel’s occupation, colonization, and enforcement of apartheid is heavily linked with corporate greed, environmental degradation, education cuts, and privatization of healthcare that are today being protested in North America and Europe. The channeling each year of billions in US tax dollars away from education, healthcare reform, and social services at home, to support Israel’s military machine, has linked the struggle for Palestinian rights with the causes of equality and social justice in the US and elsewhere.


The BDS movement has provided a way for us to break our collective chains. In 2005, one year after the International Court of Justice had ruled that Israel’s wall, built on occupied Palestinian territory, was illegal—and inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle—a majority of Palestinian civil society called upon people of conscience all over the world to impose broad BDS initiatives against Israel. The comprehensive rights-based approach of the call for BDS is perhaps its most important attribute. This is exemplified by the three demands that it makes: for an end to the occupation and return to the pre-1967 boundaries; for recognition of the fundamental human rights of Palestinian citizens; and for the right of Palestinian refugees to return. These demands address the injustice done to all Palestinian people, and do not reduce Israel’s oppression to occupation.

Twenty years of the sham “peace process” have given the false impression—often dominant even today—that the Palestinian people are only those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and that Israel’s occupation is its only form of oppression of Palestinians. This has marginalized the majority of the Palestinian people—those inside Israel and in the diaspora—and their rights; and it has allowed Israel to get away, unquestioned, with its more severe and legally problematic forms of oppression.

The BDS movement has worked on changing the discourse addressing Palestinian rights to include the rights of all Palestinians. The movement has called for an end to Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression, comprising occupation, colonization, and apartheid—the latter including systematic legal discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, and a sixty-three-year-old denial of Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Setting the record straight on Palestinian rights—and reinserting both Palestinian citizens of Israel and, crucially, Palestinian refugees, at the center of the debate—could not have been achieved without a strong Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), established in April 2008, has emerged as the principal anchor of and reference for the global BDS movement. The BNC, the broadest Palestinian civil society coalition, is made up of the largest coalitions, networks, and unions of Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees, as well as of those living in the West Bank and Gaza. The BNC has consistently provided a strong and unified Palestinian voice, and continues to lead and guide the global BDS movement, while fully respecting the principle of context sensitivity—the idea that the call for BDS should be implemented in each community in a way that suits the particular circumstances in the local environment, as decided by local activists.

BDS has provided the most effective vehicle of solidarity with the Palestinian people and a successful way of challenging Israeli impunity. The victories the BDS campaign has achieved have exceeded all expectations for such a young movement, even when compared with South Africa’s BDS campaign. In particular, the campaign has grown rapidly in the wake of the 2008–09 Israeli massacre in Gaza and the attack on the Freedom Flotilla. The movement has now expanded far beyond the confines of a traditional solidarity movement to include active and dedicated participation from trade unions, faith groups, mainstream NGOs, and political parties.

A quick review of some of the largest and most successful campaigns reveals this growth. One of the most successful BDS campaigns is that against Veolia, a French multinational involved in developing the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR), an illegal tramway linking Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements, and cementing Israel’s hold on occupied territory, in addition to Israel’s involvement in a variety of waste and transport infrastructure services for illegal settlements. The French multinational has been successfully targeted all over the world, but especially in Europe.

In Stockholm, a civil society campaign led to Veolia losing out on a €3.5 billion contract for the operation of the city’s metro system. The determined and internationally coordinated campaign against Veolia has led to its loss of contracts totalling more than €5 billion in France, England, Wales, Ireland, and Australia combined. In late 2010, Veolia and Alstom, another French multinational involved in the JLR, announced that they would sell their shares in the operating consortium.

The fact that both Veolia and Alstom are being replaced by Israeli companies with little experience, rather than by well-known international companies that would be more qualified to take their place, can only be seen as a success for the campaign: no international companies are willing to become targets of our highly effective and visible movement.

