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BDS and ‘commercial reasons’

March 18, 2017 at 12:23 pm

When the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s chair Hugh Lanning was denied entry to Palestine by Israeli occupation officials last weekend, he seems to have been the first activist denied entry under a new Israeli law aimed at fighting the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Gilad Erdan’s anti-BDS ministry told Haaretz that the ban on Lanning’s entry came as a result of his “ongoing efforts to advance a boycott of Israel.”

The PSC is Britain’s most prominent pro-Palestine campaigning organisation. It has supported the BDS movement for years, and encourages others to do so.

The new law gives Israeli officials the power to deny entry to any non-citizen who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel”, including a boycott of its illegal West Bank settlements. As well as being opposed by BDS activists, the law has been criticised by some anti-Palestinian groups. US liberal Zionist organisation J Street is worried that the law will “do nothing to deter the global BDS movement – indeed it hands them a victory.”

In Britain, pro-Israel trade union and student groups have expressed opposition based on the concern that they may be caught up in the law due to the pro-BDS policies of the national organisations of which they are members. The National Union of Students and all of the important trade unions in Britain, for example, have had pro-BDS policies for years.

The anti-BDS law is another sign that Israel’s “war” against BDS is failing. Fundamentally, BDS campaigns are efforts to convince people around the world to support the Palestinian cause through non-compliance with the accepted norm of relations with the Zionist state. In a way, a boycott is a passive act; it is most definitely non-violent. Legislating against boycotts is thus doomed to fail. Israel still seems unable to understand this, and is currently pursuing efforts to fight against BDS through convincing allied governments around the world to pass similar legislation.

However, this has the effect of a) galvanising BDS activists; b) keeping BDS in the headlines; and c) setting up court battles where the issues can be thrashed out in public, bringing more open scrutiny of Israel’s crimes. So far, courts have sided with the right to BDS. As such, Israel’s efforts to combat BDS are self-defeating.

Furthermore, its propagandists still do not understand the way that BDS operates. One interesting factor is the “commercial reasons” defence when companies complicit in Israeli human rights abuses divest from Israel.

Multi-million and multi-billion dollar transnational corporations never like to admit it when campaigners and activists have had a material effect on the way that they do business. They never like to concede that they were doing anything wrong to begin with, and capitalists view it as bad for their control of the economic system in the long term should the general public begin to release their economic power to influence the world around them.

Read: PSC takes the British government to court for blocking BDS

Of the many victories of the BDS movement, few of the companies who divested themselves of their links to Israel have ever acknowledged explicitly that the campaign that preceded the divestment had an effect on their decision; on the contrary, some have even explicitly denied it.

In January this year, the Financial Times secured, through a freedom of information law request, the release of an interesting email conversation between Britain’s Foreign Office and G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. G4S had long been a primary BDS target due to its involvement in Israel; it provided infrastructure to Israeli prisons, as well as the checkpoints that oppress Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. At the end of 2016, though, it announced that it had sold off almost all of its Israeli assets.

Israeli Minister Erdan reacted with rage, accusing G4S of bowing to BDS pressure, and saying that it must be made to “pay a price”; he even compared the decision to “terrorism”. The emails released to the Financial Times show that G4S then contacted the Foreign Office, asking it to reach out to Erdan to discuss the matter.

“Essentially, our message is aligned to the British government,” G4S wrote, “We do not support boycotts. We are also confirming that our decision is purely commercial.”

The British civil servants never did get in touch with Erdan on behalf of G4S, but the Israeli minister was apparently unconvinced by the company’s explanation. He told attendees at a Jerusalem Post conference that “BDS was a factor” in its decision. “The company is now trying to convince everyone that BDS was not a factor. Don’t listen to them.”

The “purely commercial reasons” line is one that often comes from amoral companies that have been embarrassed into divestment. As my colleague at The Electronic Intifada Ali Abunimah put it, although “this term allows a company to avoid conceding that human rights campaigners played a part in its decision, it is well understood that damage to a firm’s reputation from association with an abusive regime is a valid commercial reason to withdraw from a particular market.”

BDS, we can be sure, will continue until Palestinians are free of Israeli oppression.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.