Forging new links to boycott movement in Gaza

13 December 2013

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Man harvests oranges

Israel effectively boycotts Gaza produce by not giving access to their own markets.

(Mohammed Asad / APA images)

The Gaza Strip, now in its seventh year of a comprehensive siege by Israel, has faced increased hardships since the 3 July coup in neighboring Egypt.

On 26 November, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that the Palestinian enclave “is affected by one of the most serious energy crises in recent years, with potentially serious humanitarian ramifications” (“Gaza fuel crisis situation report”).

Electrical blackouts have increased to as long as 16 hours per day, while fuel scarcity has affected the operations of all 291 water and wastewater treatment facilities, causing multiple sewage spills. Local supplies of vital medicines are low or empty, and Israeli attacks on Palestinian fishermen and farmers continue.

Meanwhile hundreds of students and thousands of would-be travelers remain unable to leave or return through either the Erez checkpoint or the Rafah crossing.

Corporate complicity

Tom Anderson and Therezia Cooper are the research team of Corporate Occupation, a project of Corporate Watch. Naming names, and going into detailed specifics, their blog documents the involvement of both international and Israeli companies in the illegal occupation of Palestine.

They spent most of November in the Gaza Strip on a new research trip “to create resources for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli apartheid, militarism, colonization and occupation.”

The Electronic Intifada spoke to Anderson and Cooper earlier this year about being harassed by police under “anti-terror” law while returning to the UK from a previous research trip to the occupied West Bank.

The Electronic Intifada contributor Joe Catron interviewed Anderson and Cooper on 5 December in Gaza City, shortly before the end of their visit.

Joe Catron: You’ve been in Gaza for four and a half weeks. What was the focus of your research?

Therezia Cooper: We wanted to research the impact of the siege, and the way Israel profits from it. Our research has been quite broad, and looked at all aspects of the strangulation of the economy and impacts the siege has on the ground. We’ve researched agriculture, exports from Gaza, the medical sector, prisoners, and effects of drone technology and other weaponry.

Tom Anderson: Separate from research, we also wanted to provide information from people in Gaza that will be useful in BDS campaigns around the world. Many solidarity activists have a lot of contacts in the West Bank because of the relative ease of access. We wanted to make connections with Gaza activists to better inform solidarity campaigns, specifically the BDS movement.

JC: What kinds of connections have you made with Gaza activists?

TA: We’ve been encouraged by meeting people and hearing of their enthusiasm for BDS as a strategy, and that they feel it’s an important part of their struggle against the occupation.

We’ve been asked to talk by many groups. We spoke about what the international BDS movement has been doing. People were eager to hear about successes. They were keen to have more feedback from the movement, more interaction and more Arabic materials on BDS.

TC: Having all these meetings and making connections has been one of the most fruitful parts of our trip. The movement is growing a lot through interactions over the Internet, but going to meet people, having real-life contact, and talking is very important.

JC: What new resources can BDS activists expect from your time here?

TA: We focused on a few different areas. One was military technology used against Palestinians. Israeli arms companies are world leaders in drone technology. They’ve developed that technology in the context of the occupation. Their expertise, and the technology they’re now trying to sell internationally, has been gained through war crimes and repression.

Israel has sold drone technology to up to 49 countries. The BDS movement needs to challenge Israel’s ability to profit from their experience oppressing the people of Palestine, impede their foreign sales of this technology, and target the offices and manufacturing facilities of [arms] companies like IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] and Elbit, as well as their participation in international arms fairs.

We’ve done interviews with people on the receiving end of this Israeli drone technology here in Gaza, speaking to people whose houses have been targeted, and many who’ve lost family members to Israeli drone strikes.

Drones are now Israel’s weapon of choice against people in Gaza. Deaths from drone attacks exceeded those from other weapons during the last large-scale Israeli attack on Gaza, and were a large proportion in the previous one. We hope we we can provide resources to campaigners to target these companies’ abilities to make money out of experience they’ve gained supplying equipment used to commit war crimes.

TC: We’ve also spent a lot of time doing research that can be used by the campaign against a company called G4S, which provides security systems for Israeli prisons.

The campaign against G4S is possibly the fastest-growing BDS campaign in Europe, with a lot of groups working together to pressure G4S to withdraw from the contract they have with the Israeli Prison Service [IPS], among other things.

We interviewed prisoners who had a range of different experiences in Israeli prisons, and experienced a lot of different mistreatment, including prisoners who have given birth in prison, people who have been denied proper medical care and detainees who have been forcibly relocated from the West Bank.

Again, we think by coming here to hear the personal stories of people who have experienced the abuses of the IPS, we can benefit campaign work in the UK and around Europe. It’s hard for people in Gaza to boycott Israeli products, or have that kind of BDS campaign on the ground. But I think by telling stories of their experiences, they provide the backbone of the BDS movement and explain why it’s necessary, so we can work together to pressure these companies to end cooperation with Israel.

TA: G4S makes its money from large contracts with the public sector. That’s its weakness. People around the world can pressure the public authorities giving those tenders not to give contracts to G4S until it ends its contracts with the IPS and Israeli checkpoints, settlements and the [Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank].

It’s a good target for BDS campaigns, because a public campaign to prevent G4S from obtaining one of these tenders can cost them millions of pounds.

