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Economic retaliation
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September 3, 2009

This month the UN will publish the findings of its inquiry into Israel’s possible war crimes in Gaza in 2008-9. These are unlikely to lead to legal proceedings, so there are calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions to force Israel tocomply with international law

This month the UN will publish the findings of its inquiry into Israel’s possible war crimes in Gaza in 2008-9. These are unlikely to lead to legal proceedings, so there are calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions to force Israel tocomply with international law

 by Willy Jackson, Le Monde diplomatique.


Theboycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel (1)has gained momentum after four years of near silence. It was launched on 9 July2005 by a group of Palestinian organisations, a year after the InternationalCourt of Justice (ICJ) ruled, in an advisory opinion, that the wall built inthe occupied Palestinian territories was illegal (2).It is a protest against Israel’s failure to honour its internationalobligations.


TheIsraeli army’s latest operation in the Gaza Strip (27 December 2008-18 January2009), which aimed to annihilate the military potential of the Islamistmovement Hamas and end the firing of rockets at Israeli civilian targets, wasimportant to this resurgence. Media images created the impression that this warwas meant to annihilate an entire people. Palestinian solidarity organisations,and many others around the world, immediately felt a moral obligation to takeaction and make up for the failings of the international community. A hugecivil movement grew up around the Palestinian cause. Its weapon was theboycott, which had helped to dismantle the structures of racial discriminationin South Africa (3).Political figures and opinion leaders such as Nelson Mandela, ArchbishopDesmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have compared the plight of the Palestinianpeople to that of black South Africans under apartheid.


On30 March 2008 the BDS movement organised a global day of action, a movedecided a few weeks earlier at the World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil. Callsto support this day of action were heard from Jewish communities everywhere andeven from within Israel.


Theboycott, within this non-violent resistance strategy, calls on consumers not tobuy products made in Israel (whether by local or foreign companies) or in Israelisettlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Lists of goods (fruit,vegetables, fruit juice, cut flowers, tinned fruit, biscuits, pharmaceuticals,cosmetics) and their barcodes have been published, especially in Europe. Othertactics include publicity campaigns, petitioning of store managers to withdrawblacklisted products, awareness campaigns directed at central purchasingagencies, and disruption operations in supermarkets.


Rightside of the law


Thereare also campaigns by organisations (4) for thesuspension of the EU-Israel association agreement, on the grounds that Israelhas failed to observe article 2, which requires “respect for human rights anddemocratic principles”. This agreement, which was signed in 1995 and came intoforce in 2000, exempts Israeli goods from EU customs duties. There is atraceability problem: many goods declared by Israel as Israeli are produced inJewish settlements in the occupied territories.


Asurvey reveals that 21% of Israeli exporters have had to cut their prices as aresult of the boycott, after a significant loss of market share, especially inJordan, the UK and Scandinavia (5).


Althougha boycott is based on individual freedom of choice, it may fall foul of the lawif it becomes a call to collective action. In France, article 225, paragraph 2,of the criminal code provides that any act of discrimination “obstructing thenormal exercise of any given economic activity” is punishable by three years’imprisonment and a fine of €45,000 ($64,350). So, while consumers are free tochoose and to advertise their choice as a personal position, a call for aboycott might fall foul of this legislation.


Therulings of the highest levels of the French judiciary, the Conseil d’Etat (thehighest administrative court) and the Cour de Cassation (the highest civil andcriminal court), have condemned such acts, notably in regard to trade relationswith Israel (6).This is also the position taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) inits judgment of 16 July 2009 in the case of Willem v France. Jean-ClaudeWillem, mayor of Seclin, near Lille in northern France, had been accused ofinciting a boycott, first at a meeting of the town council on 3 October2002, where he announced that he had asked the municipal catering services notto use Israeli products, and later via the municipal website. He was acquittedby the Lille criminal court, but sentenced on appeal on 11 September 2003and fined €1,000 ($1,430). The ECHR, to which Willem then applied in the nameof freedom of expression, judged that the call for a boycott was “a discriminatoryact, and therefore punishable”.


Thesejudgments set out the legal limits on the use of boycotts: they can beimplemented by government authorities, either in execution of a decision of theUN Security Council or, on their own initiative, as part of coercive measures.


Theboycott of Israeli goods is the aspect of the BDS campaign that has receivedmost coverage, but other attempts have been made to isolate and bring pressureto bear on Israel. There have also been cultural (7), academic,diplomatic and sporting boycotts. And an Israeli tourism fair in Paris inJanuary was cancelled; Israeli tourism posters were removed from the Londonunderground in May; Hertz, the car rental market leader, declined to have itsname associated with a promotional offer by El Al; and Sweden refused to joininternational air manoeuvres because Israel would be taking part.


