Boycotts, divestment and sanctions – what role can these play in the struggle for a Palestinian state?

This is the first in a series of articles following on from the recent bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli state, looking at the way forward for Palestinian self-determination. Jon Dale considers what role boycotts can play.

Marching against Israeli state terror. Photo: Mary Finch

Marching against Israeli state terror. Photo: Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Appalled at the latest gruesome round of death and destruction in Gaza, many people hope that boycotting Israeli products can help towards winning Palestinian rights and security.

The Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was set up in 2005. It claims credit for the 2011 withdrawal of Veolia, the French giant corporation, from operation of the Jerusalem light railway that passes through occupied areas of East Jerusalem. It has attracted support as a way of actually doing something against the oppression of the Palestinians.

Boycott campaigns can help build international solidarity with the Palestinians and there are many that socialists can support. But care needs to be taken over exactly what and who is being targeted; and these campaigns should be viewed as supplementary to the need for mass action in Palestine and Israel, and not substituting for it any way.

Collective protests and strikes raise the confidence of workers and the poor in their own strength in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and in Israel. This is what is needed to end the occupation and to weaken and oust the Israeli ruling class – and pro-capitalist Palestinian leaders.

Workers’ action

Boycotts need to be democratically agreed and implemented to be effective. During the recent Gaza bombing, the Italian dockers’ union in Livorno decided it would refuse to load a ship which was taking arms to the Israeli Defence Force. The South African dockers’ union in Durban blocked an Israeli ship from unloading.

In 2010, dockers in California, India, Sweden and Turkey refused to handle Israeli shipping. Such action hits profits and shows the potential power of organised workers through industrial action.

However, appeals to individuals not to buy certain goods is less effective. BDS points to past consumer boycotts of Barclays Bank (for its investments in apartheid South Africa), South African fruit and other products.

But it was mass action by South African workers and youth that eventually brought down the brutal apartheid regime. South African capitalism’s existence was threatened so the ruling class had to find another way to keep their power and profits.

27 years after the regime’s formal end, most black workers still live with poverty, poor housing, unemployment and repression. Replacing pro-capitalist white politicians with black ones did not end big business rule.

Workers need to build their own parties and take independent action with a socialist programme to end poverty, oppression and insecurity. This is the case in the Palestinian territories and Israel, as everywhere else.

BDS does not promote independent working-class action, despite being taken up by dockers and others. Instead, it “calls for Israel to be held to account according to the standards of international law.”

Using the ‘law’

‘International law’ is made by capitalist governments, like domestic law, and exists to protect their system’s interests.

And whenever it suits capitalist interests they ignore laws, no matter what is formally written. The US-UK invasion of Iraq was supposedly illegal but went ahead despite enormous protests around the world. General strikes and mass actions that challenged governments were needed to stop the war.

BDS has highlighted the role of the armaments industry in supplying the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) with some of the weapons and missiles rained down on Gaza and the ongoing repression in the occupied West Bank. Trade union action has the potential power to block this, as the dockers’ action showed.

Trade unions like Unite and the GMB have members working in the armaments industry. Cancellation of orders for the IDF must not mean losing their jobs. Workers should not pay because their bosses seek to profit from the arms trade.

Boycott campaigns should call for those companies to be taken into public ownership, with workers planning alternative useful products for their machinery and skills. Without a programme to defend jobs it is much harder to build working-class unity on the scale needed.

BDS aims to persuade big business and governments to change their trade policies. It demands universities, pension funds and similar institutions disinvest from Israeli companies.

But capitalism will always follow the most profitable route it can, unless faced with mass working-class opposition. This raises the need to replace capitalism with socialism internationally.

Boycotting Israeli universities, cultural and sporting events can be appropriate in selective cases where the Israeli government uses these to try to promote its standing internationally.

But in many cases Israeli academics, artists, musicians and athletes do not defend their government’s action. Trade unions should democratically decide on individual cases and discussions with Israeli workers should be encouraged through exchange visits, with a view to building support for workers’ action against the Israeli capitalist state.

Seeking to find a solution to the Palestinians’ plight within capitalist confines raises fear among many Israeli workers of future eviction from their homes, living standards cut to the Palestinians’ dire level, and becoming an oppressed minority – losing their right to self-determination – sharing out the misery instead of improving lives for all.

Insecurity fears

These fears grow when Israeli workers see the Fatah and Hamas elites’ anti-working class policies. Their fears are then continually, deliberately magnified by the Israeli capitalist establishment and media.

“In the past, antisemites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state, and by the way, only the Jewish state,” Israeli prime minister Netanyahu said in 2014. This strikes a chord among many Israelis with family histories of pogroms and the Holocaust.

The Saudi Arabian royal family has a terrible record on human rights, executing opponents and bombing civilians in Yemen, and many other regimes maintain power by torturing and imprisoning political opponents. China and Myanmar, among others, oppress minorities and force them from their homes. Although in some of these cases there are international boycott campaigns, none are as prominent as BDS. This reinforces Netanyahu’s propaganda that antisemitism is behind it.

So it’s important that boycott actions taken by workers internationally in support of the Palestinians are carefully targeted, so as to be as clear as possible to Israeli workers that they are aimed against the repressive apparatus of the occupation, goods produced in the Jewish settlements, prestige symbols of the Israeli regime, etc, rather than against Israeli working people.

Before he became Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn had supported boycott and divestment but without calling for independent working-class action or defending Israeli Jewish people’s right to self-determination as well as that of the Palestinians. This was one of the issues the capitalist establishment and Labour’s right wing used to accuse him of antisemitism and undermine his support.

Trade unions in Britain should help support independent trade unions in the West Bank and Gaza. They should make links with rank-and-file trade union activists in Israel.

Discussing how to build a workers’ movement across the region and the socialist programme needed to end repeated outbreaks of war, continual poverty and insecurity is the way to end the nightmare.

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