Plans to end council boycotts are an attack on local democracy designed to shore up Israeli apartheid, writes HUGH LANNING
THIS week the government launched its biggest attack yet on BDS — the movement to support Palestine through boycott, divestment and sanctions. The government’s aim is to ban, demonise and subvert BDS.
Under the auspices of Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, it announced measures to prevent local authorities and other public bodies from boycotting and divesting from companies which are involved in Israel’s occupation.
Significantly, the measures were officially announced while Hancock was in Israel on a trade visit.
This action by the government is an unprecedented attack on local democracy and on the right of councils to make their own decisions on procurement and investment. It is about silencing opposition to and critics of Israel’s many actions in breach of international law.
Why? Because it is becoming increasingly effective. Israel has identified BDS as a strategic threat.
When physicist Stephen Hawking refused to attend an international conference in Tel Aviv in 2013, he publicly stated that he was supporting the Palestinian call for boycott. His statement drew worldwide attention and introduced new people to the Palestinian cause. With public figures such as Ken Loach lending their names to the campaigns, they win national media attention. Again, more and more people are made aware of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
BDS takes many forms, from successful campaigns to persuade international artists not to perform in Israel to encouraging consumers not to buy produce grown in Israel’s illegal settlements.
Companies which are targeted by the BDS movement feel the pressure. Just one example is Veolia, which was the target of a seven-year campaign in Britain and abroad, including in the US.
Veolia built and operated the Jerusalem Light Rail, a transport system which links the illegal settlements of the West Bank with Tel Aviv, aiding and cementing Israel’s colonisation of the land.
In Britain Veolia provides waste management services for local councils. In the US it provides water services. PSC’s campaign in the UK focused on pushing local councils not to consider Veolia’s services in any bidding process, and, if they already had a waste contract with Veolia, not to renew it when it came up for tender. The US campaign was similar.
Over the course of the campaign, several local councils decided not to renew or enter into contracts with Veolia, and this success was repeated globally. Veolia felt the economic pressure.
Between April and September 2015, the company pulled out of all its Israeli contracts, including the Jerusalem Light Rail. This was a massive success for the BDS movement, and it highlights how BDS aims to isolate Israel by making companies reluctant to do business with the occupation.
That is why we have seen a concerted attack on boycott as a concept and on the organisations campaigning in support of it. The attempt to label it anti-semitic deliberately misinforms people. The argument ignores why there is ever-growing support for BDS. It is because Israel bombs Gaza, imprisons children, encircles the West Bank and seeks to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem and remove the Bedouin from their traditional villages.
So while the government and the world do nothing — there is no peace process — they try actively to take away one of the few remaining methods of non-violent resistance the Palestinians have left. It will be 50 years next year since Israel’s military occupation in 1967. You can see from the roads, railways and houses Israel is building that it is never planning to leave. It is demonstrating — as anyone looking at a map can see — that it’s not interested in a two-state solution.
Now Israel is fighting back against BDS which it sees as a major threat. And now it seems to have the British government officially on its side in trying to silence opposition. In the US, too, several states are taking legislative action against BDS. In France, in October 2015, 12 pro-Palestinian activists were convicted in court for advocating boycott and sanctions on Israel.
In this context, it does not feel conspiratorial to see the Co-op’s closure of the PSC bank account — along with those of other Palestine-supporting organisations — as part of the same official campaign to demonise. Following the Co-op’s decision, according to the Vice news website, the Thompson–Reuters World Check database has PSC listed as a terrorist organisation. Locally the Extremism Act is being used to silence debate on Palestine in schools and universities.
This attack on the global BDS movement is a significant one, not just on pro-Palestinian campaigning but on free speech, on our democratic rights to protest and campaign.
It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland politics where the government is trying to use the law to defend the illegal rather than prevent it. It will not work. You can ban people from doing things. It is a lot harder to use regulations to make people do things they don’t want to. It might take a while, but this action will be counterproductive. It will result in more awareness of and support for BDS.
The best way to keep a right is to exercise it. That is what we will be asking everyone to do.
Hugh Lanning is chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.