Book identifies pressure points for boycott actions

17 February 2012

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The idea of boycotting Israel has gained more and more currency in the West over the last ten years or so, and one of the most frequent requests from new recruits to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is for a “boycott list.” Just tell us the companies to avoid, they say.

Long lists of companies with every conceivable link to Israel can be found on the Internet. But the effect of these bewilderingly long documents can be to leave the reader with a feeling of helplessness in the face of Israel’s extensive commercial links around the world.

However, tangible victories have been the key factor behind the growth of the Palestinian-led BDS movement since 2005. When a wave of musicians (including The Pixies and The Gorillaz) cancelled gigs in Israel in disgust at the lethal Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, that was a tangible victory. When settler cosmetics company Ahava was shut down in London’s prestigious Covent Garden after a sustained protest campaign against it, that was a tangible victory. And on it goes.

Without a stream of such solid victories making the headlines, and affecting Israeli bottom lines, boycotting would be in danger of becoming little more than a morality test, or a way to feel good about ourselves without concrete results.

It took a huge coalition of Palestinian civil society groups to lead the way with the 2005 BDS call to action, which set a series of solid political and moral principles that have been the guiding light of the movement ever since. The effect has been to transform a good idea into a strengthening global movement.

Now led by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the movement’s principles have been taken to heart by a team of dedicated researchers from the organization Corporate Watch who have produced the new self-published book, Targeting Israeli Apartheid: a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Handbook.

It is based on years of first-hand research on the ground. The group has been publishing the results of their investigations on the excellent (and far-too-often overlooked) Corporate Occupation blog.

The authors draw on a large range of written sources (such as the essential whoprofits.org database) but more often than not their conclusions are based on first-hand observation. They take photos of factories in settlement industrial zones (95). They interview Palestinians working in Israeli settlements, suffering from bad conditions and underpayment: “Despite the fact that so many Palestinian workers are ‘employed’ in the settlements, most workers interviewed by Corporate Watch support a boycott of Israel and see it as the only way they can eventually regain control of their land” (235).

Naming and shaming

The book’s structure is highly effective. Part one gives an overview of each sector of the Israeli economy. Companies are named and listed, human rights violations are highlighted and each company’s international links are outlined and detailed. Names are named and even business addresses are listed. This is a most thorough analysis, and an important and wide-ranging reference work. Sectors of the Israeli economy examined in detail include: telecoms, energy, high-tech, armaments, diamonds, pharmaceuticals, construction and even franchises (such as Ikea, Pizza Hut and KFC).

But this is no dry, theoretical examination of the Israeli economy. It is an entirely practical (and I’d even go so far as to say highly-readable) guide to the ins and outs of what is actually made in Israel and sold around the world. All the way through, the authors suggest good, practical targets for BDS campaigns. The team always has an eye out for companies that could be vulnerable to public and international pressure.

For example, along with naming UK bank Barclays as the “only British bank to own significant investment in Israeli companies” (9), the authors also list the Israeli companies Barclays invests in (291). Similarly, it is explained that Israeli bank Leumi has a small presence in the UK, which the authors recommend as a good target for concerted campaigning because it could be vulnerable to pressure (14-15).

Educational resource

I personally learned a lot from this book. For example, it drew my attention to the Yahav Bank for Government Employees. This institution is important for trade unionists campaigning for a boycott of the Histadrut, Israel’s general trade union, which owns 25 percent of this bank. Since Yahav provides loans and other services to illegal West Bank settlements, this means the Histadrut is directly complicit with and even directly profits from the ongoing Israeli colonization of the West Bank (13).

I was struck with the reality of the sheer, massive scale of international investment in Israel. On one hand, this is a sign that the BDS movement still has a long way to go. Take Intel, present in Israel — and with serious investments — since 1974. The computer chip maker has five facilities in the country, with even more investment planned for the future (155-6).

Vast opportunities to boycott

Yet reading about the scale of the problem still somehow gives you a sense of optimism. One reads the long lists of companies and their links to Israel and one cannot help but look at the situation in a glass-half-full kind of way. All those international links mean a lot of different opportunities for activists in countries around the world to try different BDS campaigns, and the authors are constantly suggesting good ideas, unexplored targets and potential strategies and tactics.

This sense of realistic optimism is also encouraged by the decision of the authors to include a “resistance” section at the end of many chapters. Here, they outline the record of Palestinian and international activism against each aspect of the Israeli economy: the victories and the limitations.

The only criticism of this book I have worth mentioning is the inconsistent approach to footnotes. While there is an admirable attempt to include a web address with every note, this is often at the expense of a proper reference. So article titles are not always included; you just get the web address. Besides the fact that URLs are often awkward and tedious to type in, many do not last in the long term, as they often change when websites are redesigned over the years (this happened a few years ago on the Haaretz website — all the old links were broken). A more consistent approach here would have been better. But this critique aside, the lengths to which the authors have gone to properly document and reference every claim is admirable.

Perhaps not a criticism as such, but there is a UK-specific focus in part three of the book that must be mentioned. Titled “Bringing the Fight Home,” it looks at what has been achieved in the UK and what still needs to be done. But most of the rest of the book is relevant globally. It is also published under a Creative Commons license, so there is scope here for other groups around the world to write their own local version of this chapter (though the exact terms of the license were not clear to me).

Overall, Targeting Israeli Apartheid is quite simply the essential reference work for any activist group serious about launching a new BDS campaign against companies involved in Israeli war crimes, apartheid and occupation. The Corporate Watch collective has even make the entire thing available to download for free on their website. Despite that, I still recommend buying a hard copy (available to order on their website for the very reasonable price of £9; $14). Not only is a hard copy easier to read, but financially supporting the book will hopefully encourage the group to continue its important research on Palestine.

Buy or download the book from www.corporatewatch.org.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist with a focus on Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.