Sanctions against the Israeli occupation - it’s time

27 January 2005

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A passbook that the South African blacks were required to carry during the apartheid era. (UN Photo)


“If apartheid ended, so can the occupation. But the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.” — Bishop Desmond Tutu

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about violence on the part of the Palestinians and yet reject effective non-violent measures against the Occupation that support their right to self-determination, such as economic sanctions. You can’t condemn the victims of Occupation for employing terrorism while, by opposing divestment, thereby sheltering the Occupying Power that employs State Terror. You can’t end the isolation and suffering of people living under Occupation while permitting the Occupying Power to carry on its life among the nations unencumbered and normally, by withholding a boycott of its economic and cultural products.

The Case For Sanctions

Sanctions, divestment and boycotts are absolutely legitimate means at everyone’s disposal for effectively opposing injustice. As penalties, protest, pressure and resistance to policies that violate fundamental human rights, international law and UN resolutions, they are directed at ending a situation of intolerable conflict, suffering and moral wrong-doing, not against a particular people or country. When the injustice ends, the sanctions end.

Sanctions, divestment and boycotts represent powerful international responses that arise not only from opposition to an intolerable situation, but also to the complicity of every person in the international civil society that does nothing to resolve it. Because they are rooted in human rights, international law and the will of the international community, and because they are supremely non-violent responses to injustice, sanctions carry a potent moral force. A campaign of sanctions, even if it proves impossible to actually implement them, mobilizes what has been called “the politics of shame.” No country wants to be cast as a major violator of human rights. Precisely because it is so difficult to enforce international humanitarian law, holding up its oppressive policy for all to see is often the only way of pressuring it to cease its oppressive policies. The moral and political condemnation conveyed by a campaign for sanctions and the international isolation it threatens sends a powerful, unmistakable message to the perpetrator: cease your unjust policies or suffer the consequences.

Rather than punishment, a campaign of sanctions rests upon the notion of accountability. A country threatened by sanctions stands in violation of the very principles underlying the international community as articulated in human rights covenants, international humanitarian law and UN resolutions. If we go by Amnesty’s annual report, virtually every country could be “called on the carpet” for their human rights violations. A campaign of sanctions constitutes an extraordinary step, however. It is invoked when injustice and suffering have become so routinized, so institutionalized, so pervasive, so resistant to normal international diplomacy or pressures, that their very continuation compromises the very validity of the international system and the moral standing of its members, countries, corporations and citizens alike. And it targets the strong parties. The very basis of a call for sanctions is that the targeted country has the ability to end the intolerable situation. A campaign of sanctions embodies a fundamental principle of the international system: that each country must be held accountable for its policies and actions in light of accepted international norms. The message to all countries must be: Participation in the international community depends upon conformity to the “rules of the game.”

Campaigns of sanctions are in essence educative, and that is part of their power. Since the reasons for taking such drastic action must be explicit, weighty and compelling, it forces those calling for sanctions to make a strong case for them. The very act of initiating such a campaign, then, raises awareness not only of the injustice itself, but of the principles it violates, thus strengthening the understanding of the international system itself. And since a campaign of sanctions must be accepted by the international community in order to succeed, it necessitates discussion and dialogue. The considerations behind the demand for sanctions are made transparent, and the targeted country given an opportunity to present its case. The likelihood, then, is that a campaign of sanctions initiated by civil society will express broad-based international consensus if it is to take hold.

Again, at issue is a serious violation of international law and norms. Just as in a case of an individual caught breaking the law, what is in question is what acts have been done, not who the country or the individual is. To paraphrase Jefferson, who spoke of “a government of laws, not men,” here we are speaking of “an international system of laws and not only countries that do whatever they want.” Thus, when the violations end, the sanctions cease and the country in question rejoins the international community.

The Case for Sanctions Against Israel

In line with the principles just discussed, economic sanctions against Israel are not invoked against Israel per se, but against Israel until the Occupation ends. With this proviso it is Israel’s policy of occupation that is targeted, its status as an Occupying Power, not Israel itself. When South Africa ended its system of apartheid, sanctions ceased and it fully rejoined the international community. When apartheid ended, so did the boycott of its sports teams, one of the most potent measures employed to impress on the South African government its international isolation.

