“Italy remains a very important economic partner,” claims Nir Malah, trade analyst from the ICE (Istituto Nazionale per il Commercio Estero) bureau in Tel Aviv. “Over the last 10 years Italy has always been the third or fourth trade partner of Israel.” The official statistics show a steady increase in Italian-Israeli exchange that reached a $3 billion peak in 2006. Italian exports to Israel, have in fact grown by 6.1% since 2005 and Israeli exports to Italy have risen by 9.2%.
The ICE bureau and the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry affirm that the most promising sectors for further development of Italian-Israeli trade cooperation are wood carving machines, metal work machines, biotechnology, and all the strategic sectors characterized by a strong connection between academic research, industrial knowledge and political support by the governments. Moreover, the export of Italian cosmetics continues to grow and, since the UNESCO declared Tel Aviv a World Heritage site in 2004, Italian companies have played the leading role in restoration of heritage sites.
The strong bonds of friendship connecting Italy and Israel become even clearer when taking into consideration the 2005 Military Cooperation Agreement signed by the Italian and Israeli Defense Ministries. This agreement concerns the exchange of armament materials, cooperation in military organization, training and, above all, research and development of the military sector in both countries.1
This military alliance (in violation of a 2002 European Parliament resolution) shows how strong Italian interests in the Israeli market are, and how unconditional Italian support for Israeli policy has become; in total disregard of the brutal Israeli occupation, discrimination, and denial of return to the people of Palestine. The very strategic geographic position of both Italy and Israel, their interests in the Mediterranean trade area, and the historic guilt-feeling of Italian people for the Jewish tragedy under European Fascism, only serves to further entrench the economic and political relationship between the two countries.
Many Italians who work hard for a better world, for the respect of human rights, justice and peace, are strongly opposed to the Italian-Israeli trade agreements. There are many organizations, movements, associations and committees that demand a policy of divestment and political sanctions against Israel by our government. Unfortunately our politicians turn a deaf ear when they are asked to put principles of justice and international law before economic interests.
In fact, as Italian politics has moved towards the right with the rise of Berlusconi and his junta, official Italian support for Israel has grown. A stark indicator is the inclusion of Fiamma Nirenstein in the Italian parliament under Il Partito della Liberta (“The Party of Liberty”), Berlusconi's party. Nirenstein, whose parents fought against the Nazis and Fascists of Europe in the Second World War, is a Jewish settler with a house in the Gilo settlement that divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem, and whose political party includes renowned neo-Fascists (who describe themselves as such). In an interview with Ha'aretz, she describes her election platform: “I didn't talk with the people about local [Italian] problems. I told them that the most important thing for their Italian identity is to stand by Israel's side.”2
A few years ago, in 2002 during the national demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinian people held in Rome, Neta Golan was a featured speaker, and called for Italian support for the BDS campaign. Since then, Italian groups working for an end to the Israeli occupation in Palestine and many organizations defending human rights have campaigned to raise awareness about BDS as a way to hold Israel accountable for its racist oppression.
Finally the goal of Italian activists is not limited to lobbying the government, but mostly aimed at bringing about a broad-based understanding within Italian society about what is going on in Palestine, and to build a movement that can bring the people of Italy together behind a concerted effort to change the reality in Palestine. Since 2002, and especially since the Unified Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS in 2005, the main tactic has been to push for a boycott of Israeli apartheid, invoking the success of the South African anti-apartheid campaign and the important role played by similar campaigns at the time.
In Italy, the BDS campaign is focused mostly on Divestment: targeting Italian companies investing in Israel. For the first 3 years of the campaign, most efforts were directed at broadening popular perception of Italians about corporations like GENERALI, TIM, ALENIA, LUXOTTICA, UNICREDITO ITALIANO, TISCALI, FIAT as de facto “occupiers” of Palestine through their investments in Israel. The most successful campaign was the one to boycott TELECOM, the national phone company. The company's Public Relations office received thousands of letters complaining about their involvement in the Israeli economy. In those letters TELECOM was defined as “telefoni rosso sangue,” phones stained with blood. The whole campaign was based on the idea of appealing to people's moral indignation at being unwittingly complicit in internationally criminal behavior as a result of having big Italian corporations funding a state, Israel, which systematically and daily violates international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law.
