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Ten Years of BDS: The Growing Movement Against the Occupation of Palestine

As BDS activists celebrate an increasing number of campaign victories, the movement’s greatest successes may be the ones that don’t make the headlines.

A global effort by Palestinian activists to pressure Israel into meeting their demands is finding growing success as its 10th anniversary nears.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by 171 Palestinian organizations on July 9, 2005, calls for Israel to end its occupation and colonization of Arab lands, extend equal rights to its minority of Palestinian citizens and allow the return of Palestinian refugees expelled during and after Israel’s founding in 1948.

Its strategy of isolating Israeli institutions through grassroots campaigns, ranging from consumer boycotts to pushes for sanctions by foreign governments, usually draws the most attention when a victory – like Lauryn Hill’s cancellation of a May 7 concert in Tel Aviv or a war of words over French telecommunications company Orange’s announcement of plans to sever ties with its Israeli partner – reaches the world’s headlines.

“For Palestinians living under occupation this action sends a strong signal that they are not alone.”

These breakthroughs often follow intensive efforts. When the United Church of Christ, a Christian denomination with 1.1 million members in 5,100 churches across the United States, decided at its General Synod in Cleveland on June 30 to boycott and divest from a raft of Israeli companies and contractors, the lopsided vote of 508-124, with 38 abstentions, capped a process that, coincidentally, began four days before the launch of BDS itself.

“Ten years ago, in 2005, the Church passed a resolution calling for corporate engagement and the use of economic leverage to support efforts to make peace, including ‘divestment from those companies that refuse to change their practice of gain from the perpetuation of violence, including the occupation,'” Tom Russell, a spokesman for the United Church of Christ Palestine/Israel Network (UCC PIN), told Truthout. “After a decade of dialogue and shareholder resolutions, the companies in question (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard) have failed to alter their practices and the occupation is more deeply entrenched than ever before.”

Churches Act in Solidarity With Palestinians

Before the denomination’s biennial summit, UCC PIN activists had already pushed seven of its conferences to adopt BDS proposals of their own. Their existing campaign infrastructure, along with a list of supporters ranging from the Young Women’s Christian Association of Palestine to South African Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, helped propel the measure to victory by an overwhelming margin.

“Israel’s attacks on Gaza upset and enraged many people who did not consider themselves to be ‘political’ before.”

The legislation itself was notable not only for its depth of support, but also the breadth of companies it targeted. While other church bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Fiduciary Corp. have divested from firms over their support for Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, UCC PIN’s “Resolution of Witness” also committed the UCC to “developing and publishing standards” to govern future investments in the area.

And although some church divestment campaigns have avoided specific reference to the BDS movement, focusing only on Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967, UCC PIN’s informational materials included the Palestinian call for BDS and its full range of demands.

Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, mentioned discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens as well as the 48-year occupation in a UCC PIN statement celebrating the vote. “For Palestinians living under occupation or facing systematic discrimination as citizens of Israel, enduring the destruction of their homes and businesses, the theft of their land for settlements, and living under blockade and siege in Gaza, this action sends a strong signal that they are not alone, and that there are churches who still dare to speak truth to power and stand with the oppressed,” he said.

Activists who had supported the measure from outside the church also found its passage indicative of deeper shifts. “My conversations at the General Synod have shown me that we’re on the precipice of a new political moment,” Lev Hirschhorn, a Jewish Voice for Peace board member and one of the group’s representatives at the General Synod, said in an organizational statement congratulating the UCC. “Progressives are speaking up, and it’s only a matter of time until Israel is held accountable for its human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

A Tangible Set of Tactics

Over the last year, several companies targeted by BDS campaigns, including British security firm G4S and Israeli home carbonator maker SodaStream, have announced plans to leave their facilities and contracts in West Bank settlements – and in G4S’s case, inside Israeli prisons – while maintaining their presences within Israel itself.

Such developments stem in part from escalated campaigns, especially after Israel’s 51-day military offensive against the Gaza Strip a year ago, activists say.

“Israel’s attacks on Gaza last summer upset and enraged many people who did not consider themselves to be ‘political’ before,” said Ryvka Barnard, a senior campaigns officer on militarism and security for the London-based charity War on Want, which supports the movement. “BDS offers a tangible set of tactics for people to transform their outrage into action, to take to the streets in protest, but to recognize that the main work happens when you get home.”

An increase in activity is undeniable. Within the United States, the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group that opposes and tracks BDS efforts, reported in May that campus-based campaigns, typically demanding divestment by colleges and universities, had nearly doubled in the past academic year.

But campaigns and their payoffs can lie far apart. When the Israeli cosmetics company Ahava announced in June that it was considering moving its factory from the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem due in part to “changes in regulations for manufacturing cosmetic products in certain Western countries,” the most intense years of protests against it, spearheaded in the United States by women’s antiwar organization CODEPINK, were years in the past.

