Responding to the many calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, solidarity movements around the world have marked many successes. It is important for human rights advocates to build on this momentum and seize the opportunity to do what is within their power to try and hold Israel accountable for its abuses of human rights and other international laws.
Since the initial BDS call by Palestinian intellectuals and academics in October 2003, which was followed by separate calls for sports, arts, economic and other calls for BDS, there has been a seismic shift in the global solidarity movement for human rights in Israel-Palestine. Lawyers, doctors, academics, students, trade unionists, school teachers and many other activists have marked successes around the world. Their efforts are an inspiring reflection of the South African anti-apartheid movement, where BDS was also used very effectively.
In first few weeks of 2009 alone, European, North American and South African solidarity movements have made remarkable progress:
* A growing number of politicians in Europe and North America have put forward uncomfortable, probing questions to their governments and clearly want to do more. One example is the “Break the Silence” campaign within the Dutch Labor Party.
* Numerous letters and opinion pieces have been published by prominent figures in major national newspapers, including statement by prominent lawyers and professors published by The Sunday Times on 11 January 2009.
* The global “Derail Veolia” campaign has grown in leaps and bounds. An important success was the decision by the Stockholm municipality to cancel an agreement with Veolia Transport, on the basis of its involvement in the Jerusalem light-rail project, to the tune of several billion euros.
* There have been calls for international investigations of war crimes from the UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the head of UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestine refugees) and the UN Secretary General as well as scores of high-profile international lawyers around the world.
* The European Parliament managed to halt negotiations on strengthening the trading relationship between the EU and Israel in the framework of the Association Agreement and there are new, emboldened efforts to try and get the Association Agreement suspended altogether.
* Countless demonstrations have taken place in villages, towns and cities around the world, from Cape Town to Swansea and from Stockholm to Montreal and they are attracting decent publicity. Where there has been no television crew present, activists have made effective use of online resources such as YouTube.
* In South Africa there was a major success when dockworkers affiliated with SATAWU and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) refused to unload a ship containing Israeli goods. The story made national headlines for several days.
* Academic boycott is taking hold in academic institutions around the world — students in particular have been leading the way on this, but academics also.
Israel’s 22-day-long bombardment of Gaza, the greatest use of military force in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967 and what several commentators have already referred to as the Palestinian Sharpeville, has greatly fueled BDS efforts.
Especially before the blockade and recent carnage in Gaza, some activists raised concerns that by pursuing BDS, they may be curtailing dialogue, isolating progressive elements within Israel or even harming Palestinians. However, these concerns have greatly diminished as activists have realized how effective a mechanism BDS really is. In any event, the existence of a dialogue towards a just and sustainable peace between Palestinians and Israel is clearly non-existent, and there is little incentive on the part of Israel to engage in this any time soon. Progressive elements within Israel are still very marginal, but growing and many of these courageous, progressive Israelis have themselves called for BDS against Israel. As for harm against Palestinians, the fact that Palestinians themselves have called for BDS should be as clear a sign as any that the cost of not responding to the call causes far more harm.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, activists should continue to grasp the opportunities that BDS offers and build up the momentum that has been generated. As Israeli apartheid week, taking place worldwide from 1-8 March (see http://apartheidweek.org), solidarity activists should continue to work within the narrow, but highly significant space that exists for them to try and hold the Israeli government, and their own governments, accountable for abuses of human rights and humanitarian law against Palestinians.
Jeff Handmaker is an author, a human rights lawyer, and a researcher and university lecturer in human rights at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. A version of this article was originally published by Indymedia US.