The "South Africa moment": Palestine, Israel and the boycott

Tom Hickey, Phil Marfleet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Israel faces a new challenge—one the country’s leading strategists consider increasingly effective. This does not come mainly from the towns and refugee camps of the West Bank or Gaza, but from an energetic global movement of solidarity with the Palestinians. Since its launch in 2004 the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has stimulated a host of collective actions across five continents, demanding an end to military rule and to Israel’s occupation, and raising important questions about the Zionist movement and imperial power in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 refocused attention on imperialist interests in the region, highlighting the complex web of relationships through which the US and its allies maintain access to oil and strategic territory. With support from Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf States, the US mobilised overwhelming military force against Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. At the same time it made enormous efforts to exclude Israel from the confrontation. Even the most strident neoconservatives among advisers of President George W Bush were aware of the danger to US allies of direct Israeli engagement in the Arab world. Bush renewed his commitments to the Israeli government, therefore, supporting its policy of colonisation of the West Bank and increasing military aid that was already at historically high levels. Thequid pro quowas an Israeli assurance to stay out of the war zone, at least publicly.1It nonetheless dramatised the historic links between the US and Israel: one result was that protests over the invasion worldwide made Palestine a central anti-imperialist issue. Everywhere the keffiyeh—the Palestinian headscarf—was worn on demonstrations as a symbol of resistance and as a statement of solidarity with both Iraqis and Palestinians. This support was timely for Palestinian activists, who faced acute difficulties. Successive Israeli governments had ensured there could be no meaningful “peace” agreement in which Palestinians would control even a fraction of the land to which they had a historic claim. At the same time the Israeli government pursued aggressive settlement of the West Bank, the ghettoisation of Gaza and discrimination against Israel’s Arab population. It was aided by a Palestinian national leadership determined to contain mass activism and increasingly reliant on a CIA-trained security force.2The national movement was weaker than at any time since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964. In 2004, aware of new possibilities on the international scene, a small group of academics and writers launched the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (Pacbi). This enjoyed immediate success and the following year a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign national committee (BNC) was established, calling for aworldwide boycott of Israeli products and firms and for action against companies trading with or investing in Israel. It also called for governments and international bodies to impose economic sanctions directly on Israel. The new movement focused on human rights and international law, pointing to Israel’s discrimination against Arab citizens, its illegal settlements, the military regime in the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. It asked governments, including Israel’s closest allies, to require the same conduct on the part of Israel as that expected from other states. The BNC has called on trade unions and student unions, NGOs and organisations of civil society to organise boycotts and campaigns for divestment, and to apply pressure for official sanctions. It encourages collective action that can be organised in the workplace, on campuses, in trade union branches and in communities. The movement has mushroomed, providing Palestinian activists with an opportunity to build coalitions of solidarity worldwide. The BNC now embraces almost 200 Palestinian organisations—marking unprecedented unity across a society in which there have been extremes of factionalism and conflict—and has won tangible support in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and North America. This article examines the background to these developments, the lessons from previous campaigns for boycotts and sanctions, and the implications for the Palestinian movement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-55
Number of pages25
JournalInternational Socialism
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2010


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