From South Africa to Palestine

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.

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.

In 1978 the Swedish Isolate South Africa Committee (ISAK) was established and in  time, managed to gain the support of over 160 organizations, representing all sectors of Swedish society. Through continuous, coordinated and determined work, ISAK managed to mobilise immense support for its cause from the general public. ISAK's success created a legacy and an organizational model that is highly relevant for today's BDS actions in Sweden.


Another benefactor in Swedish society is the relatively widespread notion of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, that partly springs from a change of discourse within Swedish governmental policies in the 1970's and perhaps more significantly from the hard work of civil society organisations. In particular the Palestine Solidarity Association of Sweden has struggled to keep the issue constantly on the agenda and has, together with others, managed to create a large degree of awareness of the Palestinian issue among the Swedish public. The Palestinians in Sweden were also well organised in the 1970's and 80's, within the PLO which then comprised more or less all Palestinian groups, and in other organisations. There were a multitude of vibrant organisations that had a common platform and common strategies. Early campaigns and rallies were organised by a small group of activist associations, with some support from Christian groups and left wing politicians/organisations, whose members mainly consisted of people who had witnessed the situation themselves. Among them were physicians and nurses that had cared for victims of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.


The first Intifada lead to a stronger pro-Palestinian movement in Sweden. During the Oslo years, much of the focus was on supporting the establishment of the structures that would eventually govern the Palestinian state. Once the second Intifada had erupted there was a surge of campaigns, advocacy work and efforts to support the Palestinian people directly through sending volunteers. The ISM movement recruited many Swedes who, through their first-hand experiences, were able to mobilize others. The Swedish Church supported the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme (EAPPI) that brought hundreds of Swedish citizens of all ages and professions to the core of the conflict. The Boycott Israel Network was created in 2003 as a result of longstanding cooperation between different actors within the Swedish solidarity movement for Palestine, as well as some of the youth organisations of political parties in the Swedish Parliament. The network’s main aim with the proposed boycott was not to negatively affect Israel’s economy, but rather to engage people and organisations against Israel’s oppression and occupation. The network produced a website with a list of Israeli products sold in Sweden, as well as flyers, stickers and information materials. This resulted in increased awareness and for the first time serious demands of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel were heard in mainstream discussions.


The boycott efforts of that time were however largely focused on settlement products. For example the Swedish Church and other faith-based organisations carried out an extensive campaign for boycott of settlement products, the HOPE campaign. Other organisations focused on the legal aspects of occupation, such as Diakonia, which initiated several campaigns against companies involved in settlement and IHL violations. Their efforts resulted in the Swedish company Assa-Abloy declaring that their factory in the settlement Barkan would be moved, and the campaign against Veolia is presumed to have lead to their losing a major contract with the Stockholm City Council.


The Palestinian civil society call for BDS in 2005 gave direction and inspiration to the Swedish pro-Palestinian movement. The confusion and frustration of the years of the so-called peace process finally seemed to be over, thanks to the Palestinian BDS call and to the numerous activists in Palestine, in the Palestinian diaspora and in Europe that had pushed for this second wave of BDS efforts ever since the mid-1990s. It did, however, take time for the call to become widely known and we are only in the last year starting to see a real awareness of what BDS is. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 stirred public indignation, especially as Swedish citizens of Lebanese origin brought back horrifying stories that made headlines in all major media outlets. This paved the way for a more critical stance on Israel's policies.


The Israeli war on Gaza in 2008/09 created outrage among the general public and a feeling that enough was enough. This was soon followed by major disturbances in the relations between Israel and Sweden, involving an article in a large Swedish newspaper on the issue of illegal organ trade in Israel, leading to a further deterioration of the image of the Israeli state. A Gaza Tribunal was organised through the collaboration of a large number of organisations, among them Amnesty and the Swedish Church, declaring the illegality of the war on Gaza. A campaign was launched in connection to a Davis Cup tennis match between Sweden and Israel in March 2009, which lead to the game being played without audience.


This period ignited new efforts to create a cohesive Swedish BDS movement.  A small group of activists paved the way and organizations such as Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace declared their support for the BDS call, creating a precedent for others to follow. Several academic BDS efforts were also initiated, targeting Swedish University collaborations with Israeli academic institutions. Initially several University managements forbade public gatherings calling for boycott within the University which only helped to create an increase in public support for the boycott initiatives.


The Norwegian state pension fund divestment from Elbit put pressure on the Swedish pensions funds to follow, which they eventually did after a successful media campaign (albeit keeping shares in several other Israeli companies with ties to the occupation). This period also included revelations of Swedish governmental ties with Israeli settlement and occupation activities, such as the Export Council and Swedish Embassy sponsoring Swedish companies participating in the WATEC exhibition in Israel. Shortly after, the clothes store chain H&M managed to time their establishment in Israel with the wake of the war on Gaza and the Goldstone report. A large campaign was organised by a few individuals, which quickly spread to countries all over the world and managed to gain the support of around 50 organisations. The campaign became the real starting point for a broad Swedish BDS movement.


Recently, after the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla, including a Swedish crew and ship, demands for boycott, divestment and sanctions are becoming more mainstream. Several unions have for the first time spoken out, as well as major media channels and political parties. The Dock Workers' Union has declared a blockade of Israeli ships and goods, local shop-owners are banning Israeli goods, and within the political establishment voices are calling for sanctions and a freeze of the association agreement between Israel and the EU, as well as a cancellation of all Swedish military cooperation with Israel.


In early June 2010, the first BDS conference was held in Sweden. For three days almost the entire spectrum of Swedish BDS activists and organisations gathered, along with representatives of the BDS movement in Palestine and Europe. Connections were made, strategies discussed and plans made for the work ahead.


In the Swedish context, a big challenge for the BDS movement is the current political agenda. The days when solidarity was almost a Swedish trademark are, in reality, long gone. The Government's EU-inspired policy of "trade for peace" is a great obstacle to mainstream involvement, including NGOs, unions, religious groups and the majority of consumers.  The BDS movement needs to find a way of deconstructing the myth that in this particular case, trade and increased cooperation will automatically lead to peace.


Another significant obstacle is the pro-Israeli lobby which has major  connections within the business world and the political sphere, not to mention its resources which widely outnumber those of the Palestinian solidarity movement. There seems to be no limits to the aggressive scare-tactics.


The debacles of the present Israeli Government have helped to reveal the true face of Israeli policies even to a non-initiated general public. The last few years of tragic developments have opened up for as yet unprecedented potential for BDS initiatives on all levels and in all sectors. The main challenge of the Swedish BDS movement is to transform this momentum into a sustainable, coordinated and forceful movement that is able to influence Swedish society and policies to the same extent that the anti-apartheid movement once did.


Johanna Wallin and Jonatan Stanczak are BDS organizers in Sweden



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