The BDS movement is showing corporate supporters of Israeli apartheid that there is a price to pay for their active complicity. The campaigns against Veolia and Alstom will continue until they cease to be complicit, and provide appropriate reparations. Churches in the UK, Sweden, the US, and beyond are investigating and implementing their own BDS campaigns, largely in response to the Kairos document—a document prepared by prominent Palestinian leaders calling on churches around the world “to say a word of truth and to take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.”

Kairos Palestine unambiguously endorses BDS as one of the key nonviolent forms of solidarity that international faith-based organizations are urged to adopt: “We see boycott and disinvestment as tools of justice, peace and security.” Trade unions have historically been at the forefront of struggles against injustice, particularly that against South African apartheid. Trade unions in South Africa, France, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, Norway, and elsewhere have recently adopted aspects of the BDS campaign.

In the UK, the Trades Union Congress, representing seven million workers, is about to embark on activities to educate its entire membership about the necessity of boycotting Israeli apartheid. The trade union congresses of South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, and Brazil, and many individual unions around the world are in the process of severing links with the racist Histadrut labor federation. Just days after Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, the Swedish Dockworkers Union, heeding the Palestinian trade union movement’s call to block Israeli ships, blocked five hundred tons of cargo coming from Israel.

They were joined by the heroic action on the part of ILWU Local 10’s dockworkers in Oakland, California, who blocked an Israeli ship from docking for twenty-four hours, and by dockworkers in South Africa, India, Turkey, and beyond. The CUT—the largest and most important trade union in Brazil, representing over 20 million workers, has recently endorsed BDS as the basis for its solidarity activism, and is working on a program to spread BDS among its membership.

Labor-led sanctions within the BDS framework have become the leading form of solidarity with the Palestinian people within the international trade union network. The academic boycott—arguably the most challenging of all forms of boycott—has widely spread the debate on the entrenched complicity of Israeli academic institutions in planning, justifying, and perpetuating the state’s colonial and apartheid policies, including its war crimes in Gaza, Jerusalem, and beyond. The May 2010 Congress of the British University and College Union (UCU) made history by voting to boycott the Ariel University Center of Samaria (AUCS), an Israeli colony-college in occupied Palestinian territory, and to sever all relations with Histadrut, the racist Israeli labor body that is a key pillar of the Israeli state’s apartheid policies.

University workers in the Canadian Union of Public Employees passed a motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel in February 2009. Academics also vowed to pressure their institutions to sever financial relationships with Israel. Recently, the University of Johannesburg made history by severing links with the University of Ben-Gurion, becoming the first university in the world to sever links with an Israeli academic institution.

Students in the US, the UK, and elsewhere have organized campaigns for the boycott of Israeli products, and for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation. In the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza in January 2009, students in thirty-three college campuses in the UK “occupied” parts of their campus demanding, among other things, divestment from Israeli companies and companies profiting from the occupation.

In February 2009, Hampshire College in the US became the first to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation, just as it had been the first in the US to divest from apartheid South Africa. In 2010, students at UC Berkeley worked on a well-organized and publicized divestment campaign, winning support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Hedy Epstein, and other notable figures. Jewish Voice for Peace has organized a campaign calling on pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest from five companies supporting the occupation. Their campaign has been endorsed by a number of organizations and student groups across the US.

Creative consumer boycott campaigns have provided an excellent way to engage wider sectors of the general public in the BDS movement. Code Pink’s “Stolen Beauty” campaign targeting Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics company manufacturing its products in a settlement, has been successful in convincing a number of retailers to drop Ahava in the US, Canada, and the UK. The campaign has spread to Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe as a result of its creative protests and use of social media.

In France, a large coalition of more than a hundred NGOs and five political parties has organized a campaign for the boycott of Agrexco, Israel’s largest exporter of agricultural produce. Agrexco has been targeted with popular boycotts, blockades, demonstrations, and direct action throughout Europe. In Italy and the UK, campaigners took direct action pressuring supermarkets to drop the Agrexco brand. In September 2011, Agrexco was ordered into liquidation.

