Why do charities want to “normalize” Israeli apartheid?

Hand puts Boycott Israel sticker on box of bagged carrots

Oxfam acknowledges Israel’s settlements are illegal but doesn’t call for ban on their products.

Magne Hagesæter Flickr

Calls to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people are gathering momentum. Words such as “boycott” and “apartheid” are no longer taboo and fast becoming mainstream.

Why, then, are well-respected charities such as IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch civil society organization in the Netherlands, and Oxfam working against efforts to hold Israel, and complicit corporations, accountable for serious human rights violations and war crimes?

On 17 June, IKV Pax Christi organized a seminar titled “Playing and Paying: EU responsibility and the two state-solution for Israel and Palestine.” The event kicked off with a stirring and principled speech by Nikolaos Van Dam, a co-author of a recent report on Palestine that had been commissioned by the Dutch Senate (“Between words and deeds: Prospects for a sustainable peace in the Middle East,” Advisory Council on International Affairs, March 2013 [PDF]).

Van Dam argued it was “naïve” to expect Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza “without enormous pressure from the outside.”

Under international law, he added, the Netherlands and the European Union were obliged to take action against Israel for its behavior. He stated that this obligation ought to mean that trade restrictions are introduced not only on products emanating from Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, but also on products from Israel itself.

“Sanctions should be imposed on those who are responsible for Israel’s policies, and that is the Israeli state, not just the Jewish settlers illegally residing on land forcefully expropriated from Palestinians,” he said. “We should finally put our political positions into practice” (“What should the European Union do to save the two-state solution,” 17 June 2013 [PDF]).

“More love”

Van Dam’s contribution received enthusiastic applause from the audience. But then the event took a strange and unexpected turn.

Without exception, all of the panellists invited by IKV Pax Christi to respond to the report launched strong and sometimes personal attacks against Van Dam.

Ilan Baruch, a former Israeli diplomat and military commander, argued that Van Dam’s report would “wash away support” for Israelis who criticized the government.

Walid Salem, director of a Palestinian organization called Panorama, remarked that a two-state solution would not be accomplished by “harming Israel.” Han Ten Broeke, a member of parliament (MP), claimed that “finger-pointing doesn’t work” and that Israel doesn’t need “tough love” but “more love.”

Another MP, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, was less caustic in his response. He said that both “carrots” and “sticks” were needed in order to break the current impasse in negotiations, but also maintained that the “time was not right for sticks” at this stage and that “Israel should be given an opportunity to show its commitment” to a two-state solution.

Both Baruch and Salem have been engaged in so-called dialogue projects between Israelis and Palestinians, some of which IKV Pax Christi has funded. Such projects are widely opposed by Palestinian political activists, who believe that they “normalize” Israel’s decidedly abnormal occupation and its apartheid policies.

In an email message which he sent me during an exchange of views about the organizing of this seminar, Matthieu Hermans of IKV Pax Christi defended Salem’s work. “Mr. Walid Salem is one of our esteemed Palestinian partners, whose openness towards constructive, solution-oriented dialogue with ‘the other side’ have gained him vicious anonymous threats from the so-called anti-normalization camp; threats from people whom — I would hope — you would not want to be associated with,” he wrote.


Hermans’ stance was ill-informed. Far from promoting a sinister agenda, opponents of normalization insist that Israel be held accountable for its violations of human rights and advocate that Israel be subject to boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until this is achieved.

During a recent national BDS conference in Bethlehem, numerous Palestinian campaigners denounced such normalization projects (“Report on the fourth national BDS conference,” Palestinian BDS National Committee).

Unlike the conference in Bethlehem, the seminar organized by IKV Pax Christi was not about justice or peace. It was not about serious, critical, open debate of issues that concern Palestinians and Israelis, and indeed all of us. It was about how Europe should play a role both in order to maintain Israel as an exclusive “Jewish state” and to continue its support to the discredited Palestinian Authority.

IKV Pax Christi is not alone in pursuing a counterproductive strategy.

Oxfam International has been campaigning in Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere that products emanating from Israeli settlements ought simply to be labeled as such. Oxfam has refused to argue that Israel and companies profiting from the occupation face sanctions.

Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam in the UK, has said: “We support the right of consumers to know the origin of the products they purchase. Trade with Israeli settlements — which are illegal under international law — contributes to their economic viability and serves to legitimize them. It is also clear from our development work in West Bank communities that settlements have led to the denial of rights and create poverty for many Palestinians” (“UK issues new guidance on labelling of food from illegal West Bank settlements,” Guardian, 10 December 2009).

While Oxfam clearly acknowledges that the settlements are illegal, it doesn’t appear to regard products from the settlements as illegal. It has not called for a ban on these products.

When faced by accusations that labeling amounts to a singling out of Israeli products and may lead to a boycott, Oxfam has quickly stepped in to emphasize that it is not in favor of boycotting Israeli goods (“Oxfam agrees to conditions on Israel set by UK Jewry,” The Times of Israel, 12 January 2013).


Oxfam’s argument is not only self-defeating, it is contrary to international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention provides that any exploitation of resources from occupied territories — beyond the immediate needs of the occupying army, and that is not in the interests of the local population — is illegal and could amount to the crime of pillage.

In February 2009, IKV Pax Christi director Jan Gruiters argued that trade privileges granted to Israel by the EU should be suspended (“Nioscoop,” 1 February 2009 [Video, in Dutch]).

It is therefore incomprehensible, both in light of Gruiters’ earlier statements and the stated mission of IKV Pax Christi, that the organization has seemingly dropped this position and now supports normalization.

The broad-based Palestinian-led BDS movement is striving towards a lasting and just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. Through nonviolent critical engagement and insisting on Israel and companies’ compliance with international law, the BDS movement explicitly rejects the perpetuation of the international crime of apartheid. Why then are groups that claim to champion the dispossessed opposed to this movement?

Unless Oxfam and IKV Pax Christi seriously engage with the movement and reconsider their counter-productive positions, they risk being perceived as irrelevant to the realization of a just peace.

Jeff Handmaker is a senior lecturer in law, human rights and development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He has worked closely with both IKV Pax Christi and Oxfam in the past.




What a thoroughly sad & unhelpful comment about a subject which is of major import for Justice , Decency & Human Rights for a cruelly occupied people !


Palestinians who live in the West Bank (non Israeli citizens) own twice as much in Israeli assets as Palestinian assets.

BDS would severely punish the Palestinian people. Why don't Palestinians have the right to own businesses and property in Israel? BDS attacks Palestine's entrepreneurial class.

Palestine benefits from trade and investment with Israel. Why should Palestinians be unemployed, have lower paying jobs, have less public services for BDS?

There are other honorable noble models of resisting occupation. For example the way Hong Kong resisted their harsh English occupiers. Many Palestinian voters seem to believe as much based on their voting in elections.

Viva Palestinian resistance.


I assumed that someone else would have already responded to this comment, but since nobody has ... "Anan", whatever perspective you may claim to represent, you are confused by thinking that "Palestine benefits from trade and investment with Israel". Yes, of course, the "entrepreneurial class" as you put it most certainly benefits. This is, has been and always will be the case, occupation or no occupation.

Indeed, some may argue that the conditions of occupation are of direct benefit to wealth accumulation by this narrow group of wealthy businessmen. And Israel, of course, benefits hugely since it entirely controls the formal Palestinian economy.

But if you mean to suggest that, in the circumstances of Israel's occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, this microscopic group of wealthy Palestinian "notables" 9of the same class that happily sold off land to Zionist organisations, ignoring the legal rights of the Palestinian tenants) represent anything other than their own, narrow, self-interests, then you are, quite obviously, very much mistaken.

BDS does punish war profiteers - of whatever description, but it hardly punishes the "Palestinian people". To the contrary, it is empowering. Again, it depends on your perspective...


"BDS does punish war profiteers"

By that comment you are saying that any Israeli is a 'war profiteer' since BDS groups wish to target all of Israeli goods (though a few only target West Bank goods). My point is that if you support this action then you should be honest with your ideas. Say to people "I think every single Israeli, no matter the age, or national origin, or gender, or political leaning, is a war profiteer that is why I want to engage in BDS."


