“We welcome this decision, but we would expect no less from South Africa, of all countries,” said a Palestinian human rights activist in reaction to the latest decision by the South African government to ban mislabeling Israel’s illegal colonies’ products as products of Israel.
“In fact, we expect more”, the activist added, evoking the long history of support that Palestinians had given to the African National Congress and the people of South Africa last century in their struggle for freedom and equal rights.
This sums up how most Palestinians received the news of the latest South African measure, which is seen as a symbolic victory for the Palestinian-led, global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and a first step towards ending complicity in Israel’s occupation, colonisation and apartheid.
After a long campaign of advocacy and pressure led by Palestinian, South African and international human rights groups, particularly Open Shuhada Street, focusing on Ahava, an Israeli company that manufactures in a colony in the occupied West Bank, the South African ministry of trade and industry issued a notice that would “require traders … not to incorrectly label products that originate from the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) as products of Israel”.
Despite the narrow and targeted scope of the decision, Israel reacted hysterically, accusing South Africa of “racism”, which clearly reflects Israel’s deep fear of becoming the world’s pariah, especially in light of the recent BBC poll that showed Israel competing with North Korea over the third worst perceived country in the world in the opinion of large majorities in Europe and the evolving economic powers.
Israel fears that the growing support for BDS actions and measures in South Africa, which encompass academic, cultural as well as economic boycott, may have a domino effect internationally, given what is seen by many as South Africa’s moral leadership on the world stage.
Most crucially, Israel is alarmed that the boycott is spreading in Israel’s second largest export market, the European Union.
Days after the South African announcement, Denmark’s foreign minister stated his intention to look into differentiated labeling for Israel’s settlements’ products to make a point that his country and the entire EU consider the occupation and colonies illegal.
The Irish foreign minister Eamon Gilmore told the media after an EU foreign ministers’ meeting that Dublin might propose a Europe-wide ban on Israel’s colonies’ products during its EU presidency in early 2013.
The British government had in 2009 advised supermarkets on how to accurately label settlement produce.
Impact and enforcement
Despite its symbolic value, the South African move is largely unenforceable, as EU countries have come to learn over the years.
Under EU law settlement products are excluded from preferential import tariffs in the EU-Israel association agreement.
However, Israel cheats by coding settlement products under the firms’ corporate headquarters in Israel or by bundling them together with Israeli goods, and European customs lack the required resources to cross check every shipment from Israel to detect the fraud.
Human Rights Watch analyst Bill Van Esveld explains: “Europe allows Israel to bundle goods from illegal settlements with goods from inside Israel, and to ship the whole lot to European markets tariff-free. Rather than clearly stating the actual origins of all its exports, Israel merely provides the originating postal codes.
The job of spotting settlement goods is left to importers, yet some settlement goods bear the misleading codes of corporate headquarters inside Israel.”
Under these circumstances, insisting that supermarkets and traders must label settler products differently cannot alone have a tangible impact on cutting trade with the colonies, as Israel has developed mechanisms to circumvent such measures.
Instead, the BDS movement has actively campaigned for a boycott of companies that trade in Israeli settlement goods or profit in any other way from settlements, all of which are considered illegal under international law.
If distinguishing settlement products is quite unrealistic due to Israel’s countermeasures, banning trade with companies that profit from the illegal settlement enterprise, as well as other Israeli violations of human rights and international law, is considerably more practical and enforceable.
A well-constructed resolution, in this respect, was adopted by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), after a long campaign by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and its powerful affiliates in the UK trade union movement.
The TUC, the largest trade union federation in the UK representing some 6.5-million workers, in 2011 reaffirmed its policy adopted in 2010 “to actively encourage affiliates, employers and pension funds to disinvest from, and boycott the goods of, companies who profit from illegal settlements, the Occupation and the construction of the Wall.” [Emphasis added]
The Swedish Trade Union Confederation, with 1.5-million members, followed suit, voting a few days ago to supports the Palestinian trade union movement’s call for boycott by boycotting settlement products, working “to ensure that capital over which it has control is not invested in Israeli securities”, and making sure that employers “cease doing business with companies that earn money from the illegal settlements”.
The British Co-operative Group, the fifth largest supermarket chain in the UK, has recently decided that it was “no longer engaging with any supplier of produce known to be sourcing from the Israeli settlements”.
The United Methodist Church, with 12-million members worldwide, passed a resolution in its most recent general assembly including the following that called on “all nations to prohibit … any financial support by individuals or organisations for the construction and maintenance of settlements” and “to prohibit … the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”. [Emphasis added]
Upholding its principle of context sensitivity, deferring to partners — who endorse the basic principles of the BDS Call of 2005 — in any context to decide how and what to boycott or divest from, the BDS movement has always recognised the tactical value of targeted boycotts that are pragmatically perceived as practical and winnable.
Regardless, the movement ultimately seeks to emulate the South Africa boycott in the economic, academic, sports and cultural fields, ostracising Israel — and its complicit institutions — until it fully complies with its obligations under international law by ending its occupation, apartheid and denial of the right of Palestinian refugees (69% of the total Palestinian population) to return to their homes of origin from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba.
In international law, after all, it is Israel that bears responsibility for the illegal colonies as well as for the entire regime of colonial oppression against the Palestinians everywhere.
An often parroted Israeli argument against BDS says that any international boycott or divestment, no matter how targeted or selective, will “hurt the Palestinians”, first and foremost, as they are the weaker party and are dependent on Israeli farms and businesses for scarcely available jobs.
This argument is not only patronising, claiming to know what is in the Palestinians’ best interest better than they do, and a thinly veiled attempt to deflect attention away from Israel’s crimes and the ethical and legal obligations of states and international civil society to hold it to account; it is plagiarised.
The same argument, that boycotts would hurt the populations that they seek to help, was frequently deployed by the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s to desperately stave off the then spiraling international boycott.
A US-based think-tank covertly funded by the South African government to promote its interests, for instance, issued a publication titled Understanding Sanctions in 1988, where it argued that opposition to sanctions by black South Africans “encompasses all sectors, including trade unionists, church and tribal leaders, and the ordinary black population”.
It also stated that “disinvestment hurts no one except those too poor to do anything about it, and that means the vast majority of the black population of South Africa”, concluding that investment in South Africa was the real catalyst for positive reform.
Responding to strikingly similar Israeli propaganda, almost the entire spectrum of Palestinian civil society, including all political parties and trade unions, have insisted on advocating for BDS as a leading form of struggle for the Palestinian right to self determination.
Saluting the British Co-op boycott decision, for example, Palestinian agricultural organisations and farmers’ unions reiterated their solid endorsement of BDS and called for similarly effective and practical boycott measures to support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
In a joint statement by these civil society organs, they stated: “Policies that exclude the sale of produce grown or packaged in illegal settlements should be welcomed but are insufficient.
Agricultural export companies routinely mislabel their produce and are known to market settlement produce as originating from inside Israel.
More importantly, agricultural companies as a whole are accountable for their conduct, and any trade with companies that export — even if partially — from settlements or participate in other Israeli violations of international law only serves to encourage further Israeli violations of international law and is inherently unethical.”
Palestinians see any effective ban, no matter how selective, on companies, whether Israeli or international, that profit from Israel’s occupation and apartheid as a welcome aperitif; but, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said, we want “the full menu of rights”.
* Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights activist, founding member of the BDS movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. (Haymarket: 2011).