“There are ebbs and flows with any campaign that goes on for six years,” Nancy Kricorian, manager of CODEPINK’s “Stolen Beauty” campaign, told Truthout. “And yes, we are now celebrating our sixth anniversary. Many of our partners, and we ourselves, shifted focus to the SodaStream campaign in 2012, while continuing the Ahava work in a more reactive capacity.”

CODEPINK’s colorful actions, often including women caked in mud clustered outside Ahava’s North American shops, helped to stigmatize the company’s business practices, particularly its extraction of minerals from the occupied West Bank’s Dead Sea. The European Union’s decision to require the labeling of settlement products, a longtime demand of European BDS activists that came days before Ahava’s announcement, seems to have forced its hand.

New Victories Every Day

Like campaigners against G4S and SodaStream, Kricorian welcomed the company’s move but noted it would not affect most issues driving the effort against it.

“This is a clear indication of the growing power of the BDS movement, which is scoring new victories every day,” she said. “While moving out of Mitzpe Shalem will address one of Ahava’s violations of international law, there would still remain the issues of the pillage of occupied natural resources and the subsidies to the two illegal settlements that are co-owners of the enterprise.”

While rarely so widely publicized, the ongoing isolation of enterprises in the West Bank settlements, and in many cases in Israel itself, is taking a growing toll on the country’s economy.

“The BDS movement can’t be stopped because it calls for equal rights.”

In June, a leaked Israeli government report found that BDS-driven consumer boycotts could cost the country $1.4 billion a year, while a RAND Corporation report estimated losses might reach $15 billion annually. Some West Bank settlers have attempted to compensate by marketing their wares directly to ideological supporters in the United States and elsewhere.

But in a development perhaps more worrying for Israel, a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report showed foreign direct investment in the country had plunged 46 percent in a year. While FDI worldwide declined 16 percent, Israel’s loss of $5.29 billon was remarkable.

“We believe that what led to the drop in investment in Israel are Operation Protective Edge and the boycotts Israel is facing,” UNCTD report co-author and Open University of Israel management and economics researcher Ronny Manos told the Israel news site Ynet.

This capital flight has sometimes followed grassroots campaigns and public announcements, like those accompanying Norwegian pension fund KLP’s June divestment from two building material companies over their Israeli subsidiaries’ settlement activities. More often, it is a quiet process, as investors silently decide to sell their Israeli holdings and walk away.

A Quiet Decline in Israeli Tourism Revenue

Adding to the bad news, Israel’s Export Institute reported that the country’s tourism receipts had declined 15 percent in the first quarter of 2015 from the previous year, reaching their lowest level in five years.

These quiet trends herald BDS’s success as much as its headline-ready victories, many activists think, even if its exact effect on them can be hard to quantify and most are reluctant to claim full credit.

“The movement’s always been realistic about BDS by never overstating successes,” John Snowden, an activist in the United Kingdom’s Boycott Israel Network, told Truthout. “The definite momentum there is today is based on hard-won campaign victories.”

Like War on Want and other BDS groups in the UK, the Boycott Israel Network joined the “Block the Factory” campaign, a blockade of three British factories owned by Israeli drone and weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems, on July 6.

Showing the movement’s global coordination, activists in Melbourne, Australia, simultaneously chained themselves to a fourth factory there, marking the first anniversary of 2014’s Gaza offensive internationally.

“The future, from my perspective, is about learning from our victories, developing broader coalitions of people in our campaigns, effectively narrating Palestinian identity and reality and emphasizing the universal rights-based goals of the BDS movement,” Snowden said.

He added that some international supporters “mistakenly see BDS as a panacea.”
“It’s not,” he said. “It is an important tactic, to be sure, and one of many that Palestinians can use.”

The Rising Importance of the BDS Movement

While a BDS National Committee consisting of major Palestinian coalitions has led the movement since 2007, many see its diffuse nature, with countless organizations adapting its broad framework to their local conditions, as one of its main strengths and a key reason for its growth.

“It is also led by societies, churches and unions, so Israel’s public relations machine does not work in this case,” said Yousef Aljamal, a researcher at the Gaza-based Center for Political and Development Studies.

He added that the movement’s potency also stems from the broad appeal of its demands. “The BDS movement can’t be stopped because it calls for equal rights. Israel can’t simply tell the world we have a problem with granting Palestinians equal rights.”

Perhaps most importantly, BDS is accessible to all. While some efforts to support Palestinians, like teams of International Solidarity Movement activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or Freedom Flotillas challenging the naval blockade of Gaza, demand significant commitments of travel, time, resources and energy, anyone can join an existing BDS campaign or launch a new one in their own community.

“The BDS campaign has become the prime site of struggle among those of us supporting the global solidarity movement dedicated to achieving a just peace for Palestine,” Richard Falk, former UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, told Truthout.

Among other reasons, widespread resignation that existing processes have failed Palestinians spurs the growth of BDS, according to Falk. After the inauguration of Benjamin Netanyahu’s “extremist cabinet” came “the moment when Oslo finally loses even mainstream credibility.”

“I think this is a crucial time for the global solidarity movement,” Falk said. “When formal institutions are unable and unwilling to act, popular mobilization becomes the best option.”