The divestment campaign currently directed against Caterpillar has gained considerable momentum among the international public, effectively educating people about Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. It has generated calls for other sanctions, such as the Presbyterian Church’s initiative to divest from companies profiting from the Occupation. The European Parliament has also called for trade sanctions on Israel given Israel’s violation of the “Association Agreements” that prohibit the sale of settlement products under the “Made in Israel” label. The American Congress should take similar steps, since Israel’s use of American weapons against civilian populations violates the human rights provisions of the Arms Control Exports Act. The boycott of California grapes in the 1960s played a key role in gaining employment rights for migrant workers. The current boycott of settlement products is intended to express moral opposition to the very presence of settlements while making it economically and politically difficult for Israel to maintain them.

Once it builds momentum, there is probably no more effective means for civil society to effectively pursue justice than a campaign of sanctions. Its power derives less from its economic impact - although, with time, that too can be decisive - than from the moral outrage that impels it. Sanctions themselves seriously affected the South African economy. Following massive protests inside South Africa and escalating international pressure in mid-1984, some 200 US companies and more than 60 British ones withdrew from the country and international lenders cut off Pretoria’s access to foreign capital. US Congressional pressure played a crucial role as well, an element totally lacking vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict, which makes the possibility of actually imposing sanctions on Israel that more difficult. In 1986 Congress - with a Republican-controlled Senate - passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over the Reagan’s veto. The Act banned new US investment in South Africa, sales to the police and military and new bank loans.

Although the Act was not strictly enforced by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, although European governments found ways of quietly doing business with Pretoria (while Israel, by the way, was helping South African businesses by-pass sanctions by peddling their products in the US and Europe under a “Made in Israel” label, as well as by continued involvement in military development in South Africa, including nuclear; Hunter 1986), it did generate a climate - moral and economic - that made it increasingly difficult to maintain business-as-usual with the apartheid regime. The moral dimension led to a delegitimization of the very apartheid system that left no room for “reform.” Carried over to Israel’s Occupation, the moral element in a larger political condemnation of Israel’s policies could delegitimize the Occupation to the point where only its complete end is acceptable. A campaign of sanctions which highlights the moral unacceptability of Israel’s Occupation could have a great impact, eventually impelling governments to impose economic sanctions while creating a climate difficult for businesses (beginning with Caterpillar) to continue function.

It is not only the political unacceptability of Israel’s Occupation which makes the call for sanction urgent and obligatory, it is the massive violations of Palestinian human rights, of international law and of numerous UN resolutions that the Occupation entails. If Israel as the Occupying Power is not held accountable for the intolerable situation within its ability, indeed, within its responsibility to end, the entire international system of justice is rendered meaningless and empty. And that is what makes the Occupation an international issue. If Israel succeeds in defying the Fourth Geneva Convention and making its Occupation permanent, if an entire population is literally locked behind walls and its right of self-determination trampled, then the ability of human rights to win out over an international order founded on power politics and militarism is jeopardized. We all have a stake in ending the Occupation; the implications of occupation actually prevailing and a new apartheid regime emerging are chilling. Since the Palestinians do not have the power to shake off the Occupation on their own and the Israelis will not, only international pressure will effectively achieve a just peace. A campaign of sanctions represents one of the most efficacious measures.

ICAHD’S Position on Sanctions

In principle ICAHD supports the use of sanctions against countries engaged in egregious violations of human rights and international law, including the use of moral and economic pressures to end Israel’s Occupation. An effective approach to sanctions operates on different levels, however, and requires a number of strategic considerations as to its scope and focus.

