Complicity and Apartheid: On campaigning for Palestinian Rights in Belgium

Poster used in a Belgian boycott campaign, 2003: “Israeli fruit tastes bitter. Say no to the occupation of Palestine. Don’t buy fruit and vegetables from Israel.” Poster used in a Belgian boycott campaign, 2003: “Israeli fruit tastes bitter. Say no to the occupation of Palestine. Don’t buy fruit and vegetables from Israel.”

As activists in Belgium, our goal is to communicate facts about what is happening in – the repeated human rights violations, to the broadest audience possible. Further, our mission is to show people that their behavior has real impact on the rights and lives of Palestinians.

Primarily, I focus on the struggle for human rights and emancipation in Palestine because of the fact that Palestinians live within a structure of ethnic dominance in which the Jewish-Israeli population directly benefits from the exploitation of Palestinians’ resources and suppression of their rights. Secondly, Israel enjoys near unanimous international ‘legitimacy’ and a high degree of material support adding to the egregiousness of the injustice committed against the Palestinian people.

 

“We realized that clarifying the link between the apartheid reality for Palestinians, and the complicity of citizens in Europe through its support and trade by cooperating with Israel, is the most effective way to influence public opinion and mobilize people in Belgium.”

It is clear that Israel’s system of apartheid is hegemonic and sturdy, and it will not be dismantled unless we strike a moral chord. This is our advantage: the moral high ground. In order to utilize the moral bargaining power, our approach in Belgium focuses on establishing a link between the Israeli apartheid system and the international community’s complicity in it. We apply this dual pillar of logic to governments, communities, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and businesses.

Activism in Europe

The BDS movement in Belgium is composed of about 12 organizations who meet every six weeks. Although most campaigns are developed and worked on by volunteers, four organizations have either part-time or full-time paid staff members who assist in the campaigns and have many other tasks as well. As such, our capacity is small and most campaigns are implemented by volunteers. The organizations support each other’s campaigns through the BDS Belgium platform, but each focuses on one campaign (for example arms trade, academic boycott, G4S, agricultural products).

If you want to be an activist for Palestine in Belgium or in Europe, the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is the most productive platform at this moment. Communication and coordination is relatively well organized between the different organizations. Local, national and regional campaigns are strengthened by support and experience from similar campaigns in other countries. I attribute this flexibility to the absence of top-down decision making structure that would undermine the creativity and motivation of volunteers. Furthermore, BDS is an umbrella that many causes can unify under. People are attracted to BDS because of the successes it has achieved and the potential for tangible change it offers. For businesses, too, it has become difficult to ignore BDS – we constantly remind businesses of their complicity in human rights violations in Palestine and they are running out of excuses for inaction.

Belgium is slightly exceptional since we initiated a campaign calling for the boycott of Israel in 2003, preceding the united call of the Palestinian grassroots organizations in 2005. Our BDS campaign received confirmations from all major Flemish Non-governmental organizations, we used poster advertisements calling for a social justice-based boycott and published the campaign in media outlets.

In hindsight the time was not ripe for a full boycott. The global Oxfam network was supportive of the boycott, but their support of BDS was labeled as ‘anti-Semitic’ by supporters of Israel. At one point, Oxfam USA risked losing its license for fundraising in the US as a reprimand for their Belgian counterpart’s participation in the boycott. The remaining organizations participating in the boycott soon abandoned the campaign work, too, not only for the boycott, but other campaigns such as against the apartheid wall. Only three small-sized organizations continued with the boycott campaign, which was internationally called on by the Boycott National Committee in Palestine in 2005.

This episode left its mark on the Belgian BDS movement. Until today, any discussion of a boycott campaign is a very sensitive subject. Our experience shows that although organizations often want to support the BDS initiative they are afraid of becoming targets of baseless slander (labeled anti-Semites), which may risk their sources of funding or their leverage on governments in many countries.

Now that the European Commission has announced the adoption of guidelines that distinguish between funding for Israeli businesses or projects that function in the occupied Palestinian territory, the dilemma of campaigners in Belgium is again attracting attention. The European Union guidelines reinforce our statements about the complicity of Europeans and European businesses. Concurrently, organizations refusing to adopt the Palestinian BDS call are struggling to succeed with campaigns based on human rights violations alone. Actions and sanctions are required to achieve positive change.

Over the course of our organizing in Belgium, we developed a specialty on working with private businesses. How can we enable businesses, particularly in Europe, to act on their morals? Through gradual adaptation, a trial and error process, we developed a targeted strategy for engaging with consumers and business owners. We realized that drawing a clear link between the apartheid reality for Palestinians and the complicity of citizens in Europe through trade with Israel is the most effective way to influence public opinion and mobilize people in Belgium.

Complicity

We find that the most difficult obstacle to engage is the generalizations of businesses and individuals. They ask: “Why should we care about Palestine when there are so many rights violations around the world?” They add that they are incapable of adapting their businesses to the overwhelming tragedies taking place throughout the world. Advocating for a boycott of Israel in this context is like running into a brick wall.

