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Waging Peace from Afar: Divestment and Israeli Occupation

A growing grassroots movement is using the techniques of the anti-apartheid movement to challenge U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Gaza wall break, photo by samdaq (AT) hotmail

When Israeli commandos launched their assault on the unarmed flotilla of ships carrying hundreds of humanitarian aid workers and 10,000 tons of supplies for the besieged Gaza Strip, killing at least nine activists and injuring scores more, part of the operation was “Made in the USA.”

Decades of uncritical U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support has ensured that Israel’s military power—nuclear and conventional—remains unchallengeable. A U.S. pattern of using UN Security Council vetoes to protect Israel from accountability has ensured that Israel can essentially do whatever it likes with those U.S.-provided weapons, regardless of what U.S. or international laws may be broken.

Israel has long relied on the numerous U.S.-made and U.S.-financed Apache and Blackhawk war helicopters in its arsenal—it’s a good bet those were in use in the May 31st assault in international waters. Use of U.S.-provided weapons is severely limited by our own laws: The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) prohibits any recipient from using U.S. weapons except for security within its own borders, or for direct self-defense. And no amount of Israeli spin can make us believe that an attack by heavily-armed commandos jumping onto the decks of an unarmed civilian ship in international waters has anything to do with self-defense.

So yes—our tax dollars and our politicians’ decisions play a huge part in enabling not only the flotilla attack but Israel’s violations of human rights overall. But increasingly, across the country, people and organizations are standing up to say no to U.S. support for those policies of occupation and apartheid.

BDS is a strategic effort to change U.S. policy to support human rights, equality, and an end to the occupation rather than continued military build-up.

The main strategy is known as “BDS”—boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Based on the lessons of the South African anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, BDS brings non-violent economic pressure to bear in order to end Israeli violations of international law. In 2005, a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call for a global campaign of BDS. The call was based on the understanding that the Palestinian struggle for human rights, equality, and the enforcement of international law needed international support—and civil society organizations would have to step in, given that the traditional Palestinian leadership hadn’t created a strategy for mobilizing such support.

The strength of the BDS call was its recognition that while a unified global campaign was needed, conditions are different in every country. So in Europe, the focus began on individual boycotts of consumer goods produced in Israeli settlements. In countries like Brazil and India, the emphasis was on military sanctions, pressuring governments to stop buying Israeli armaments. And in the U.S., the initial focus was on divestment.

In fact, the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, the largest coalition of organizations working on the issue, had been working on divestment even before the 2005 Palestinian call. The movement began in earnest following the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, a young U.S. peace activist killed as she tried to block the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops. Corrie was run over by an armored bulldozer manufactured by Caterpillar, which became the first target of the divestment efforts.

Since that time, BDS work in the U.S. has increased dramatically. In addition to Caterpillar, the campaign is now targeting Motorola (the company’s Israeli affiliate provides special communications systems for Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank) and Ahava (a cosmetics company that uses mud from the Dead Sea, harming the fragile environment as well as expropriating Palestinian land).

Across the U.S., churches, university campuses, municipal governments, and many more institutions are debating divestment and boycott resolutions. The Presbyterian Church is debating how to include an anti-occupation approach within its socially responsible investment policies. On June 15, the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to divest from three corporations that profit from the occupation of Palestine. And in spring 2010, Hampshire College became the first university to divest from companies supporting occupation—a moment of special resonance because Hampshire was also the first U.S. college to divest from South Africa in the 1980s. When the issue was debated in Berkeley’s student senate, more than 4,000 people mobilized to support divestment.

Rachel Corrie, painting by Robert ShetterlyRachel Corrie and the Image of Israel
What can we learn from Israel's response to the death of Rachel Corrie?

The U.S. Campaign is also working to end U.S. military aid to Israel, calling for the enforcement of U.S. laws already prohibiting Israel’s illegal use of U.S. weapons. Really, it’s a call for sanctions from below. Who really thinks that giving $30 billion of our tax money in military aid to Israel—already militarily powerful and nuclear-armed—as promised by George Bush and now being implemented by President Obama over the next ten years, is a good use of those funds in this time of economic crisis? BDS is a strategic effort to change U.S. policy to support human rights, equality, and an end to the occupation rather than continued military build-up.

In the first 24 hours after the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, the Obama administration limited itself to expressions of concern and regret for the loss of life, along with a polite request to Israel for “clarifications.” But maybe the international outcry that followed the attack, joined by the rising BDS movement in the U.S., will mark the beginning of a shift in U.S. policy.

In the first days and weeks after the flotilla attack, BDS actions across the United States took on new energy and achieved new results. In California, hundreds of activists formed a picket line at dawn at the Port of Oakland where an Israeli cargo ship waited, urging dock workers not to unload the ship in protest of the flotilla assault. Workers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) refused to cross the picket line, a labor arbitrator immediately upheld their right to refuse to unload the ship, and the shipping company abandoned the effort. The ILWU workers joined counterparts in a number of other countries, including Sweden, South Africa, Norway, and Malaysia, who have all announced their refusal to unload Israeli ships.

The powerful example of the BDS movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa is a constant source of inspiration. Current BDS campaigns have learned key lessons and grounded much of their work in the accomplishments—and, indeed, the challenges and even failures—of that earlier, seminal version.

A generation ago, South African apartheid appeared to be an equally impossible-to-change political reality. Considering that history, is it so unlikely that Washington could tell Israel that we would rather keep those $30 billion here at home to create 600,000 new green union jobs, rather than support a foreign military force’s ability to kill humanitarian workers trying to break an illegal blockade in order to bring desperately needed supplies to a besieged population? 


Phyllis BennisPhyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a nationl, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Phyllis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. She serves on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

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