First, the generic term “sanctions” actually includes three main types of economic and moral pressure:

(1) Sanctions, defined overall as “penalties, specified or in the form of moral pressure, applied against a country guilty of egregious violations of human rights, international law and UN resolutions, intended to bring that country back into compliance with international norms.” Since they must be imposed by governments, regional associations (such as the EU or SEAC) or the UN, the power to actually apply sanctions falls outside of civil society. Nevertheless, governments can be prodded in that direction - and the “prodding” itself constitutes an important form of conscious-raising and moral pressure.

(2) Divestment, the withdrawal of investments in companies doing business with the offending country or directly involved in violating human rights and international law;

(3) Boycott, the voluntary refraining from purchasing the products of the offending country or allowing its companies, institutions, representatives or even professionals from participating in international intercourse.

Now sanctions, divestment and boycott can be applied either totally or selectively, the decision involving a strategic mix of efficacy and moral stance. In the most successful case of sanctions, apartheid South Africa, the call was for total sanctions, since the entire system was considered illegitimate. In the case of Israel and the Occupation, it is the Occupation which is considered illegitimate, illegal and immoral, not Israel per se. Although there are those who would argue that a Zionist Israel whose ongoing policy is to displace Palestinians from the country or confine them to reservations is, indeed, as illegitimate as apartheid, this is a position from which it would be difficult to generate mass support. Most advocates of a just peace - including the Israeli peace movement, ICAHD included - support Israel’s right as a recognized member state in the UN to rejoin the international community when the Occupation truly ends and a just peace is attained. Since governments must be induced to impose sanctions, on a purely pragmatic level it is difficult to imagine the international community, with the US at its head, actually agreeing to blanket sanctions.

More do-able would be a campaign for selective sanctions. This could be no less principled and focused than a call for total sanctions, but it targets Israel’s Occupation rather than Israel itself. A campaign of selective sanctions can be effective if the choice of targets is strategic: refusing to sell arms to Israel that would be used to perpetuate the Occupation, especially in attacks on civilian populations, for example, or banning Israeli sports teams from competing in international tournaments, especially potent in the South African case. (Israel is currently the European basketball champion and is scheduled to play in the World Cup of football/soccer). These and other selected measures could have a great impact upon Israel, as well as the ability to mobilize international opposition to the Occupation. Yet, with strong civil society advocacy, they also have a reasonable chance, over time, of being adopted.

ICAHD, then, supports in principle a multi-tiered campaign of sanctions against Israel until the Occupation ends. We believe that a selective campaign is most effective and we would incorporate into that campaigns that other organizations have already launched. At this stage, ICAHD supports:

  • Sanctions: Sales or transfer of arms to Israel conditional upon their use in ways that do not perpetuate the Occupation or violate human rights and international humanitarian law, violations that would end if governments enforced existing laws and regulations regarding the use of weapons in contravention of human rights. Rather than adopting new policies of sanctions, ICAHD calls on the governments of North America, Europe and Asia to stop selling arms to Israel that are used in perpetuating the Occupation in accordance with their own laws prohibiting sales of weapons to countries engaged in serious human rights violations. No new policy of sanctions has to be adopted; the existing laws prohibiting such sales must simply be enforced. In addition existing international law must be applied against Israel for using its weapons illegally: against civilian populations, for example, or in campaigns of extra-judicial executions, to name but two. Sanctions that comprise implementation of international and domestic laws should include a ban on purchasing Israeli weapons as well.

    ICAHD is currently investigating Israel’s involvement in the world’s arms trade, including weapons development, joint production and coordinated sales with other countries. We believe this is a hidden element that underlies the broad support Israeli receives from governments, including those outwardly critical of its occupation policies. We hope that advocates for a just peace will use our information to expose their own country’s complicity in policies that perpetuate the Occupation. We also call on activist groups to investigate and publicize the forms of aid their country - and especially the US - is giving Israel. Components of that aid that support occupation or settlement, whether military, technological or economic, should be opposed. We also call on Jewish communities to oppose the use of their donations to Israel - to the Jewish National Fund, for instance, or to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds and other channels of funding - in the Occupied Territories.

