Global boycotts of Israel intensify after bloody Flotilla attack

4 June 2010

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Protesters take to the streets in Philadelphia, US.


Israel’s bloody attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on 31 May killing at least nine and injuring dozens of activists carrying humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip, has already intensified global actions for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it respects international law and human rights, including endorsement by major trade unions in several countries.

The Gaza Freedom Flotilla was on an honorable, peaceful mission in solidarity with the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, challenging the Israeli-imposed blockade that has deprived them of basic necessities and the ability to travel outside their densely populated enclave for four years.

In response to the attack, civil society movements around the world organized protests in dozens of cities. In the Arab world, 285 civil society organizations united around a statement condemning the crime committed against the relief convoy, demanding an end to the blockade and the turning over of Israeli war criminals to international justice. In Palestine, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) declared 5 June 2010 an emergency Global BDS Day of Action, the 43rd anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The BNC called for increased pressure on governments to start implementing trade sanctions and arms embargoes, and asking trade unions to refuse to handle Israeli goods. The Swedish Port Workers Union decided to blockade all Israeli ships and cargo to and from Israel effective from midnight 15 June to 24 June. The union’s chairman Bjorn Borg told media that it is unclear how many vessels would be affected, but that the most frequent cargos coming from Israel were fruit, while those going to Israel were often industrial products from Sweden.

The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) also responded immediately. The union appealed for “an escalation of the boycott of Israeli goods and call[ed] upon our fellow trade unionists not to handle them.” And, citing the lead of Swedish dockworkers, called on its own members “not to allow any Israeli ship to dock or unload in any South African port.”

Also in South Africa, the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) decided, by a unanimous vote of its Central Executive Committee on 4 June, to “immediately work towards” making every municipality in South Africa “an Apartheid Israel free zone” by ensuring “that there are no commercial, academic, cultural, sporting or other linkages whatsoever with the Israeli regime.” (“SAMWU Declares, Every Municipality an Apartheid Israel Free Zone!,” 4 June 2010). UNITE the largest union in the United Kingdom voted unanimously at its conference in Manchester “to vigorously promote a policy of divestment from Israeli companies” and promote boycott of Israeli goods and services “similar to the boycott of South African goods during the era of apartheid” (“Unite votes to boycott Israel,” The Jewish Chronicle, 4 June 2010).

The UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, also expressed his support for BDS against Israel for its “murderous behavior.”

Roar Flathen, chairman of the largest Norwegian trade union federation (LO) responded to Israel’s Flotilla massacre by calling on the Norwegian State Pension Fund, the third largest in the world, to divest from all Israeli companies, and demanded the recall of the Norwegian ambassador to Israel. Norwegian pension funds had previously announced divestment from certain Israeli arms companies.

Following the attacks opinion polls in Norway show a major increase in support for BDS. The number respondents planning to boycott Israeli products had increased from 9.5 to 43 percent. Norwegian minister of education and leader of the Socialist Left Party, Kristin Halvorsen, called for an international boycott of arms trade with Israel following Norway’s existing policy.

There is also an intensification of the sporting boycott as Swedish young footballers refused to play in Israel, following a similar decision of the Turkish youth football team who were in Israel at the time of the Flotilla attack but canceled their planned match and returned home.

The Swedish Football Association (SFA) formally requested that European soccer’s governing body UEFA cancel Sweden’s under-21 match, because they felt morally compelled to do so. However, UEFA did not give in to the request, because there are no UN sanctions in place. SFA chairman, Lars-Ake Lagrell, told Swedish radio that he is not worried about reactions or demonstrations against Israeli players in the return match fixed at Old Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg on 3 September 2010. But if precedent is a guide their could be large protests: thousands of Swedes protested the Davis Cup tennis match against Israel in Malmo in March 2009.

The civil society response has been accompanied by an unusually strong reaction from governments as well, which may indicate that public pressure is starting to force a change of policy. Denmark, France, Greece, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Egypt, and South Africa among others summoned Israeli ambassadors to express their condemnation of the attack. Due to “unforeseen circumstances,” Israel’s ambassador to Ireland postponed a planned appearance before the parliamentary foreign affairs committee which wanted not only answers about the Israeli actions, but also to question him about Israel’s intentions concerning the Irish-owned ship the Rachel Corrie which is still en route to Gaza with humanitarian aid and several prominent peace activists aboard, including Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.

Meanwhile, Greece suspended joint military exercises with Israel and postponed a visit by Israel’s air force chief. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and its deputy minister, Bulent Arinc, canceled three joint military drills. On 3 June, the energy minister announced that Turkey had suspended all energy and water projects with Israel.

Nicaragua responded to the attack with the suspension of diplomatic relations with Israel. The country reiterated its support for the Palestinian people and urged an end to the blockade on the Gaza Strip. South African president Jacob Zuma said in radio interview that if any other country had undertaken action like the attack on the aid flotilla it would be regarded as a pariah. On 3 June, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel to demonstrate its strongest condemnation of the attack.

All these actions indicate growing support for the sentiment expressed by Scottish writer Iain Banks who emphasized the need for academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Writing in The Guardian the renowned science fiction author argued that the best way for international artists, writers and academics to “convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation” is “simply by having nothing more to do with this outlaw state.”

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.

Photo credit: Ahd Child.