As with South Africa, sanctions by governments and official bodies have been implemented only after boycott and divestment have become wide-spread at the grassroots level. In the six short years of the Palestinian BDS campaign, we have witnessed a number of government actions in the form of sanctions. To name a few, an Israeli academic team from Ariel College was excluded from a prestigious competition on sustainable architecture organized by the Spanish Government in 2009, because the college is located in a settlement in the West Bank.

The Norwegian government’s pension fund, the third-largest in the world, divested from Elbit Systems in 2009 at the recommendation of the ethical council, due to the company’s involvement in supplying Israel’s illegal wall with security appliances, and the Israeli army with drones. A year later, the Norwegian government’s pension fund divested from two other Israeli companies as a result of their activities in the settlements. Deutsche Bahn, a government-owned German railway operator, has ceased its involvement with the Israeli A1 rail project, which cuts through the occupied West Bank.

Perhaps the most visible form of BDS action is in the realm of cultural boycotts. Far from being “above politics,” Israeli cultural institutions play a key role in the “Brand Israel” campaign of the Israeli foreign ministry, boosting the state’s image and whitewashing its colonial policies and war crimes. A growing number of cultural superstars have joined the cultural boycott of Israel and are refusing to provide cultural cover for Israeli apartheid.

Artists that have cancelled concerts and events in Israel include, among others, the late Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Mike Leigh, Klaxons, and Gorillaz Sound System. Most significantly, Hollywood superstars Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman cancelled their attendance at the 2010 Jerusalem Film Festival following the attack on the Freedom Flotilla. In addition, cultural figures such as John Berger, Roger Waters, Ken Loach, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, the Yes Men, Sarah Schulman, Aharon Shabtai, Udi Aloni, John Greyson, the late Adrienne Rich, and John Williams have explicitly supported the Palestinian cultural boycott of Israel.

A number of cultural figures have also refused to participate in Israel’s official cultural events for political reasons, including Augusto Boal, Roger Waters, André Brink, Vincenzo Consolo, and Nigel Kennedy; and cultural figures such as Bono, Björk, Jean-Luc Godard, Snoop Dogg, and others have declined offers to take part in events in Israel—or have agreed but then cancelled without giving explicit political reasons.

Another measure of success for the global BDS movement can be gauged from Israeli reactions to the BDS campaign. In July 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that essentially criminalizes boycotts of Israel, as well as individuals and organizations calling for them. The Reut Institute, a prominent Israeli think tank, has categorized the BDS campaign as a “strategic threat” that could turn into an existential threat. Furthermore, key Israeli politicians have issued alarmist statements about the growth of the BDS movement and the isolation of Israel.

After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress in May 2011, he spoke with Knesset member Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer. “Listen, Bibi,” growled Ben-Eliezer, “I congratulate you on your hug from Congress, but it will not take us off the path to confrontation. Our situation in Europe is very bad. President Obama said everything we wanted him to say … As a former industry and trade minister, I tell you: the markets are closing. We will suffer a devastating economic blow.”

President Shimon Peres has also voiced fear that Israel might be subjected to economic boycotts and sanctions. “There’s no need for boycotts,” he said. “It would suffice for ports in Europe or Canada to stop unloading Israeli merchandise. It’s already beginning.” Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak has also chimed in on the subject. “There are elements in the world, quite powerful, in various countries, including friendly ones, in trade unions, [among] academics, consumers, green political parties,” he warned, “and this impetus has culminated in a broad movement called BDS … which is what was done with South Africa.”

Since its initiation, the BDS movement has expanded and achieved effectiveness far beyond what was originally imagined to be possible in just over six years. The call of the movement is increasingly being answered by mainstream and powerful actors. Cultural superstars, global financial institutions, major trade unions, faith groups, political parties, governments, and individuals of conscience of every kind—all are beginning to take action. Our global movement has in fact begun to isolate Israel.