  • Trade sanctions on Israel due to its violation of the “Association Agreements” it has signed with the European Union that prohibit the sale of settlement products under the “Made in Israel” label, as well as for violations of their human rights provisions.
  • Divestment in companies that profit from involvement in the Occupation. Here ICAHD supports the initiative of the Presbyterian Church of the US to divest in “multinational corporations that provide products or services to…the Israeli police or military to support and maintain the occupation,…that have established facilities or operations on occupied land,…that provide services or products for the establishment, expansion or maintenance of Israeli settlements,…that provide products or services to Israeli or Palestinian organizations/groups that support or facilitate violent acts against innocent civilians,…that provide products or services that support or facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier.” We certainly support the campaign against Caterpillar whose bulldozers demolish thousands of Palestinian homes.

    We join with the Jewish Voice for Peace in the US whose statement in support of the Presbyterians says in part:

    At JVP, we fully support selective divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This includes American companies like Caterpillar who profit from the wholesale destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards. It also includes Israeli companies who depend on settlements for materials or labor or who produce military equipment used to violate Palestinian human rights.

    We believe that general divestment from Israel is an unwise strategy at this time. We believe that economic measures targeted specifically at the occupation and the Israeli military complex that sustains it are much more likely to produce results. However, we absolutely reject the accusation that general divestment or boycott campaigns are inherently anti-Semitic. The Israeli government is a government like any other, and condemning its abuse of state power, as many of its own citizens do quite vigorously, is in no way the same as attacking the Jewish people. Further, it is crucial not only to criticize the immoral and illegal acts of the Israeli government, but to back up that criticism with action.

    We also note with satisfaction the many Jewish and Israeli organizations who support the idea of selective sanctions on Israel: European Jews for a Just Peace (a coalition of 16 Jewish groups from eight European countries); Not in My Name (US); Matzpun (Israel/International); Jews Against the Occupation (NYC Chapter); the petition of South African government minister Ronnie Kasrils and legislator Max Ozinsky, which has gathered more than 500 signatories from South African Jews; Jewish Voices Against the Occupation (US); Jewish Women for Justice in Israel and Palestine (US); Gush Shalom (Israel); Jews for Global Justice (US); and Visions of Peace With Justice (US), among others.

  • Boycott of settlement products and of companies that provide housing to the settlements or which play a major role in perpetuating the Occupation, a campaign initiated several years ago by Gush Shalom.

    These campaigns, it seems to us, build on existing initiatives. They are capable of garnering broad international support, are focused, raise public consciousness over the economic aspects of the Occupation and expose the complicity of the international community in it. They bring significant moral pressure to bear on Israel, while moving towards effective forms of economic sanctions designed to end the Occupation.

    We believe that Israel as a powerful state occupying the territory of another people should be held accountable for its policies and actions. We would therefore add to the list of sanctions the following element:

  • Holding individuals, be they policy-makers, military personnel carrying out orders or others, personally accountable for human rights violations, including trial before international courts and bans on travel to other countries.

    Since sanctions are a powerful non-violent means of resisting the Occupation, ICAHD supports this burgeoning movement and calls on the international community - civil society as well as governments - to do all that is possible to bring a swift end to Israel’s terrible Occupation so that all the peoples of the region, and especially Israelis and Palestinians, can enjoy the benefits of a just and lasting peace for the generations to come. The time has come; sanctions seem the next logical step in a global campaign to end the Occupation.

    Related Links

  • The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions

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    ICAHD is a non-violent, direct-action group originally established to oppose and resist Israeli demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories.

    As our activists gained direct knowledge of the brutalities of the Occupation, we expanded our resistance activities to other areas - land expropriation, settlement expansion, by-pass road construction, policies of “closure” and “separation,” the wholesale uprooting of fruit and olive trees and more. The fierce repression of Palestinian efforts to “shake off” the Occupation following the latest Intifada has only added urgency to our efforts.

    As a direct-action group, ICAHD is comprised of members of many Israeli peace and human rights organizations. All of our work in the Occupied Territories is closely co-ordinated with local Palestinian organizations.