‘Getout of Israel’


Thedivestment element of the campaign, aimed at companies doing business in theMiddle East, is beginning to take effect. A campaign to force theFranco-Belgian bank Dexia to withdraw from Israel, with the slogans “Dexia, getout of Israel!” and “Israel Colonises, Dexia Finances”, led 14 Belgianmunicipalities to leave the bank, which was financing Israeli settlements inthe occupied territories through its Israeli subsidiary.

TheFrench power and transport group Alstom has also been targeted and was excludedfrom Sweden’s AP7 national pension fund portfolio in early 2009. The fund’sdecision followed the example of the Dutch financial institution ASN Bank,which took action against another French firm, Veolia Transport, in 2006.Participating in the construction of a tramway in Jerusalem has deprived thesemultinationals of a number of contracts: in France, the Greater Bordeaux urbancommunity cancelled Veolia’s contract for waste management, worth $53.3m; inthe UK, Sandwell borough council excluded Veolia from the bidding for a wastecollection and recycling contract worth $1bn; and in Sweden, Stockholm councilcancelled its contract for operating the city’s metro system, worth $2.5bn.


Somecompanies have not wasted time in conforming to the demands of “sociallyresponsible” investment. The Dutch firm Heineken’s subsidiary Tempo Drinks hasrelocated part of its operations from the West Bank to inside Israeliterritory; the Swedish electromechanical security systems firm Assa Abloy hasresolved to move one of its factories out of the West Bank.


Whatof sanctions against the Israeli state? Bogged down in arguments, the UN hasdifficulty in acting as a guarantor of the international rule of law. Althoughmany other states are subject to sanctions, and though they proved their worthduring the struggle against apartheid, sanctions have yet to be applied toIsrael.


Thedesire for justice must be satisfied via other (notably judicial) channels. Anexample is the suit that the Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS),supported by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has been pursuing inthe French courts, since 2007, against Alstom, Alstom Transport and VeoliaTransport. In 2004 CityPass Limited, a consortium governed by Israeli law inwhich Veolia Transport and Alstom Transport had minority interests of 5% and20% respectively, signed a concession contract with the Israeli government forthe construction and operation of the tramway that would serve Jerusalem andpart of the West Bank, as mentioned above. The court case aims to prove thatthe contract is illegal.


Thecompanies contested the subpoena, arguing that the Nanterre high court, beforewhich the case had been brought, was materially and territorially incompetent;and that the petitions were not admissible since the AFPS and PLO were notqualified to act as complainants, and their interests were not affected by thecontract. The court still ruled on 15 April that the AFPS could bring avalid action against the three French companies, since the execution of thecontract would harm the collective interests that it defends. The court alsodismissed the argument that Israel fell outside its jurisdiction. Israel is nota party to the court proceedings but is considered as an occupying power in thearea of the West Bank where the disputed tramway is being built and will beoperated. Alstom decided to appeal, Veolia decided not to.


Israelfaces the threat of other judicial sanctions following petitions to nationaland international courts. But, in view of the instrumentalisation of criminaljustice by the great powers and the way that individual states are retreatingon universal jurisdiction, it is doubtful that these proceedings will ever besuccessful (see Israel’sculture of impunity).


Acounter-attack, based on persistent lobbying, has been launched against the BDSmovement: a number of organisations (8) have joined thefray in a bid to prevent Israeli products from disappearing or being pushed tothe back of the shelf. The BDS campaign and the counter-attack it has provokedare the results of the failure of conventional mechanisms for the resolution ofinternational differences.


Willy Jackson is an associateresearcher at Sedet (Paris Diderot University)


(1) See Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions(BDS) movement website.

(2) See WillyJackson, “Israel: verdicton the wall”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2004.

(3) See OmarBarghouti, “IsraeliApartheid: Time for the South African Treatment”, 26 January 2006, ;Virginia Tilley, “TheCase for Boycotting Israel: Boycott Now!”, CounterPunch,5/6 August 2006; Uri Avnery, “The Bedof Sodom”, 21 April 2007. See also Alain Gresh, “Palestine: theview from South Africa”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition,August 2009.

(4) For example,the Peace Cycle petition. 

(5) Ma’an NewsAgency, 31 March 2009.

(6) Although it didnot envisage a full arms embargo, the UK decided to limit exports of militaryequipment to mark its disapproval of Israel’s disproportionate use of forceduring its attack on Gaza; see Washington Post, 14 July 2009.

(7) Among who havejoined the embargo are the musician Roger Waters (who refused to play in TelAviv), the writers Eduardo Galeano, Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy, and the filmdirectors Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard.

(8) See

September 3, 2009


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