In 2005, when the Italian parliament voted in favor of the Italian-Israeli Military Agreement, the BDS campaign in Italy mobilized behind the demand that the law enacting the agreement be revoked. Over the last 3 years, many other Italian cities have witnessed demonstrations organized against the Italian-Israeli Military cooperation agreement, in addition to periodic conferences, seminars, meetings with experts held to raise awareness about the shameful link between the Italian army and the Occupation Army of the apartheid state. The main organizations spearheading this effort, as well as many other campaigns within the Italian BDS movement, are Forum Palestina, Info Pal, UDAP, ISM Italy, Comitato con la Palestina del Cuore, and Associazione Giovani Palestinesi “Wael Zuaiter.” Many other groups are also working hard to support the campaign and make it as effective as possible. It is still possible to find letters on websites to send to the Italian parliament to protest against the military agreement with Israel.
2008 has been the most active year for the BDS campaign so far. In January, the organizing committee of the Turin Book Fair announced that the State of Israel was invited to attend the event as the guest of honor. The response from BDS anti-apartheid activists was mass organization and mobilization to challenge the intention of the most important Italian Cultural event to celebrate the creation of the apartheid state without even considering the tragedy that this has meant for the Palestinian people. The boycott of the Book Fairs was the first major experience of national coordination for the BDS campaign in Italy; an ad hoc committee was set up under the name “Committee Nakba” and the months preceding the mid-May event saw conferences, debates, lectures, and seminars organized throughout Italy to explain the reasons for demanding a reversal of the decision to invite Israel as guest of honor. It was not a cultural issue; it was not against Jewish religion or society, it was about human rights, respect, and justice.
Italian activists asked to boycott the celebration of 60 years since the Nakba, the systematic transfer of Palestine's indigenous population and the partition of Palestine that created the Zionist state. They demanded a boycott of the Fair because it makes Italy an accomplice of Israel's crimes and celebrates an apartheid state in a setting dedicated to culture and therefore to dialogue, plurality and mutual acquaintance, an inclusion that would make a clear statement that Italy considers apartheid and population transfer something normal, worse, something worth celebrating.
The campaign “NO to Israel as guest of honor at the Turin Book Fair” was the first real success of BDS campaign in Italy. As with the campaign demanding revocation of the military agreement, informative postcards were printed and letters were sent to the organizing committee to protest Israel's invitation as guest of honor. For the first time, many prominent intellectuals were mobilized and a clear and strong message was sent and received by the Italian public that normalization with an apartheid state is not acceptable. Despite the accusations of anti-Semitism leveled by right-wing-controlled Italian media and political forces, the day of the National Demonstration in Turin, the Book Fair was empty.
The Italian campaign is therefore highly concentrated on the boycott and call for divestment of Italian companies investing in Israel and maintains a close link with the international BDS campaign. In fact, we translate and make available for the Italian public much of the information on economic ties of large multinationals and Israel. More, just this year the project “Samar Cola” promoted by the Forum Palestina and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society started. The idea has been to produce an alternative to Coca Cola and devote the profits to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. For now the project has taken off only in Lazio, but hopes to be able to bring Samar Cola to the domestic and hopefully international market. The message that supporters of the BDS campaign want to convey with the production of a Palestinian Cola is that there is always an alternative, and you can choose not to be an accomplice of apartheid.
1. Italian Business News. ITALIA PRESS, 4 May 2007
2. Meron Rapoport, “The Israeli 'settler' serving in Italy's parliament,” Ha'aretz, 18 May 2008: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/976069.html