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Towards an Australian BDS campaign

Written by  Kim Bullimore

On March 12, the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd moved a motion calling on the Australian House of Representatives to “celebrate and commend the achievements of the State of Israel in the 60 years since its inception” and to reaffirm Canberra's support for “Israel's right to exist” and a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.1 In moving the opposition-supported motion, Rudd made it perfectly clear that despite the 11 year conservative Howard government being swept from power, there would be no change in Australia's policy in relation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the past decade, the former Prime Minister, John Howard and his Liberal party government have been among the strongest supporters of the Zionist state of Israel. Howard had visited Israel at least three times and was often described in both the Australian and Israeli media as “a longstanding friend of Israel.”2 In June 2007, when Howard was still Prime Minister of Australia, but clearly fighting a losing battle to stay in power, the Jerusalem Post sang his praises, describing him as “Israel's greatest champion amongst world statesmen” and praising his “courageous support for Israel.”3 The Jerusalem Post article, which was written by Isi Leibler, a former veteran leader of the Australian Jewish community who had immigrated to Israel, went on to point out that while Howard was an exceptional champion, this was “not to suggest that Howard's predecessors were unfriendly. Since the creation of our state, Australia has been led by a succession of governments from both sides of the political spectrum that were supportive of Israel. The solitary exception was Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), whose hostility against Israel during the Yom Kippur war is regarded as a historical aberration.”

The support by successive Australian governments, including the current Rudd government, for Israel's colonialism and dispossession comes as no surprise, especially given Australia's own record of historical and ongoing colonialist policies and practices. Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, like the Palestinian people, have suffered under the brutal heal of invasion, dispossession and colonialism, having their land stolen and their human and civil rights systematically violated.

While Rudd won international and national acclaim in February, for moving a motion of apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were systematically and involuntarily separated from their families and the traditional lands as a result of the colonial policies of successive Federal and State governments (known in Australia as the “Stolen Generations”) and acknowledging the historical mistreatment, injustice and suffering of Indigenous Australians saying that “decency, human decency, universal human decency demands that the nation now step forward to right a historical wrong,” his government has in practice continued to implement racist and colonial policies.4

Like Palestinians, Indigenous Australians today, continue to be the victims of government sponsored racism, discrimination, restriction of movement and land control, as the draconian legislation introduced in 2007 by the Howard government reveal. This legislation saw the Federal government seize control of more than 60 Indigenous communities' lands and resources, the invasion of police and military units into these communities and excessive restrictions or “welfare quarantining” imposed on Indigenous welfare recipients. However, far from repealing the laws, the new Rudd government is now planning to expand many of the legislative measures to other states beyond the Northern Territory where it was first introduced.

While Rudd's motion of apology to the Stolen Generations has succeeded in somewhat disguising the fact that his government continues to uphold and implement racist and discriminatory policies, his government's motion in support of the Israeli state's 60th birthday could not have revealed more starkly the Rudd government's lack of “decency, human decency, universal decency” and its refusal to help “right historical wrongs.” Instead, in moving the motion in support of the Israeli state, ignoring completely the plight of the Palestinian people and the human rights abuses they are suffering at the hands of the Zionist state, the Rudd government confirmed that in reality it is little different from the ousted conservative Howard government.

In response to Rudd's motion in support of Israel, supporters of Palestinian rights mobilised around the country to demonstrate that many Australians opposed his government's uncritical support for Israel. In addition to organizing a variety of actions around the country, Palestine solidarity activists also took out a half page advertisement in the country's only national newspaper, The Australian. The advertisement text stated that “we, as informed and concerned Australians, choose to disassociate ourselves from a celebration of the triumph of racism and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians since the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948.” It went on to say: “Australia and Australians should not give the Israeli people the impression that Australia supports them in their dispossession of the Palestinian people” and that “rather than celebrate the creation of the State of Israel, we should be recognizing the people of Palestine, those who were dispossessed, those who lived and died as refugees, those who continue to live and die at the hands of the State of Israel, and those who will continue to suffer and die in the future until justice is done.”5

The “Improper motion” campaign, as it became known, was led by Melbourne based solidarity groups, Australians for Palestine, Women for Palestine and the Adelaide based Australian Friends of Palestine Association. In less than a week, the advertisement garnered more than 400 individual signatories, plus support from 37 civil society organizations, including a number of Australian unions. Several dozen more individual signatories were not included in the advertisement as they came in after the advertisement went to print. The campaign was a success not only because it succeeded in involving those not normally involved in activism for Palestine but also because it stirred up considerable media debate and coverage.

