At first, the campaign was primarily focused on raising awareness within Belgian society, but quickly evolved into a systematic effort to call on Belgian consumers to stop buying Israeli products, Belgian shopowners to stop stocking these products, and the Belgian government to stop allowing these products in to begin with. Materials such as leaflets, posters, postcards and other educational tools were prepared and widely disseminated. Three different posters were designed, and soon university students and others began to treat them as collector items - it became quite fashionable for university and college students to have all three posters hanging in their dormitory room. The postcards used the same images, and were directed at the Belgian Foreign Ministry calling for an end to imports from Israel; other postcards were directed at larger retail chains, some of which agreed to meet with representatives of the Platform, although 'consumer choice' arguments meant that these meetings did not bring about much in the way of tangible results. As a result of research comissioned by member groups of the APP on the effect of the occupation on Palestinian water and agriculture, the major thrust of the campaign targetted Israeli agricultural produce.
Different local groups and chapters were initiated and mobilized, setting up a support structure for the campaign throughout the country. At the high point of the campaign in November 2003, over 50 local groups participated in actions at the entrance gates of supermarkets and collected over 10,000 signatures against the sale of Israeli products. The momentum of the campaign was devastated when Zionist organizations interfered to counter the campaign later that year. Pressure from a large Zionist organisation in the United States against one of the main NGO's involved in the APP resulted in this NGO's withdrawal from the campaign. This triggered other withdrawals from several of the other large organizations bringing about an end to that chapter of the campaign in Belgium, although several organizations continued to advocate a limited boycott of settlement products. Some of the local committees and a few organisations involved in the campaign were determined to keep the campaign alive. A new coordinating committee was set up in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium by the Vlaams Palestina Komitee. One action that the Komitee launched was a boycott day of action at the end of 2004. On this day, local groups organized demonstrations at the entrance of supermarkets to collect signatures of customers on a petition directed at the shop management demanding an end to the sale of Israeli goods. The group also distributed stickers that said “boycott Israel: koop geen vruchten van bezetting (don't buy the fruits of occupation)” that people stuck on to Israeli produce on the supermarket shelves. Since then, the day of action has become an annual event, and has evolved into a week of action.
In 2005, 2006 and the spring of 2007, the week of action targetted 10 supermarkets. Later in 2007 the campaign got a serious boost; people active in the campaign came together into “Coordination Boycot Israel” (COBI) and the group set out to mobilise new local committees and expanding the activities to the French-speaking parts of the country. As a result, the number of actions around supermarkets has increased, reaching 30 in the November 2007 week of action, which was launched with a symbolic picket that took place at the entrance to the headquarters of Delhaize, one of the main supermarket chains in Belgium.
The campagin continued to broaden and grow. When opportunities arose, and activists and volunteers came forward for proposed actions, COBI has coordinated ad hoc actions, such as one challenging the participation of an Israeli footbal team in a match in Belgium, and a letter of protest to a Belgian film festival featuring Israeli films. In February 2008, on the day before Valentine's day, a symbolic picket took place at the Liege cargo-airport, the European hub for fresh vegetables, fruit and flower imports from Israel. BDS campaign materials were distributed to truck drivers and workers in the terminal.
Belgian BDS activists are planning to intensify the campaign before the end of 2008. A new campaign poster and leaflet have been developed stating “Boycott Apartheid Israel” with accompanying “Boycott Israel” T-shirts and other outreach materials. Plans are ready for actions against Israeli-imported dates that will take place during the month of Ramadan (starting in early September) and for this year's week of action at the end of November which will focus on the supermarkets.
In order to mobilise more support for our actions, activists in COBI begun an effort to enlist organizations and well-known personalities to sign the Palestinian civil society BDS call. This effort started in 2007, and so far 30 organizations and 60 personalities have signed on. The plan is to gather as many of these endorsements as possible, and use these endorsements, particularly the ones from famous celebrities, to attract more attention to the campaign from the general public and the media.
Divestment & Sanctions
Beside boycott campaigns, COBI is also preparing a concrete divestment campaign against a Belgian company investing in Israel. We hope to be able to convince the NGO coordinating committees on Palestina (APP and ABP) to engage in this campaign or in similar campaigns against other investors from Belgium.
The two coordinating committees APP and ABP are the main bodies in Belgium calling for sanctions against Israel. The main aim is to stop the preferential Israel-EU trade agreement through which Israeli goods can be imported by the EU without import tax; a demand fully supported by COBI. Several letter-writing campaigns have been launched to pressure ministers and political party leaders to advocate ending Israel's preferential trade status with the EU. There is also a call from Belgian peace organizations to stop the supply of Belgian weapons to Israel, but this campaign is in its early stages.
Reflections About the BDS Campaign in Belgium
One of the main obstacles BDS campaigners have faced is the tremendous difficulty of getting coverage for Palestine solidarity activities in the national media. It is unclear why this is the case, since even for visual and attractive actions featuring celebrity names the media has not shown up.
Other obstacles have been the reticence of supermarket management to take principled positions on the goods that they stock, hiding behind the argument that it is up to customers to make an informed choice: buy or refuse Israeli goods. Activists have also experienced varying levels of police interference and harrassment during actions at the entrance of supermarkets, but this has not had the effect or ruining these actions or resulted in any serious consequences for the picketers. In the city of Antwerp a Zionist group disrupts our actions by holding “buy Israeli goods” actions at the same time as the boycott actions.
On the labour front, contact with workers' unions has been slow. Some sectors of the labor movement have good working relationships with Palestinian counterparts, but the idea of boycott resolutions and introducing divestment policies is not yet very high on their agenda.
One aspect of the campaign in Belgium is to recruit signatories to the Palestinian civil society call, which since it was issued has become a global call for BDS. On the global BDS movement website one can see the number of people and organisations that have signed the call, a list that continues to grow. In Belgium, we have found it useful to give organizations and individuals the opportunity to first sign at country level, a way to build links with these people locally. As such, we started an effort to sign the Call on our website in Belgium, and later on we will transfer their names to the international site. In the near future we will add at least 20 organisations and 50 personalities to the international list.
Reflections on the Global BDS Campaign
One thing that we have found to be essential is that Palestinian visitors who are on speaking tours, or who are meeting with civil society or political officials here should always give attention to the fact that BDS is widely supported by Palestinians as an important way of action on the international level. When Palestinian visitors did not speak about the campaign and its centrality, they left the impression among the audiences that the BDS campaign is not very important.
Perhaps the most essential need of the campaign in order to move forward is better coordination between campign organizers in different countries on the European and global level. Such coordination can and should spread to coordinated actions such as international days of action against flowers imported from Israel on the eve of Valentines Day; or in Ramadan against sale of Israeli dates; or to an international “supermarket action day” to target supermarkets selling Israeli products building on the Belgian experience.
In working towards the isolation of Israel until it respects and implements its obligations under international law, we in Belgium have learned many lessons the hard way. However, the most important lesson has been that despite all obstacles and setbacks, we must persevere.