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Latest boycott victories signify new momentum for BDS

That people are openly questioning whether policy changes by multinational corporations are the result of BDS is itself already a victory.

Palestine solidarity protesters supporting the BDS movement, 2010. (Photo by Stephanie Law/CC, cropped)

Palestine solidarity protesters supporting the BDS movement. (Photo by Stephanie Law/CC, cropped)

Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists have had quite a bit to celebrate in recent months. High profile companies targeted by BDS like SodaStream, Orange, Veolia, and now Ahava and G4S have all moved out of Israeli West Bank settlements or out of the Israeli market altogether.

Of course, none of those companies, with the partial exception of SodaStream and Orange, will admit the changes have anything to do with the Palestinian-led movement trying to build international pressure on Israel to end the occupation and recognize various fundamental Palestinian rights.

And while BDS proponents and opponents will trade barbs arguing whether each case constitutes a victory or a “#BDSFail,” the fact that people are openly questioning whether policy changes by multinational corporations are the result of BDS is itself already a victory.

Ahava’s decision to move a few kilometers south of the Green Line will not save the dying Dead Sea, return Palestine’s plundered resources, or end the occupation. G4S’s decision to pull out of the Israeli state security market will not end Israel’s use of administrative detention or torture in the prisons the company once helped secure.

Veolia’s decision not to renew contracts in the settlements will not stop subsidized Jewish-only bus lines running throughout the West Bank nor will it make it any less convenient to be a settler. And SodaStream’s move into Israel proper did actually harm Palestinian workers, albeit only because the Israel government decided to retaliate against them by refusing to issue work permits.

What will change is that other companies will now think twice before bidding on contracts in Israel and the occupied territories, before trying to sell their products and services in Israel and the settlements, and yet others already here will see withdrawing from the Israeli market as more and more of a legitimate option.

People have often asked me whether BDS is working and my answers are often cynical. “Talk to me when HP and Intel pull out of Israel,” I would respond. But the truth of the matter is that although that day is still impossibly far off, it is the momentum built by smaller victories that make larger steps even imaginable.

The success of the boycott movement thus far, even with concrete victories like SodaStream, Ahava and G4S, has been largely psychological. It has merely suggested to Israelis that there will be a price for continuing the occupation, even if the consequences are nowhere in sight. And Israelis are noticing.

The State of Israel is investing over NIS 100 million a year in hasbara and fighting BDS. Damaging diplomatic fights are being picked over inconsequential terms of existing trade agreements (EU settlement product labels). Local government bodies are hiring public relations firms to fight back on behalf of foreign corporations — like Airbnb — under attack for doing business in the settlements. The country’s top-selling newspaper is even trying to monetize the national mobilization against the boycott movement with a BDS-themed conference.

But that suggestion, that there might be consequences for perpetuating the occupation indefinitely, is not in any way a sure-fire harbinger of change. It does not guarantee that Israelis will wake up one day, find themselves isolated from the world, understand why, and decide to end the occupation.

For that to happen, both societies will need to be graced with a leadership which understands that Israelis and Palestinians have no choice but to live here together — as equals. Jewish Israelis will need to face the fact that abdicating their Jewish privilege is the only way to create real equality. And Palestinians will need to accept that regardless of how they got here 70 years ago, the vast majority of Israelis have nowhere else to go.

The boycott is not a solution — it is a tactic. It is also not above criticism; the BDS movement could do far better about distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate acts of boycott, of actively condemning and distancing itself from seemingly inevitable instances of anti-Semitism, and acknowledging the inherent shortcomings of a rights-based discourse in such an emotionally charged and multi-dimensional conflict.

Yet as long as there is no political or diplomatic horizon, as long as the power dynamic allows Israel to dictate the terms of any negotiations, as long as the occupation seems hopelessly unending, BDS is one of the most powerful non-violent tools available for Palestinians to fight for their fundamental rights, and for enlisting allies around the world to fight alongside them.

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    1. Robert

      BDS has been the Israeli government’s best friend. Good excuse to circle the wagons and rally the siege mentality. A good distractor from concrete issues facing Palestinians around which concrete campaigns could be waged internationally and within Israel itself.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        When the Occupation becomes more expensive to maintain it will end – the Israeli economist Shir Hever has done a lot of analysis in this area:

        “Hever rejects the premise that Israel keeps control over Palestinian territories for material gain, and also the premise that Israel is merely defending itself from Palestinian aggression. Instead, he argues that the occupation has reached an impasse, with the Palestinian resistance making exploitation of the Palestinians by Israeli business interests difficult, but the Israeli authorities reluctant to give up control.”