The other success of the improper motion campaign was that it demonstrated once again the willingness of solidarity groups and activists around Australia to work together in support of Palestine. Australia, while having only a small population of 21 million people, is a geographically massive country. Our population is located primarily along the eastern seaboard but we also have sparse population centers distributed along the southern and western seaboards. As a result, Palestine solidarity groups are separated by vast geographical distances. However, modern communication technology has enabled us to keep in touch with each other and work together on a range of collaborative projects.

In general, the various Palestine solidarity groups around Australia have campaigned around the key demands put forward by the Palestinian people themselves: an end to the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, as well as campaigning in support of the Palestinian citizens of Israel who struggle to retain what is left of their land within the Zionist state and for equal economic, social and political rights. Over the years, while keeping these demands at the forefront of their campaigning, Australian Palestine solidarity groups have also campaigned around the partial demands of dismantling the apartheid wall and for the end of the siege of Gaza and sought to bring a halt to unconditional Australian support for Israel's policies of colonialism, apartheid and population transfer.

Despite these campaigns and the willingness of Palestine solidarity activists to work together, there has not in recent years, been a single tactical campaign that has united all the Palestine solidarity groups. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, however, has the potential to provide this. While the campaign has begun to gain momentum in countries such as Canada, the UK, Ireland and South Africa, it has not yet been able to gain any significant hold in Australia. The primary reason for this is not necessarily a lack of interest in the campaign, but as of yet a lack of concentrated focus on the campaign in order to get it off the ground.

Like in many Western countries already engaged in the BDS campaign, an Australian campaign should also focus around the various planks of the campaign: (1) a boycott campaign focused around consumer academic and cultural normalization; (2) a divestment campaign to encourage Australian businesses and shareholders to divest from Israel as well as to ensure that Israeli companies are not welcome in Australia; and (3) a campaign which seeks to pressure the Australian government to implement sanctions against the Israeli state rather then continuing its commercial, military and diplomatic relationship with it as long as Israel continues to violate international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people.

Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in trade relations and military ties between Australia and Israel. In 2003, Australian merchandise exports to Israel, which included coal, live animals, aluminium, machinery components, were worth around US$198 million whilst imports from Israel, including telecommunications equipment, fertilisers, agricultural technology and pearls and gems, are valued at around US$463 million. According to the Australian Trade Commission, in 2006-2007, the annual bilateral trade between Australia and Israel totalled around A$750 million, with a trade deficit favouring Israel. The major Israeli exports to Australia included IT/telecommunication equipment, metals, plastics and medical/optical equipment, as well as precious stones.6

The Israel Trade Commission (ITC) website notes that there are currently 58 Israeli companies with local offices in Australia. These include companies such as Soda Club, based in Ma'ale Addumim, the largest of Israel's illegal Jerusalem settlements, as well as Israel's largest financial institution, Bank Hapoalim, and other financial institutes such as Bank Leumi.7

The ITC also notes that currently leading food and retail chains in Australia, such as Coles, Woolworths and Franklins are also stocking a range of Israeli food and wine products, including those produced in the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank. In 2007, Australian retail giant Big W, with its over 200 stores around the country, signed a 3 year contract with Beigel and Beigel, an Israeli sweets and pretzel distributor based in the illegal Israeli industrial settlement of Barkan in the Salfit governorate of the occupied West Bank. Currently, Beigel and Beigel is the second largest supplier of pretzels to Australia, holding 20% of the market, with the pretzels being marketed by the Australian company Trialia Foods.8

On the export side of the equation, the Israeli company, Guild Enterprise Ltd (whose Australian HQ is based in Queensland) has become the primary exporter of Australian products to Israel, such as Sanitarium health foods and Arnott's biscuits, including Tim Tams. According to the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) website, “many young Israelis come to Australia after their national service to study or relax, and they have come to develop a taste for the Tim Tam and spread the word back in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories.”9

Subsidiaries of international companies which invest heavily in Israeli companies and occupation infrastructure, are also operating in Australia. For example, Connex, which is the name used by the French based Veolia Environment for their transport operations in Australia, in 2002 won the tender, along with Alstrom, to build the light rail which will service many of the illegal Israeli settlements surrounding East Jerusalem. The system will also operate feeder stations for settler traffic from Ma'ale Adumin to the Jordan Valley. As the Stop the Wall campaign notes “the light rail project plays a key role in sustaining the settlements and ensuring they become a permanent fixture upon Palestinian land.”10

In Australia, Connex operates the entire Melbourne suburban train work and also runs Sydney's light rail/monorail system under contract from Metro Transport and has a large bus network which it runs in Sydney's southern suburbs. In Perth, Connex also operates the Southern Coast Transit bus line, while in Brisbane it runs buses using the former National Bus Company's fleet. While Palestine solidarity activists in Melbourne have previously run an awareness-raising campaign around the role of Connex in sustaining the Israeli occupation, the campaign has not been a comprehensive or systematic one.