The same goes for business-owners. We have long been discussing the necessity of boycotting Israeli products with supermarket managers. In general, managers refused to act based on the moral argument even when acknowledging facts we bring to their attention. However, we experienced partial success when we linked settlements to child labor and exploitation of Palestinian children, providing proof and demonstrating intentions to publicize their relationship to such violations. Suddenly, we found that managers and business-owners were willing to act. We realized the necessity to alter our talking points away from the gravest human rights violations (such as the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza) and to focus on another angle in order to achieve our goal of boycotting Israel. Locating the ‘weak spot’ of businesses became a regular method for achieving progress.

By relaying simple messages and raising the issue of individual complicity, individuals and business managers are moved on a personal level. Even when they fail to adopt a full boycott, we are able to deliver an important message and affect public opinion.

Laws that could be used to build a case for sanctions against Israel already exist, but a certain level of individual initiative is lacking. The key is locating a weak point in the reasoning of individuals or companies. We achieve a lot of success when we point out contradictions while recognizing that the vast majority of people authentically want to make the world a better place. Even if a personal purchase will not individually produce a noticeable economic impact, people want to avoid contributing to an immoral project. Since 2010, BDS Belgium has been visiting the weekly markets during Ramadan, approaching the Arab community and calling on them to boycott dates produced in Israel. We made a lot of progress in our discussions when we connected their purchase to the profits of West Bank settlements. We explained to people that their purchases fund the future legitimacy and viability of Israeli settlements. People do not want to be responsible for crimes of foreign governments.

Apartheid

An important issue is the rhetorical and legal weight of the word ‘apartheid’. We emphasize using the word in our campaigns because it accurately depicts the situation for Palestinians under Israeli rule on either side of the 1967 cease-fire line (the Green Line).

Over the course of many discussions with people, even individuals applying neo-liberal ethics of separation between politics and economics recognize the gravity of the term. Once an individual accepts that apartheid exists in Israel/Palestine, they always come to agree with our belief in ending it. Boycott becomes self-evident.

From the perspective of businesses, our challenge is to compel them to overcome their rigid ‘economics is separate from politics’ position. Certainly, the two spheres are deeply intertwined, but how do activists enable a business-owner to admit so? For example, G4S is a major global company with relatively minor contracts with Israel, yet they refuse to terminate their relationships. For marketing reasons, businesses are extremely resistant to addressing issues of human rights in countries they work in. As a response, we base our strategy on evidence demonstrating Israeli apartheid and the company’s contribution to it. This is possible thanks to the assistance of many Palestinian and Israeli organizations often providing invaluable documentation. Paired with efficient campaigning, well-researched information is a powerful lever. While G4S is responding to continued pressure and has stated that they will not renew certain contracts in the future, further campaigning is necessary for them to completely extract themselves from the Israeli apartheid system.

Messaging and the Right of Return

Full equality, an end to occupation, and recognizing the Right of Return constitute our fundamental beliefs. They are part of the 2005 BDS Call, to which so many Palestinian and international organizations have signed onto. However, sometimes we tactically choose to focus our campaigns on issues that Belgian citizens can more closely relate to. Once they open up to our message, we build the foundations for a person to open their perspective and comprehend the bigger picture of the injustice done to the Palestinian people: namely the ongoing ethnic cleansing and discrimination. 

At times, a soft approach leads to great debates within our movement because we never want to be vulnerable to sacrificing our principles by limiting our work to more ‘acceptable’ topics such as the Apartheid wall, supporting the Palestinian economy, or creating opportunities for children and youth. We are careful to ensure a holistic approach1 to the conflict when working on subtopics. Therefore sanctions, disinvestment and boycott are indispensable to create that incentive.

Unlike the Law of Return, accessible to members of the Jewish diaspora, which Europeans generally accept as legitimate, the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees is an alien concept to many Europeans. One of our main strategic goals is to make Europeans understand that the Right of Return is a humanist and common ethic.

Additionally, it is important to note that the displacement of Palestinians is ongoing. Enabling refugees’ rights is not only a resolution to a protracted injustice, a step towards reconciliation, but also a daily reality of life in Palestine. For example, the Prawer Plan threatens at least 30,000 Palestinians in the Naqab with displacement. Europeans and the United Nations are responsible for allowing such gross violations to continue for over 65 years.

Conclusion

Beginning in 2003, the joint boycott campaigns started on a small scale. Our organizers targeted supermarkets and shoppers, asking them not to buy Israeli products. Initially, the responses we received were aggressively negative. Over the past decade we have had two main changes: first, the public’s response to us has become generally very positive. After ten years we now commonly hear: “Oh, I have heard about this campaign before, and I already support it,” a reverse to the stance businesses have come to hold. As public support for us increased, those opposing our mission have petitioned business leaders who became much more cautious of adopting a boycott.

The second change over the past decade is within our own tactics. The movement’s network is very elaborate and functions without central coordination. Rather, our exchange of knowledge and experiences is horizontal. This flexible and adaptive structure proved to be successful for us. We learned to focus our campaigns, which in turn strengthens our work in other campaigns. Currently, the Belgian BDS Movement has three major campaigns targeting fruits and vegetables, the G4S corporation and universities with links to weapons manufacturing. We hope to share a few successes in the near future.

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  1. Israel is a fundamentally racist regime with little incentive to enable peace since its ultimate goal is an exclusive Jewish state requiring continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the forms of the Prawer Plan or Firing Zone 918, for example. See: http://adalah.org/eng/?mod=articles&ID=1589.