        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I highly recommend this three part video of Shir Hever talking about the irrationality of Israeli policy. Wait till you get to the part about how the (brainwashed) Israeli public turned around the rebellion against the occupation to mean that the Palestinians were “ungrateful.” Wait till you get to the part about the machine gun that soldiers invented that throws stones at children. Wait till you get to the part about what the siege of Gaza is really like—the inability to export, the destruction of 400 factories, the twisting of it to attach the stigma that the Palestinians of Gaza don’t want to work, are dependent on aid and like it that way. Etc. Watch this video. It will give concrete clarity to the situation, spoken by an economic expert and Israeli human being who really knows what is going on. Shir Hever has a kind of authenticity and authority that you can’t easily dismiss. And it will give a human face to the arguments against the occupation, and for outside pressure on Israel, that is hard to demonize.

          Reply to Comment
      • Harvela

        The wagons are indeed circling but it is the BDS wagons not Israel . UK legislation due to come into effect early Spring effectively making it illegal for local government authorities to impose unilateral boycott of Israel . City councils have a duty to their electorate to provide best value in procurement . Not something that can be easily done when mindful of demographic consideration and financially incentivised lobby groups .
        Prof Finklestein called it correctly when he labeled BDS a minority cult which will never garner mainstream political support because it goes beyond what is acceptable to Western government ie a single state solution meaning the eradication of Israel . Meanwhile UK universities are distancing themeselves from their student body .


        But keep fighting the good fight Larry and friends . It’s something to get out of bed for at least .

        Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          Harvela: Anti BDS legislation is problematic at best. Legislation can only cover government bodies (and possibly bodies receiving government funds) and will be difficult to enforce.

          There is simply no way to prevent individuals and companies from exercising their right to both consume and invest according to their ethical standards.

          As for Norman Finklestein’s prediction that BDS will never enjoy mainstream political support, perhaps we just hold off on that right now. BDS is gaining traction. As Omar-Man states, its importance is a mechanism for opening up discussion and its effectiveness may well be in the sphere of decisions taken not to get into any commercial entanglement with Israel.

          Reply to Comment
    2. JEvans

      And that’s what distinguish an antisemitic prick from someone foghting against zionist imperialism.
      Boycotting jews is for fascist morons. Or hasbara sock puppets, whose goal is to discredit the BDS. Lame try, go home.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Hasbara sock puppet”


        Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      Today, Globes Israel stated “Foreign investors increased their holdings in Israeli securities by $6.58 billion in December 2015”. That is their latest reported month.

      BDS = BS

      Reply to Comment
    4. Thanks for the article Michael.
      We also have to remember the other anti-BDS conference which took place not long ago, a far greater act of propaganda than the upcoming Ynet sponsored conference. I’m referring, of course, to the Haaretz sponsored HaaretzQ Hasbara effort which took place last December in NY.

      Reply to Comment
      • …and which 972 happily participated in.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Leading Israeli sociologist calls on for boycott of West Bank university
      Prof. Uri Ram, who heads the Israeli Sociological Society, urged colleagues to boycott academic institute in settlement of Ariel.

      A group of over 1,000 Israeli sociologists announced on Monday that they will sever all academic ties to Ariel University since it is not located in Israeli territory.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      Ze’ev Sternhell:

      “…A radical change will not happen here as long as the present regime does not bring about a major national crisis. A failure such as Operation Protective Edge is not enough, since the heavy price of that conflict was paid primarily by the Palestinians.
      Therefore, the realistic alternative lies in external intervention that will be massive enough to shake Israelis out of the placidity of their comfortable lives.
      Only when everyone among us can feel the price of the occupation in their flesh, will the end to blue-and-white colonialism and apartheid come. Only when the economy is hit in a way that affects the overall standard of living, or when security is undermined as a result of a serious threat to American interests in the region, will the real treatment for eliminating the occupation and guaranteeing our future begin.”


      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      Trudeau’s timeout on uncritical Canadian support for Israel
      The recently-elected Canadian PM seeks to return his country’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a position of ‘fair-mindedness.’ So why is his foreign minister conflating BDS and anti-Semitism?
      Mira Sucharov


      “…Accusing BDS of being anti-Semitic is one of the last vestiges of a reactionary politics that seeks to conflate Jews with Israel’s founding ethos — Zionism. While some BDS proponents would be content with a two-state solution (which is the endgame favored by Canada, the U.S., the EU, and in principle, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority), it’s true that one of the main demands of BDS — namely full refugee return — would threaten Israel’s aim of maintaining a Jewish majority. But while this poses a challenge to Zionist thinking, and while it is a demand that Israel is unlikely to accept and thus it lacks the pragmatic aspect important for reaching a deal, to say that it is a form of Jew-hatred is hyperbolic and misleading…”

      Reply to Comment
    8. Michael S. Moore

      “the BDS movement could do far better about distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate acts of boycott, of actively condemning and distancing itself from seemingly inevitable instances of anti-Semitism,”

      I never see any examples of these sins.

      Reply to Comment