Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: On July 11, the Seanad, the upper house of Ireland’s parliament, voted by 25 votes to 20 to support a bill that would ban the import of goods or services from colonies in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The legislation – termed the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 – still has to go through the lower house of parliament before it can become law.

Independent senator Frances Black, one of seven senators to sponsor the bill in the upper house, welcomed the result, writing on Twitter: “This is a first step but an important one. Today we state strongly: Ireland will always stand for international humanitarian law, justice & human rights.”

Such was the effect of the vote that the Israeli regime’s hardline defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for the closure of its embassy in Dublin, tweeting, “There is no point in summoning the Irish ambassador to Israel for a ‘reprimand’. With the oppressors of Israel there is nothing to argue with. Israel should immediately close the embassy in Dublin. We will not turn the other cheek to those who boycott us.”

The symbolic impact perhaps has been more effective as hundreds of artists and cultural figures have expressed support for the BDS, and boycotted events in Israel.

The move is being seen as a major victory by activists who advocate a cultural and economic boycott of Israel for its continued occupation of Arab land, and its brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.

The leading activist group is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

What is BDS?

Palestinian civil, political groups came together to start BDS in 2005

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. Its organisers say BDS “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity”. It says it draws inspiration from decades of Palestinian popular resistance, from the South African anti-apartheid struggle, from the US Civil Rights movement, among other others. The Palestinian BDS urges nonviolent pressure on the Israeli regime until it complies with international law by meeting three key demands:

1.Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.

2.Recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.

3.Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

A woman holds a sign which reads "Boycott Israel" at a demonstration supporting Palestine, in Berlin. Reuters

Who are the founders and how did they start their 

The campaign was started on July 9, 2005 by over 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organisations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies in support of the Palestinian cause for boycott of Israel, divestment from Israel and international sanctions against Israel.

drop in Israel’s exports to the Palestinian economy in the first quarter of 2015

They cited a body of UN resolutions, especially the anti-apartheid campaigns against white minority rule during apartheid in South Africa.

Protests and conferences in support of the campaign have been held in a number of countries, especially in the Western world.

University campuses are the main incubators of the movement, and students in the Western world have been effective in disseminating news and information about the Palestinian cause by collaborating with other civil-rights groups such as Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union.

What impact has the BDS movement had?

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the BDS movement on the Israeli economy. The movement says it was a major factor behind the 46 per cent drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014. A World Bank report noted that Israel’s exports to the Palestinian economy dropped by 24 per cent in the first quarter of 2015. Israeli sources have estimated losses of the agricultural sector alone at $30 million, mostly due to the boycott of colonies. But others suggest the costs may reach billions of dollars. Companies such as Orange, Veolia and CRH have pulled out of Israel as a result of BDS campaigns.

But researchers at Brookings Institution underplayed the economic impact the movement has had due to Israel’s proliferation of specialised goods that are not easily substitutable in the market, like high-technology goods and pharmaceuticals.

drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014 as a result of BDS activity

They noted: “Israel has been exporting more and more differentiated goods as opposed to homogenous goods ... latter are goods that are easily substitutable [oranges, for instance] whereas the former term refers to goods that are traded in more narrow markets, and therefore are less prone to competition (a specialised computer chip, for example).”

Given the power the Israeli regime holds, and the influence it exercises in Western nations, especially the United States, unless there are sanctions imposed by major governments, the impact on the Israeli economy is bound to be limited. However, the symbolic impact perhaps has been more effective as hundreds of artists and cultural figures have expressed support for the BDS, and boycotted events in 

In August last year, eight artists withdrew from Berlin’s Pop-Kultur festival over its partnership with the Israeli embassy. There have been some high-profile successes, such as pop star Lorde cancelling a concert in Tel Aviv in December after pressure from BDS activists. Artists such as Brian Eno, Kathleen Hanna, Talib Kweli, and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters endorsed Lorde’s decision. Other well-known musicians who have cancelled their gigs in Israel include Elvis Costello, Carlos Santana, Lana Del Rey, and Thurston Moore.

earmarked by Israel for a campaign to counter BDS

In a clear sign that Tel Aviv values performances by international artists in Israel, the regime’s foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon wrote on Twitter about Waters: “…Roger Waters may be a great musician but he promotes an ideology of boycott and hatred and does not promote peace.”

BDS has taken the position that Israel has used music and culture as a form of propaganda to hide the ugliness of the occupation regime.

What has the Israeli 
regime’s reaction been?

In June 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the BDS movement a “strategic threat” to Israel. The regime earmarked $72 million for a campaign to counter the movement and persuade friendly governments to curb BDS activism. There are now said to be dedicated anti-BDS staff at many of Israel’s embassies in the West.

In January, Israeli newspapers published a list of 20 charities and human rights groups that were banned from entering the country, because they supported the BDS movement. Israeli regime ministers have gone to the extent of making threats of physical violence against leading BDS activists. As Amnesty International noted, “An especially alarming statement came from Israeli Minister of Transport, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz who called on Israel to engage in ‘targeted civil eliminations’ of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence”.

Israeli intelligence monitors organisations involved in the BDS movement internationally, according to an Israeli military official. Two “former military intelligence officers” told AP they had created a company which would “collect intelligence on BDS organisations” internationally and that the aim was “to dismantle the infrastructure of groups”. The regime is especially believed to be using its intelligence assets to spy on Western citizens who support the BDS, and derail the work of international civil society organisations promoting BDS.

Going by its furious reaction to the Irish parliament’s vote, Israel fears it will give a fillip to the BDS movement. Israel is the pre-eminent military power in the region, and US support will ensure that this continues to remain the case. However, the regime in Tel Aviv is wary of the fact that the Irish move may set a precedent for other European nations, given that pro-Palestinian and anti-colonial views are widespread among the Western European publics, especially among students.

And the BDS movement has a strong presence on university campuses across the Western world, primarily in Europe and the United States.

What steps is the US taking against the BDS?

According to the new website Right to Boycott, anti-BDS bills or resolutions have been introduced in 21 states in America, and in the US Congress. Most of these laws are aimed at curbing public support or funding for BDS.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act is ready for a house vote, and would allow for the punishment of businesses engaged in BDS with criminal penalties of upto $1 million fine and 20 years in prison.

The Act was drafted in response to the UNHRC’s March 2016 resolution calling for the creation of a database of companies operating in the Occupied Territories.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most prominent pro-Israel organisation in the US, believes the US legislation “would protect American companies from exactly this type of threat”. The organisation, which is highly critical of BDS, has systematically lobbied Congress to put pressure on the movement.

Leading civil rights organisations in the US, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, have condemned anti-BDS legislative measures as an “attack on the constitutional right of free speech and an attempt to delegitimise lawful campaigning”, according to the BDS website.

However, the US Supreme Court maintains that boycotts to effect political, social, and economic change are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.