Nick, your logic is flawed. Israel - the state - with its occupation, apartheid and discrimination policies, is the target here. BDS has the potential to liberate Israelis too -- from the unethical policies of their own state.


Israeli people and Israeli states are extensions or each other. This is the essence of free democracies.

Imposing sanctions on the Israeli private sector hurts the Israeli people, and any people in the world who do business with Israel (Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Turks, Europeans, Taiwanese, South Koreans, Malays etc.)

Imposing sanctions on South Africa hurt all South Africans (including blacks.) Imposing sanctions on Iraq--even though nominally aimed at Saddam and Saddamists--hurt all Iraqis. Including the vast majority of Iraqis who viscerally hated Saddam and backed the Iraqi resistance against Saddam in the Iraqi civil war 1980-2003.

The sanctions against Cuba hurts not just Castro and his autocratic supporters, but poor vulnerable ordinary Cubans who don't like Castro.

All sanctions hurt the poor and vulnerable. We should speak the truth.

As I understand it, Israel joined the WTO on April 21st, 1995. Any sanctions against Israel by any member of the WTO is in violation of the WTO and international law. Under international law BDS is illegal.

Members of the WTO are listed here:

To be clear the UN, international community, WTO, World Court, IMF, World Bank, Bank of International Settlements, international institutions of all kinds might represent international law; but that does not mean that they are "just" or "moral" or "right." Merely that they are "legal."

Someone can argue that BDS is "just" and "moral" and "right" even though it is "illegal."


Anan (or rather I should say Anani), please just come clean and admit that you are all simply wasting everyone's time on this list by spreading nonsense and confusion, or at least have the courage to use your real name(s).

If what you and your friends wrote actually made the slightest bit of sense, I - and others - might actually take you seriously. But, there is clearly no chance of that here. Your latest gem:

"Israeli people and Israeli states are extensions or each other. This is the essence of free democracies."

... ???

What follows in your message is such gibberish that I am not the least bit compelled to waste my time and reply to all of it.

I will just say this, for those who may still be confused, outside the apartheid state of Israel (which as we all know rejects international law) ... BDS is of course perfectly legal. Stronger still, BDS is underpinned by international legal obligations of states, vested in numerous international conventions, compelling these states to hold other states accountable when those other states are causing serious violations of international law. The legal argument in favour of BDS is further reinforced by the Responsibility to Protect.

See: http://www.badil.org/en/al-maj...

Keep well...


"For example the way Hong Kong resisted their harsh English occupiers."

Hasbara takes on new forms all the time, but the mention of Hong Kong is new to me. Wikipedia mentions only one rebellion against Britain, a brief 1899 one in only one area of Hong Kong. Otherwise the colonizer (Britain, under apartheid-supporting Thatcher) and China negotiated the return of the colony to China in 1997. For the most part, it seems international law was respected -- unlike Israel's flouting of it. So what's your point?

And what kind of "Palestinian resistance" do you support?


I think Palestinians need to conduct resistance customized for Palestine.

This said, the way Hong Kong conducted resistance against the harsh English occupiers for a century has important lessons to teach us. Hong Kong chose to become richer, more successful, more powerful and more influential than the English occupiers. Hong Kong also built a powerful lobby inside England.

Why can't Palestine do something similar? The Israeli Knesset only has 120 seats. Palestine could buy an each Knesset seat with a $100 million endowment per seat. Or $12 billion to control Israel. Other countries do this all the time. Why not Palestine?

If Israel defies Israeli and international law, then buy the dream team of lawyers and tie Israel with litigation so thick they won't know what hit them.


Hong Kong residents were British nationals of a kind from the time Hong Kong became a British colony until they gave it back. This meant that citizens of Hong Kong could freely travel to England and reside there, acquire full citizenship and take full advantage of any economic oppurtunities afforded by residence and connections in both places. This is a long way from Israel's policy of expulsion, forced exile, deliberate economic warfare applied against the Palestinians to get them to give up their life in Palestine.


This is quite an important article and more must be said about the laziness (or maybe fear) related to humanitarian organizations' slowness in taking a principled position vis a vis the injustices wrought on the Palestinians. It really makes one wonder what kind of pressures are applied on charities to prevent them from taking that principled position. Maybe it has to do with tax breaks and EU funding?