BDS in the heart of Europe
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
The boycott campaign in Belgium was started in 2000 by a small but dynamic Palestine support group called Codip. Two years later it was taken up by the coordination comittees of the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Materials were made (leaflets, posters, petition cards and educational tools), local groups were motivated and a support structure was set up. In November 2003 more than 50 local groups participated in actions at the entrance gates of supermarkets collecting over 10000 signatures against the sale of these products. However, early in 2004, the campaign came to an end. Pressure from a Jewish organisation in the United States against one of the main NGOs involved in the Belgian campaign prompted this NGO to withdraw from the campaign and this was a signal for the other NGOs to decide to stop the campaign.
Despite this, some local committees and a few Palestine solidarity organisations involved in the campaign wanted to go ahead. A new coordinating committee was set up and a yearly day of boycott took off. The first took place at the end of 2004. It called upon local groups to go ahead with actions at the entrance of supermarkets, to collect signatures of customers asking the management to stop selling Israeli goods and it distributed stickers emblazoned with the words “boycott Israel: koop geen vruchten van bezetting” which could be stuck by customers on such goods on the shelves in the supermarkets.
In 2005, 2006 and spring 2007 similar actions were held around about 10 supermarkets.
Later in 2007 the campaign got a serious boost. The coordination was given a new name “Coordination Boycot Israel” (COBI) and an intensive effort was made to mobilise new local committees. As a result the number of actions around supermarkets increased to 30 in the November 2007 week of action with one inside a supermarket involving 40 participants.
To launch that week of action, a symbolic blockade took place at the entrance gate of the headquarters of the main Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize. On the eve of Valentine's day, February 2008, another symbolic blockade took place at the airport of Liege, the European hub for fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers from Israel.
For the 2008 campaign new “Boycott Apartheid Israel” posters and leaflets were developed and “boycot Israel-koop geen vruchten van bezetting” T-shirts were printed. After the Gaza bombings, a big action took place on 14/3/2009 and achieved good media coverage.
Early in 2009 we contacted the senior management of the 3 main supermarket chains in Belgium (Carrefour, Delhaize and Colruyt) and handed them a card with 5000 signatures from customers protesting against the sale of Israëli product.
In July and August 2009 actions were held against dates from Isrsael during Ramadan: almost 100000 leaflets were distributed at markets and shopping streets with a mainly Muslim public. This campaign was the subject of a great deal of media attention because some of these actions were not allowed by police and this provided a good focal point around which such attention could be attracted. At the end of 2009, workshops were held at 6 universities about academic boycott.
In the same year we also started actions inside the supermarkets: so far 6 have been held and these actions have been instrumental in boosting the moral of the movement.
At the time of writing (end of June 2010) we have restarted the campaign against Israeli dates. We also twice entered H&M shops last month.
Unfortunately we are not strong enough yet to engage in cultural and sports boycott, although we would like to do so. There are already a few Belgian contemporary dance companies who, a few years ago, refused to perform in Israël: amongst them “Rosas” and “Les ballets C. de la B.”
In order to mobilise more support for our actions we have asked organisations and personalities to sign the BDS call: so far 50 organisations and 150 personalities have signed the call. We make use of their support to attract more attention from the general public and the media.
Besides boycott campaigns, COBI (Co-ordination Boycot Israël) is also involved in a concrete divestment action against a Belgian company investing in Israel: Dexia Bank which gives loans to settlements.  A press conference achieved good media coverage and petitions were collected to be handed over at the General Assembly in May 2009. There the bank’s president promised to stop giving loans to settlements but stipulated that East Jerusalem would be considered as Israël and still be serviced by the bank. However, just before the 2010 AGM, evidence was found that at least one settlement had received a loan after that date. At least 30 protestors bought a share in the company in order to be able to participate in that AGM to be able to ask questions and outside the hall almost 500 people attented a demonstration.
The two coordinating committees APP (Actie Platform Palestina) and ABP (Association Belgo-Palestine) are the main bodies in Belgium calling for sanctions against Israel. The main aim is to suspend the prefential Israel-EU trade agreement by which Israeli goods can be imported in the EU without import tax. COBI of course fully supports that aim. Many times in recent years ministers and leaders of political parties have been contacted and put under pressure to accept that aim, but so far without success. Unfortunately since 2009 bigger Belgian NGO's are no no longer demanding this and are limiting the aim to “no upgrading of the agreement”. There is also a call from peace organisations to stop the supply of Belgian weapons to Israel.
Reflections on the boycott campaign in Belgium
Media coverage: it is very difficult to publicise our activities in the national media: we do not know why, even visually attractive actions did not induce the media to come.
Contact with supermarket-directors: we have been able to meet with the directors of the two main supermarkets but so far without any direct result: they say that it is up to the customers to make an informed choice: either to buy or to refuse Israeli goods.
We sometimes have problems with police during actions at the entrance of supermarkets but not in such way that we cannot run the action or that we get fines.
In the city of Antwerp a Jewish group is campaigning against our actions by holding, in the same supermarkets that we target, “buy Israeli goods” actions in the weeks after our actions.
Contact with unions is slow: some sectors of the union have good working relationships with Palestinian counterparts but the encouragement of the boycott is not yet very high on their agenda. Clear communication by Palestinian unions with their Belgian counterparts about the boycott would certainly help in this case.
Jan Dreezen, is an activist in Coordination Boycot Israel (COBI)