Betty Hunter: The Boycott Israeli Goods (BIG) Campaign

From the archive (legacy material)

Betty Hunter | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

When the Palestinian people started the second Intifada in September 2000, the world was forced to look again at the sham of the ‘peace process’, a process which had allowed the human rights violations of the illegal occupation and the land grab to increase with impunity.
International civil society had to ask, how can we support the Palestinian people in their struggle for justice, how can we support their resistance in a non-violent and democratic way?
How can we challenge the myths perpetuated by the Israelis since 1948, to change the narrative, to inform the public of the facts of the occupation in the face of media bias and government duplicity?
Solidarity movements across the world need to work to create a popular consciousness that what is happening to the Palestinian people at the hands of the illegal Israeli occupiers is the new apartheid -a new apartheid which must be ended.
Our task is to isolate Israel and to make it a pariah state, by creating an awareness of the reality of the occupation for the Palestinians.
This is why the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), with the support of many other organisations and prominent individuals, launched the Boycott Israeli Goods Campaign ( BIG Campaign ) in July 2001. We undertook this campaign on the understanding that we need to work on both boycott and sanctions and at different levels: the grassroots; civil institutions and organisations; the British parliamentary and the European levels.
However, work at the British parliamentary and European levels will only be effective if we are successful at the grassroots. Politicians move only when electorally necessary and in Britain, apart from some honourable exceptions, we have politicians who are happy to collude and collaborate with the US and Israel in their flouting of international law. Institutions change only when their profits or interests are threatened.
The popular boycott is the foundation of the boycott and sanctions movement and it is a tool by which we can explain to the public exactly what is happening to the Palestinians, to help rectify the glaring omissions and bias of our media. It gives ordinary people a means to show their disgust with Israeli policies. To simply ask a shop assistant or a manager where the herbs come from and refuse it if it comes from Israel is a political act of solidarity.
All round Britain there are regular activities asking people to boycott Israeli goods. This is the main criteria for our boycott work – because it enables people in every town, large or small, to decide on the most appropriate focus for their actions.
Our literature is aimed at both informing the shoppers about the situation in Palestine and how to raise the issue of boycott in their local areas. It is straightforward to explain that Israel has been imposing a boycott of Palestine for years with its military blockade as well as stealing Palestinian land, water and other resources (and all of this in addition to the daily killings, demolitions, closures and checkpoints)
We protest against the sale of Israeli goods wherever we can; at Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, etc. Some protests are stalls with literature and placards, and some involve re-labelling goods with ‘boycott Israeli apartheid’ stickers. And yet others involve filling up trolleys with Israel goods and then demanding that the managers review their policy –this tactic can create a good platform for telling shoppers why Israeli goods should be boycotted.
We have approached all the major stores to review their policies at national level but their reply is always ‘it is up to consumers’ –this is a challenge for us -if we can escalate the boycott to the level of the South African example at its height, then we can change store policy. We have also attended the AGMs of several companies in order to question their trade and support of Israel.
While the immediate purpose of the boycott campaign is to inform public opinion (with which I believe we have had some success in Britain), in the medium term the boycott will have economic consequences. Also the more widespread the awareness and general disgust with Israel becomes, the harder it will become for institutions and governments to support Israel.
When the general public is talking about boycotting Israeli goods, they begin to ask other questions:

  • Why is our government trading with this regime which ignores human rights and international law?
  • Why are we selling arms to an illegal occupier?
  • Why does Israel have favourable terms with the EU?

We use our postcard campaign aimed at MPs, Tony Blair and Jack Straw to give members of the public a highly visible and simple way to demand sanctions from the government.
The European Union
The European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner; it plays a vital role in the economic support of Israel. That is why a European wide campaign is essential and should be a strategic focus in the coming year.
Israel benefits from the European Trade Association agreement despite the fact that this agreement demands from participants ‘respect for human rights and democracy’ and despite the fact that Israel persists in labelling goods from the illegal settlements as ‘made in Israel’.
The European Parliament voted in 2002 to suspend this agreement but the European Commission and individual governments refuse to comply, thus breaking the Geneva Convention which states that a High Contracting Party may not facilitate a third-party violation – the violation being that Israel uses Occupied Territories as sovereign territory. We are working with MEPs across Europe to find effective ways of challenging Israeli privilege and that is a priority in the coming year.
Across Europe the demand for sanctions and boycott is growing. There are different historical and cultural contexts which make the emphasis different from country to country but essentially this campaign is unifying and strengthening.
From the European Social Forum we had a call to focus our solidarity work on sanctions and boycott.
Multiplicity of Action
The boycott campaign is also diversifying. It has been remarkable that ever since the first meetings, people have been inspired to take up the call in whatever way they can. So we have had actions on a cultural level (recently in London a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer called on artists to refrain from going to Israel unless they were at least also going to Palestine), on a sporting level, and of course on the academic level which you will hear about later.
Much more needs to be done but we have reached the crucial point at which individuals and organisations are no longer intimidated into remaining silent but are looking for ways to actively oppose Israel’s racist policies.
The Palestinian narrative is becoming known despite all the efforts of the pro Zionist lobby. The pre-conference publicity demonstrates the lengths to which they will go but we can see that this bullying tactic backfires –we confidently assert that campaigning against Israeli policies does not equate with anti-semitism.
We need to look at ways in which the trade union movement can help, not only with divestment which you will discuss later but in refusing to handle Israeli goods. And students need to be informed and mobilised on this issue.
In the coming months we will continue to expose the role of Caterpillar, a company which supplies killer bulldozers and other machines to destroy Palestinian lives and homes and which has plants and offices across the world. Caterpillar could become the Barclays Bank of our campaign to isolate Israeli apartheid.
Boycott and sanctions campaigning must be a priority for all our solidarity work.
We know that the Israeli government is afraid of sanctions. Financial stability relies on confidence. Financial fragility deters investment. When financial and commercial institutions begin to see that Israel is a bad risk, then they will look for safer havens for their money.
Israeli economic fragility exists. The massive US bankrolling of £3 billion a year helps keep Israel in business. And even then, the Israeli war economy creates massive internal problems, with high unemployment and high poverty levels for the Israelis.
This conference is another significant step in making clear to Israel and its banker, the US, that Israel cannot and will not be allowed to continue its illegal occupation. The writing is on the wall, the Apartheid Wall, and the illegal occupation will fall. The boycott and sanctions campaign is an essential element in the movement to achieve this as quickly as possible. And urgency is vital as the Israelis continue to destroy and steal Palestinian lives and land daily in their aim of preventing any possibility of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.
The public support for this campaign has grown to include the majority of the NGOs in Palestine and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, and many Israeli activists including refusenik pilot Jonathon Shapiro, who at the European Social Forum called on Europe to help Israel by boycotting until the occupation ends and Palestinians have full human and democratic rights.
Palestinians have the right to self determination –it is our responsibility to help them achieve that by declaring that international civil society will have nothing to do with those who occupy another people’s land and deny them human rights. By boycotting and isolating Israel.