The bilateral commercial relations between Australia and Israel are set to increase in 2008. According to a September 2007 report in the The Australian, an expected Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Australia and Israel will likely result in a “surge in Israeli hi-tech investment and the transfer of world-leading military technology.”11 According to the newspaper, Australian imports of classified defence technology were valued at around A$14 million in 2006, but with the FTA set to be signed in 2008, this will increase with a “closer defence relation between the two countries involving high-end robotic technology, smart missiles and unmanned aerial drones - military areas in which Israel is a world leader.” The bilateral defence agreement between the Australian and Israeli government will also involve “training exchanges involving Australian defence personnel and its Israeli counterpart.”

In addition to the boycott of Israeli consumer goods and divestment from Israeli companies and attempts to break trade and military ties with Israel and place sanctions on the Zionist state for its apartheid policies, we will also need to work towards developing the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This academic and cultural boycott, which has been gaining international momentum over the last two years, also has the potential to flourish in Australia. The key component in the development of this campaign is gaining the support of progressive unions around Australia. Involving progressive Australian unions, however, will take time and well-planned work. It will require us to systematically approach the various unions and to patiently explain the situation in Palestine, not only in terms of the impact that Israel's apartheid and occupation policies have on Palestinian workers and their families, but the impact that these policies have on the human and civil rights of all the Palestinian people.

In Australia, as the campaign will be starting almost from scratch, we will need to present the labor movement with not only relevant facts and information, but we will need to pace ourselves. As the campaign will be in its infancy, the first step for Palestine solidarity activists will be simply to get unions to begin to consider discussing this issue and campaign inside their unions. While we do not want to rush the campaign, we should however not be shy in highlighting the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the human suffering of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the systematic racist and apartheid nature of Israeli policies on both sides of Green Line and the illegal denial of refugee return.

A final plank of the BDS campaign will also be to gain the support of Indigenous Australians for the struggle of a fellow indigenous people. In Australia, in the past, there has been collaboration at a range of levels between Aboriginals and Indigenous Rights campaigners and Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists. This, however, has not been consistent or widespread. An important part of the Palestine solidarity campaign over the next years in Australia should be to foster and develop this joint solidarity. Developing the indigenous relationship between both our peoples will be an important advance for both Palestinians and Indigenous Australians in our joint struggle against dispossession and ongoing colonialism of our lands.

  Endnotes

1. Australian Jewish News, 12 March, 2008 http://www.ajn.com.au/news/news.asp?pgID=5102

2. Goldberg, D., 25 September, 2007, YNet, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3307969,00.html

3. Leibler, I., 6 June 2007, The Jerusalem Post http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1180960626413&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

4. Full Text of Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry” address, 13 February, 2008, The Age http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/pms-sorry-address/2008/02/12/1202760291188.html

5. Improper Motion campaign http://1948.com.au/2008events/national/improper-motion.html

6. Harcourt, T., (2004) Tim Tams to Tel Aviv: the Australian –Israel trade relationship, Australian Trade Commission http://www.austrade.gov.au/Tim-Tams-to-Tel-Aviv-the-Australian-Israel-trade-relationship/default.aspx

7. Israeli Trade Commission, Australia http://www.israeltrade.org.au

8. Israeli Trade Commission http://israeltrade.gov.il/NR/rdonlyres/05307E0E-4F04-46A3-B3F2-6514928C2A3D/0/CommercialNewsfromIsraelMay07.doc

9. Harcourt, T.

10. Connex and Alstrom Fact Sheet http://www.stopthewall.org/downloads/pdf/ConexEN.pdf

11. Dodd, M., September 26, 2007. The Australian, Israeli deal to boost defence

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22483470-15084,00.html

 

Kim Bullimore

Kim Bullimore

Kim Bullimore is an Indigenous Australian who is active in supporting the Palestinian national struggle, both in Australia and Palestine. She is currently a human rights volunteer with the International Women's Peace Service in the Occupied West Bank, www.iwps.info.

Kim has a blog www.livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com and writes regularly on Palestinian-Israeli issues.