Boycott, divestment and sanctions in Australia, five years on

Australians in Melbourne call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel in the wake of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. (Takver)

It is five years since Palestinian civil society first made the call for a global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the apartheid state of Israel. At the time, introducing such action in Australia seemed impossible when the public barely knew anything about the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. Education had to be a priority if there was to be any overturning of the long-accepted and indulged Zionist narrative.

A glimmer of hope emerged when a number of prominent Australians and others signed on to two significant nationwide newspaper advertisement campaigns run by Australian advocacy groups against a highly unorthodox motion taken in parliament to congratulate Israel on its 60 years of independence in 2008. The Labor government chose to ignore a strongly-supported request by church leaders, former ministers, judges and various other respected figures, to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians. Nevertheless the people had spoken and by the time Israel had attacked Gaza at the end of that year, Australians were again signing on to another national newspaper campaign in the strongest outcry yet seen against Israel’s unfolding slaughter of civilians.

While the newspaper campaigns are not boycotts, they have, in fact, galvanized more and more support for the Palestinian struggle amongst mainstream Australians. People are willing to donate, and even more importantly, they are no longer afraid to have their names openly associated with Palestine.

With a supine government and a media unwilling to investigate Israel’s criminal acts, getting the message out to the public has been a real challenge. However, Australian unions look like they might be changing that. The Western Australian members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA-WA) were the first to take action in response to Israel’s three-week bombardment of Gaza in winter 2008-09 by refusing to handle goods arriving from or going to Israel. This year, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) joined the international boycott of Israel, and when the Freedom Flotilla was attacked on 31 May, some 11 trade unions and regional trade councils followed the CFMEU in quick succession.

The resolutions passed by the trade unions to boycott Israeli goods from Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank coincided with the tour of well-known Palestinian advocate Diana Buttu, whose visit was sponsored by six large Australian unions to speak precisely on boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and the apartheid conditions faced by Palestinians, not only under Israeli occupation but also in Israel itself.

Buttu’s powerful presentations left no one in any doubt as to the urgency of implementing BDS across the board. In the last 18 months, activists have targeted Connex (a subsidiary of the French transportation giant Veolia which is involved in the building a light rail in occupied East Jerusalem), Israeli-owned Max Brenner chocolates, the Israeli-sponsored Melbourne International Film Festival, and the visits of the Jerusalem Quartet and Israeli tennis player Shaher Peer. But the recent union resolutions supporting the boycott of Israel will give a significant boost to the BDS movement.

However, much education still needs to be done. Australians for Palestine held an Apartheid Forum in Melbourne earlier in the year which was followed by another on “Apartheid and Boycotts” that included Diana Buttu, another eminent Palestinian, Professor Saree Makdisi and Jewish academic Dr. Ned Curthoys, who initiated the academic and cultural boycott of Israel in Australia with his father, Professor John Docker. And that is just the beginning. More information sessions are being organized around the country by many different groups, while a monthly display targeting the local Caterpillar dealership in Western Australia has already played its part in alerting the public to the use of Caterpillar bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes.

Australia is still a long way off from the effective boycott strategies being implemented in the UK, Europe and the US, which includes an increasing number of divestments from Israeli companies by churches, municipal councils, colleges, unions, banks and pension funds and some countries are calling for sanctions on arms trade with Israel. Certainly, the Australian government is most unlikely to impose sanctions regardless of which political party takes over in the coming elections.

The power lies with activists, unionists and people of conscience to turn these first steps into a dynamic boycott movement much like what is already sweeping the world. The catastrophe facing the Palestinians demands that we give BDS our best shot, and indeed, history is on our side.

Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine and one of the founders and co-convener of Australians for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia. She is also the editor of and contributes articles on Palestine regularly to various publications. She can be contacted at sonjakarkar A T womenforpalestine D O T org.