“Economic warfare”

TC: One of the biggest challenges that we’ve become even more aware of since getting here, is how the solidarity movement can help Palestinians achieve some kind of independent economy in addition to BDS. The struggle of the Palestinian economy is evident in everything you see, on every level, in Gaza. At the moment, it’s very difficult to find a way to support Palestinian exports.

The devastating effects Israeli policies have on farmers are overwhelming them. Their main markets have been taken away. Even when they’re allowed to export tiny amounts of produce, they have no access to the local markets, in Israel and the West Bank, which used to sustain life in Gaza.

TA: That’s part of a policy of economic warfare. Elements of the siege that seek to control Palestinian exports go hand-in-hand with policies like the targeting of Palestinian farmers and fishermen. They’re intended to devastate the economy, but also to create a compliant economy that Israel can control, and from which it can profit.

Wherever we’ve talked about the boycott, they’ve asked us about ways the solidarity movement can support Palestinian exporters and help get Palestinian produce out of Gaza. That’s one area that could do with some creative thinking by the solidarity movement about how to support Palestinians by breaking the siege, by breaking Israeli control over Palestinian exports.

I think one reason the Israeli authorities allow a small amount of exports and cash crops from Gaza is to undermine the boycott movement, to say that Israeli companies are exporting Palestinian products, and therefore shouldn’t be boycotted. It’s imperative to think of ways to break restrictions on exporting Palestinian produce without benefiting Israeli companies and the Israeli economy.

TC: Even while Israel benefits from Gaza exports, they are effectively boycotting Gaza produce by not giving access to their own markets. That constitutes a boycott by Israel of all Gaza goods.

And of course, farmers here have no options. They have to live, and they have to try to export what they can. The people we’ve met have said they have no choice, but agree with the international boycott. The exports allowed now are so small, they don’t really make a difference. In order to actually benefit the Gaza economy, there needs to be some kind of autonomy for Gaza farmers, so they don’t have to rely exclusively on Israel and its companies.

Damaging restrictions

JC: You’ve mentioned Israel profiting from the siege several times. Can you say more about that?

TA: We’ve already mentioned two areas. One is Palestinian exports, which necessarily have to go through Israeli companies. We’ve also mentioned Israeli arms companies having a market for their products in the continuing aggression against people in Palestine, and a testing ground for products they can sell internationally.

The Kerem Shalom crossing is virtually the only point for goods to enter Gaza. The flow of those goods through Israel benefits the Israeli economy. Transport and marketing companies benefit from selling those goods and transporting them through the crossing.

Health workers have to buy products from outside. All the health workers’ organizations say they are supportive of the boycott of Israel and boycott Israeli products, except when they need them to protects lives and can’t buy them from anywhere else. However, all the drugs services care providers buy or are provided have to come through Israel, except for small amounts occasionally allowed as aid through the Rafah crossing.

Israeli companies benefit in the provision of these drugs, as well as transportation of them. Health workers who need to get equipment into Gaza, when they’re able to bring it, are sometimes required to wait for its delivery while security checks or other arbitrary delays are carried out. In the case of equipment coming from international sources, they’re required to pay for its storage.

The Gaza manufacturing industry is damaged by restrictions on the entry of certain raw materials. Again, that increases the necessity of reliance on products from outside, which necessarily have to come through Israel.

JC: What’s the state of the BDS movement in Gaza?

TC: The movement has a lot of potential. There are people working hard on it, and the academic boycott seems particularly well-known. I think there’s a clear reason for that. Gaza is very isolated, and students are so often prevented from taking scholarships abroad.

There are a lot of young people, including at universities, who have a vague idea what’s been happening with the BDS movement, but want a way to feed into it and work more directly with people on the outside, as well as organizations that have been doing BDS work here.

But as we said before, we’ve sensed a lot of enthusiasm, especially from young people, and eagerness to work on BDS. Increased connections among all the people interested in BDS, and with BDS activists in the West Bank and abroad, would be a great next step.

TA: I think the role of international campaigners in doing that is to seek the mandate and voices of Palestinians in Gaza in taking BDS actions, to be led by Palestinians in Gaza, and to create better linkages between BDS campaigns and people under siege in Gaza.

For instance, the international campaign against the Prawer Plan would benefit from involvement and experience of the refugees here, as the ongoing forced expulsions in the Naqab are simply a continuation of the Nakba, which forced the refugees who now live in Gaza from their homes.

The organization which took control of the majority of land after the Nakba, which is instrumental in erasing any trace of the Palestinian history from the sites of forced expulsions, and which is currently planting forests on the lands of Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab, is the Jewish National Fund.

“Increased desperation”

JC: What has surprised you here?

TC: Reading about a situation is very different from actually experiencing it. In many ways, experiencing the situation is worse. We’ve come at a time when the border, and issues with fuel and electricity, are very bad. You can sense an increased desperation for a solution.

But like the West Bank, there’s the beauty of the place, the beauty of the sea, and the welcome you get from the people, who desperately want this kind of interaction with the world.

TA: The thing that struck me was the feeling of isolation, not just from the rest of the world, but from the rest of Palestine. Hearing about friends being tear-gassed by Israeli police in the Naqab, knowing that’s only a few miles away, in places we’ve been earlier this year, but feeling the extreme difficulty of meeting the people involved face to face, shows the isolation of people in Gaza struggling against the occupation.

I think the challenge for international solidarity activists is to not accept that isolation.

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and Tweets using @jncatron.