Isolating Israel will work

I have been a political activist for most of my adult life. In all these years, I have believed deeply that the unbearable and unacceptable reality of Israel and Palestine could only be changed from within. This is why I have been ceaselessly devoted to persuading Jewish society—to which I belong and into which I was born—that its basic policy in the land was wrong and disastrous.

Ilan Pappé.
Ilan Pappé.

As for so many others, the options for me were clear: I could either join politics from above, or counter it from below. I began by joining the Labor Party in the 1980s, and then the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), when I declined an offer to join the Knesset.

At the same time, I focused my energies on working alongside others within educational and peace NGOs, even chairing two such institutions: the left-Zionist Institute for Peace Studies in Givat Haviva, and the non-Zionist Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies. In both circles, veteran and younger colleagues alike sought to create constructive dialogue with our compatriots, in the hope of influencing present policy for future reconciliation. It was mainly a campaign of information about crimes and atrocities committed by Israel since 1948, and a plea for a future based on equal human and civil rights.

For an activist, the realization that change from within is unattainable not only grows from an intellectual or political process, but is more than anything else an admission of defeat. And it was this fear of defeatism that prevented me from adopting a more resolute position for a very long time.
After almost thirty years of activism and historical research, I became convinced that the balance of power in Palestine and Israel pre-empted any possibility for a transformation within Jewish Israeli society in the foreseeable future. Though rather late in the game, I came to realize that the problem was not a particular policy or a specific government, but one more deeply rooted in the ideological infrastructure informing Israeli decisions on Palestine and the Palestinians ever since 1948. I have described this ideology elsewhere as a hybrid between colonialism and romantic nationalism.[1]

Today, Israel is a formidable settler-colonialist state, unwilling to transform or compromise, and eager to crush by whatever means necessary any resistance to its control and rule in historical Palestine. Beginning with the ethnic cleansing of 80 percent of Palestine in 1948, and Israel’s occupation of the remaining 20 percent of the land in 1967, Palestinians in Israel are now enclaved in mega-prisons, bantustans, and besieged cantons, and singled out through discriminatory policies.

Meanwhile, millions of Palestinian refugees around the world have no way to return home, and time has only weakened, if not annihilated, all internal challenges to this ideological infrastructure. Even as I write, the Israeli settler state continues to further colonize and uproot the indigenous people of Palestine.

Admittedly, Israel is not a straightforward case study in colonialism,[2] nor can the solutions to either the 1967 occupation or the question of Palestine as a whole be easily described as decolonization. Unlike most colonialist projects, the Zionist movement had no clear metropolis, and because it far predates the age of colonialism, describing it in that way would be anachronistic. But these paradigms are still highly relevant to the situation, for two reasons. The first is that diplomatic efforts in Palestine since 1936 and the peace process that began in 1967 have only increased the number of Israeli settlements in Palestine, from less than 10 percent of Palestine in 1936 to over 90 per cent of the country today.

Thus it seems that the message from the peace brokers, mainly Americans ever since 1970, is that peace can be achieved without any significant limit being placed on the settlements, or colonies, in Palestine. True, settlers have periodically been evicted from Gaza settlements and some other isolated outposts, but this did not alter the overall matrix of colonial control, with all its systematic daily abuses of civil and human rights.

The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the oppression of the Palestinians inside Israel, and the denial of the refugees’ right of return will continue as long as these policies (occupation, oppression, and denial) were packaged as a comprehensive peace settlement to be endorsed by obedient Palestinian and Arab partners.

The second reason for viewing the situation through the lens of colonialism and anti-colonialism is that it allows us a fresh look at the raison d’être of the peace process. The basic objective, apart from the creation of two separate states, is for Israel to withdraw from areas it occupied in 1967.

