Swiss-Israeli Relations and the Swiss BDS Campaign

The three main arenas of Swiss-Israeli cooperation are economic, military and scientific. Since the end of the 1990s, Switzerland has expanded its cooperation with Israel in spite of the fact that there has been a marked increase in human rights abuses since the outbreak of the second Intifada, and that the oppression of the Palestinian people has been more exposed to public scrutiny.

Switzerland, as a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) since 1993, has concluded a free trade agreement with Israel. The agreement is actually limited to products from Israel within the 1949 armistice lines. Products from the territories Israel occupied in 1967 are not included, but these settlement products find their way into the European and Swiss market falsely labelled “Made in Israel.” Countries belonging to the EFTA and member states of the EU, who also subscribed to this agreement, have failed to take effective measures against this misleading labelling. Ignoring Israeli violation of the agreement, the Swiss government concluded a new tax agreement with Israel in 2003 in order to encourage bilateral investments.


 Switzerland has an export surplus to Israel, especially in the trade of diamonds, pharmaceutical products and chemicals, machines and clocks. Diamonds account for half of these goods as Switzerland exports twice as many diamonds to Israel as it imports from Israel. Swiss diamond merchants acquire most of their uncut diamonds principally from the African continent, and export them to Israel for finishing. Only some of the finished gems return to Swiss jewellers (for example to the clock and jewelry fair in Basel, now known as Basel World).


 For Switzerland, Israel is an important trade partner (1.2 - 1.8 % of its total in exports), and Swiss investments in Israel come reached around 1/2 billion francs.

 Military Cooperation

 Israel is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world. Switzerland is a comparatively small importer of Israeli weapons (roughly 10% of all the arms Switzerland imports). Switzerland has exported armaments to Israel since 1955. The Swiss armament industry benefits from the experience' Israel has acquired in weapons manufacturing. A special spot in the Naqab (Negev) desert is set aside specifically for any munitions testing that Swiss firms wish to carry out, and Swiss arms firms (Contraves of Oerlikon and RUAG) and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) collaborate regularly. Switzerland is also developing the ADS 95 reconnaissance drone; the Swiss government has contributed 28 million francs to work on the drone and exonerated Israel from repaying this sum. The RUAG weapons factory (owned by the Swiss government) has also cooperated with Israeli arms manufacturers on the development of cluster bombs. Since 1988, the Swiss army has spent 600 million francs on cluster bomb research in Israel; some of the cluster bombs unleashed on Lebanon in the war of the summer of 2006 were the direct result of this cooperation.

Following Israel's 2002 reinvasion of the West Bank in 'Operation Defensive Shield,' the Swiss government temporarily suspended new purchases from Israeli arms manufacturers. It was not long, however, before the Swiss signed an agreement to cooperate on an electronic reconnaissance system: the 'Instaff' system to guide missiles or shells to their target. In the middle of March 2005, Swiss federal counsellor Schmid announced the resumption of arms purchases from Israel on an official visit there. The Swiss government and parliament accordingly approved the purchase of a surveillance system for listening and transmitting (its main use is for electronic warfare) to the tune of 150 million francs. Counsellor Schmid's visit made it clear that relations with Israel would soon be back to normal.

 Scientific Research

 Israel and Switzerland have also intiated cooperation in the field of research and development. Swiss state universities (ETH in Zurich and EPFL in Lausanne) have already established exchanges with the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. In May 2000, federal counsellor Ruth Dreifuss made an official visit to Israel to promote cooperation on scientific research. Israel and Switzerland are both participating in the fourth European Union program for research and technological development.

 The Boycott Campaign

 In 2003, we called for a boycott of Israeli products with the support of 29 different organizations. We undertook different actions and mailing appeals to persuade the two largest supermarket chain stores in Switzerland not to carry Israeli products. Under the Swiss food law, it is illegal to market products from Israeli settlements falsely labelled “Made in Israel,” and the average consumer has no means of distinguishing between produce from Israel and produce originating in a settlement. We met with no success in our attempts to alert the federal inspection body to this illegal practice. Inspection officials referred us to the political authorities, who endorsed the misleading labels.

 Two years later, we initiated a national campaign against the resumption of arms purchases from Israel. The campaign involved collecting 14,000 signatures against this arms trade, on the basis of which motions against the resumption of arms purchases from Israel were introduced in the federal parliament. At this time, there are two solidarity committees, in German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland, working to build the BDS campaign. In addition, members of other solidarity committees also support the campaign. The Basel BDS group has a website in German and in French that provides background information on the issues at stake and on current activities. In addition, every six months, we publish a four-page BDS bulletin, of which we distribute 1200 copies and which we send to interested persons and also hand out for free on the street. For the 60 years of the Nakba commemorations, 37,000 notices explaining the BDS campaign were distributed as inserts in newspapers. The small Swiss Communist party is currently discussing whether or not to support the BDS campaign. We are also launching a concrete campaign against Veolia (the East Jerusalem tramway system project).

 The BDS committee of the Basel area Palestine Solidarity Group is presently sending out information, mainly on the progress of the BDS campaign (in Switzerland and on an international level) and trying to recruit activists and convince them to join forces based on a united national BDS platform. In our opinion, this strategy offers several possibilities for building concrete political pressure on Israel to change its policy as outlined in the BDS appeal.

 However, there are aggravating circumstances which make such a united appeal difficult, namely the fragmentation of the local solidarity and progressive movements and their differences of opinion. The thematic confinement of discussion to the occupation and humanitarian aid for the needy population in Palestine presents a challenge for convincing activists here to prioritize solidarity over charity and pull together on the BDS campaign. Our goal in this context is to foster the establishment of local BDS groups throughout Switzerland in order to build a stronger and more pragmatic action-oriented campaign.

 Work to promote the BDS campaign in Switzerland would be considerably easier if the BDS movement were more developed in France (for French-speaking Switzerland) and Germany (for German-speaking Switzerland) and Italy (for Italian-speaking Switzerland). Political campaigns in the European countries where the same language is spoken as in Switzerland heavily influence the success of similar campaigns in our country. For this reason, we do all we can to contribute to BDS campaigns in the countries bordering on Switzerland. This is also why we participated in the BDS conference in London, which set as its goal to enhance the BDS campaign on the Continent.