Of the 2,000 Palestinians killed in Israel’s 51-day offensive in Gaza, over 400 were children. The UN has estimated a further 400,000 as being in need of psychological care. The infrastructure and lives of a land already under siege have been torn apart for the third time in seven years. The population faces a long struggle to get back on its feet after a ceasefire took effect on 26 August.
Where Western governments and their media have turned a blind eye, the people of the world have not. Over 2,000 miles away from Gaza, Britain has seen a surge of support for the boycott, divest and sanctions movement (BDS).
Palestinian activists called for an international BDS movement back in 2005, to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and for equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel.
Individuals have rallied around grassroots organizations to target what they see as the apartheid government of Israel. One such organization is the Bradford Boycott, which has seen rapid growth in its support over the past month.
‘We have a wide social-media circle that felt helpless with the current conflict in Gaza,’ said a representative for the group. ‘The media and government were silent which led to anger and frustration. We decided to direct this anger into something positive.’
The Bradford group has mainly focused on boycotting Tesco, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, which they refer to as the ‘Big Three’. The companies are targeted for their high-profile, unapologetic links to the Israeli government and its occupation of Palestine.
At the outset, the group’s focus was the local area, encouraging individuals and small businesses to boycott these companies. Their success in the city was quickly apparent. Within days, over 30 local businesses stopped stocking Coca-Cola products, with many pouring their existing stock down the drain.
The city of Bradford is not alone. Similar boycott movements have grown around the country and several supermarkets have had to close their doors in response to protests. The show of solidarity in Glasgow has been so significant as to elicit a counter-boycott from representatives of major US corporations.
Protesters have also kept a sustained presence at McDonald’s restaurants around Britain, with reports of one Bradford branch losing 30 per cent of its profits. Share prices for the company fell to a six-month low in early August. Tesco saw its markets plunge to a five-year low in mid-July.
Bradford has received national media attention recently, thanks to comments made by two of the City’s MPs. David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, caused controversy for a tweet apparently claiming Hamas rocket launches were justified from the point of view of those living in Gaza. Of course, were Palestine recognized as a UN state, David Ward would simply have been defending the UN responsibility to protect. He was forced by his party to apologize. There was no apology for the years of military support given to Israel by the British government.
Bradford West MP George Galloway also faced criticism after claiming the boycott should extend to Israeli tourists. Most in the boycott movement would not consider this as representative of their cause. There is a small and courageous opposition to Israeli settlements and military aggression within Israel itself. To suggest that all Israelis are complicit with their government’s actions is incorrect and harmful to the global boycott movement.
The British media pounced on Galloway’s ill-conceived remarks, which he later clarified at a rally for Gaza in which he said that the five per cent of Israelis who opposed Operation Protective Edge would be welcomed to the city. As ever, there was an obvious double standard in the failure to mention that restrictions on Gaza effectively prevent its citizens from travelling anywhere. There are few Palestinian tourists. To the British media, Israeli tourism, as Israeli life, is valued; Palestinian life ignored.
So, what should the boycott movement focus on? As the BDS website states, boycotting every company that has a stake in Israel has a ‘slim chance of having a positive impact’. They recommend pursuing the same companies targeted by local boycott groups to have the greatest effect. The ‘Big Three’ seem like a good place to start.
The Bradford group is keen to emphasize that this is not a short-term movement in response to Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. They are now turning their attention to the future. ‘The hope,’ they say, ‘is to keep the boycott going until Palestine is free and the apartheid system falls, just as it did in South Africa.’
The comparison with apartheid South Africa is not a new one: it was one drawn by Archbishop Desmond Tutu back in 1989. This was, incidentally, the same year a young David Cameron took an anti-sanctions, fact-finding trip to the country. ‘If I were to change the names,’ Tutu said, ‘a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.’
If anything, though, the situation in Palestine has grown worse. The South African Bantustans severely restricted the lives and prospects of black South Africans, and violated their human rights. They were not, however, subject to the same bombing campaigns and invasions as their Palestinian counterparts – the modern-day ‘bantustans’ of the West Bank and Gaza. As Professor Noam Chomsky said in a recent interview, ‘the apartheid analogy… is just a gift to Israeli violence. It’s much worse than that.’
As was the case in South Africa, only a focused, global boycott can hope to provide a sustained impact. Today’s global BDS movement is doing just that. It has already caught the attention of the White House and shows no signs of getting weaker.
‘We are free today in this land because our friends throughout the world supported us,’ said Tutu. One day the people of Palestine will be free. It is now that they need the support of the world.