But this is contingent upon Israeli security concerns being satisfied, which Prime Minister Netanyahu has articulated as the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and the rest of Israel’s political center has articulated as the existence of a demilitarized future Palestinian state only in parts of the occupied territories. The consensus is that, after withdrawal, the army will still keep an eye on Palestine from the Jewish settlement blocs, East Jerusalem, the Jordanian border, and the other side of the walls and fences surrounding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Whether or not the Quartet, or even the present US administration, seeks a more comprehensive withdrawal and a more sovereign Palestinian state, no one in the international community has seriously challenged the Israeli demand that its concerns first be satisfied. The peace process only requires a change in the Palestinian agenda, leaving the Israeli agenda untouched.

In other words, the message from abroad to Israel is that peace does not require any transformation from within. In fact, it even leaves Israel room for interpretation: the Israeli government, apprehensive of the reaction of hardline settlers, was unwilling to evict them from isolated posts in the occupied territories. That even the weak Palestinian leadership has refused to accept this rationale has allowed the Israelis to claim that the Palestinians are stubborn and inflexible, and therefore that Israel is entitled to pursue unilateral policies to safeguard its national security (the infamous “ingathering policy,” as coined by Ehud Olmert).[3]

Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that the peace process has actually deterred the colonizer and occupier from transforming its mentality and ideology. As long as the international community waits for the oppressed to transform their positions, while validating those upheld by the oppressor since 1967, this will remain the most brutal occupation the world has seen since World War II.

The annals of colonialism and decolonization teach us that an end to the military presence and occupation was a condition sine qua non for meaningful negotiations between colonizer and colonized even to begin.
An unconditional end to Israel’s military presence in the lives of more than three million Palestinians should be the precondition for any negotiations, which can only develop when the relationship between the two sides is not oppressive but equal.

In most cases, occupiers have not decided to leave. They were forced out, usually through a prolonged and bloody armed struggle. This has been attempted with very little success in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fewer cases, success was achieved by applying external pressure on the rogue power or state in the very last stage of decolonization. The latter strategy is more attractive. In any case, the Israeli paradigm of “peace” is not going to shift unless it is pressured from the outside, or forced to do so on the ground.

Even before one begins to define more specifically what such outside pressure entails, it is essential not to confuse the means (pressure) with the objective (finding a formula for joint living). In other words, it is important to emphasize that pressure is meant to trigger meaningful negotiations, not take their place. So while I still believe that change from within is key to bringing about a lasting solution to the question of the refugees, the predicament of the Palestinian minority in Israel, and the future of Jerusalem, other steps must first be taken for this to be achieved.

What kind a pressure is necessary? South Africa has provided the most illuminating and inspiring historical example for those leading this debate, while, on the ground, activists and NGOs under occupation have sought nonviolent means both to resist the occupation and to expand the forms of resistance beyond suicide bombing and the %ring of Qassam missiles from Gaza. These two impulses produced the BDS campaign against Israel. It is not a coordinated campaign operated by some secret cabal. It began as a call from within the civil society under occupation, endorsed by other Palestinian groups, and translated into individual and collective actions worldwide.

These actions vary in focus and form, from boycotting Israeli products to severing ties with academic institutes in Israel.

Some are individual displays of protest; others are organized campaigns. What they have in common is their message of outrage against the atrocities on the ground in Palestine—but the campaign’s elasticity has made it into a broad process powerful enough to produce a new public mood and atmosphere, without any clear focal point.

For the few Israelis who sponsored the campaign early on, it was a definitive moment that clearly stated our position vis-à-vis the origins, nature, and policies of our state. But in hindsight, it also seems to have provided moral sponsorship, which has been helpful for the success of the campaign.

Supporting BDS remains a drastic act for an Israeli peace activist. It excludes one immediately from the consensus and from the accepted discourse in Israel. Palestinians pay a higher price for the struggle, and those of us who choose this path should not expect to be rewarded or even praised. But it does involve putting yourself in direct confrontation with the state, your own society, and quite often friends and family. For all intents and purposes, this is to cross the final red line—to say farewell to the tribe.

This is why any one of us deciding to join the call should make such a decision wholeheartedly, and with a clear sense of its implications.

But there is really no other alternative. Any other option—from indifference, through soft criticism, and up to full endorsement of Israeli policy—is a wilful decision to be an accomplice to crimes against humanity. The closing of the public mind in Israel, the persistent hold of the settlers over Israeli society, the inbuilt racism within the Jewish population, the dehumanization of the Palestinians, and the vested interests of the army and industry in keeping the occupied territories—all of these mean that we are in for a very long period of callous and oppressive occupation. Thus, the responsibility of Israeli Jews is far greater than that of anyone else involved in advancing peace in Israel and Palestine. Israeli Jews are coming to realize this fact, and this is why the number who support pressuring Israel from the outside is growing by the day. It is still a very small group, but it does form the nucleus of the future Israeli peace camp.

Much can be learned from the Oslo process. There, the Israelis employed the discourse of peace as a convenient way of maintaining the occupation (aided for a while by Palestinian leaders who fell prey to US–Israeli deception tactics). This meant that an end to the occupation was vetoed not only by the “hawks,” but also the “doves,” who were not really interested in stopping it. That is why concentrated and effective pressure on Israel needs to be applied by the world at large. Such pressure proved successful in the past, particularly in the case of South Africa; and pressure is also necessary to prevent the worst scenarios from becoming realities.

After the massacre in Gaza in January 2009, it was hard to see how things could get worse, but they can—with no halt to the expansion of settlements, and continuing assaults on Gaza, the Israeli repertoire of evil has not yet been exhausted. The problem is that the governments of Europe, and especially the US, are not likely to endorse the BDS campaign. But one is reminded of the trials and tribulations of the boycott campaign against South Africa, which emanated from civil societies and not from the corridors of power.

In many ways, the most encouraging news comes from the most unlikely quarter: US campuses. The enthusiasm and commitment of hundreds of local students have helped in the last decade to bring the idea of divestment to US society—a society that was regarded as a lost cause by the global campaign for Palestine. They have faced formidable foes: both the effective and cynical AIPAC, and the fanatical Christian Zionists. But they offer a new way of engaging with Israel, not only for the sake of Palestinians, but also for Jews worldwide.

In Europe, an admirable coalition of Muslims, Jews, and Christians is advancing this agenda against fierce accusations of anti-Semitism. The presence of a few Israelis among them has helped to fend off these vicious and totally false allegations. I do not regard the moral and active support of Israelis like myself as the most important ingredient in this campaign. But connections with progressive and radical Jewish dissidents in Israel are vital to the campaign. They are a bridge to a wider public in Israel, which will eventually have to be incorporated. Pariah status will hopefully persuade Israel to abandon its policies of war crimes and abuses of human rights. We hope to empower those on the outside who are now engaged in the campaign, and we are empowered ourselves by their actions.

All of us, it seems, need clear targets, and to remain vigilant against simplistic generalizations about the boycott being against Israel for being Jewish, or against the Jews for being in Israel. That is simply not true. The millions of Jews in Israel must be reckoned with. It is a living organism that will remain part of any future solution. However, it is first our sacred duty to end the oppressive occupation and to prevent another Nakba—and the best means for achieving this is a sustained boycott and divestment campaign.


Ilan Pappe is a professor of History at the University of Exeter. His many books include The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Gaza in Crisis (with Noam Chomsky) and, most recently, The Idea of Israel.

This article is an original extract from The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, published by Verso on 15th May 2012, in which a cast of international voices argue for boycott, divestment and sanctions. The book features contributions from: John Berger, Slavoj Žižek, Angela Davis, Mustafa Barghouti, Ken Loach, Neve Gordon, Naomi Klein, Omar Barghouti, Ilan Pappe and many more.


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