Boycott: An Effective Tool Against Apartheid

Boycott: An Effective Tool Against Apartheid

729. These three numbers on product bar-codes identify goods “Made in Israel”. Since the second intifada dozens of boycott campaigns against Israeli products have sprung up around the world to protest violations of international law in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. An increasing number of protagonists, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), famous personalities, universities and even political parties have already called for or participated in cultural, academic, sport and trade boycotts.

Does it mean that all boycott campaigns have a wide following? No, but together with divestment and sanctions, boycotting goods produced by countries that violate international law can be an efficient means of non-violent struggle. These three tools are not only used to “punish and ostracize” but also to “attract the attention" of the international community to the violation of human rights and humanitarian law.

“Focusing only on boycott could be a mistake,” says Bengani Negeleza, whose family was actively involved in the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. “From my experience, all tools were important in South Africa; the boycott was as important as the military struggle. What is effective is the association of all those tools. It's true, however that there is a huge psychological impact of being targeted by a boycott or a divestment campaign. Boycotts give products and companies an unwanted negative image.”

Adri Nieuwhof, who was a member of the Holland Committee on South Africa during the Apartheid era, and together with Negeleza facilitated a training session with NGOs from the occupied Palestinian territories and Syrian Golan, gives the example of the boycott of coffee from Angola. “Boycotters succeeded to associate the horrible situation in Angola with the products itself. One year later, no Angolan coffee was sold in the Netherlands. The impact of divestment is similar. As government's respond to pressure from voters, companies may also respond to pressure from stockholders.”

Boycott finds its power from covering all aspects of life

Boycott Information on the Internet

Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott –
Gush Shalom -
Boycott Israeli Goods Campaign (UK) -
Boycott Israeli Goods (US) –
European Campaign on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions –

Many of the boycott campaigns that target Israeli goods focus on products manufactured in colonies (i.e. settlements) established in the occupied West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Cosmetics, wine, toys, and hundreds of different settler products contribute, through their sales, to the viability of the colonies which the International Court of Justice has found to be illegal under international law. Most of the time, the customers outside Israel are unaware of the origins of these goods. Identifying which products are made in Israel and those that originate from the occupied territories is made even more difficult since many are labeled as 'Made in Israel.' As of mid-2004, however, products shipped to the EU are supposed to be labeled with both the town and national origin.

There is, however, a lot of information available about what goods are produced in Israeli colonies through the internet. Some web sites, like the one from the Israeli NGO Gush Shalom provide a list of hundreds of products made in colonies located in occupied Palestinian territories. Other campaigns, such as the Boycott Israeli Goods (BIG) campaign, provide detailed lists of products made in Israel and the colonies as well as international companies supporting colonies and the occupation. Because the origin of products is generally not specified, many campaigns simply call for a boycott on all products made in Israel. Other campaigns boycott institutions that directly or indirectly support the occupation. (See, 'Academic Freedom in Context,' in this issue)

israeli products can be easily identified by the bar-code which begins with the three numbers “729”. Israeli products are identifiable in few seconds regardless of the information on the package. Some of the products made inside Israel proper and targeted by boycotts are famous brands in western countries like Carmel (fruits and vegetables), Epilady (depilatory for women), Agrofresh (cucumbers) or Jaffa (fruits and vegetables). Boycotts also target international companies who provide financial support to Israeli manufacturers or assist Israeli military forces, including: Coca Cola, L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Danone, Levi-Strauss, Celio, and Caterpillar.

Boycott takes patience and mobilization from inside

But boycott campaigns require patience and hard work. They are not always immediately successful. After being informed by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), Harrods, a London-based department store decided in 2002 to remove some settler products from its shelves. This included Achva Halva and Beigal and Beigal Pretzel from the Barkan Industrial Zone (West Bank) or Yarden Wines from Katzrin (Golan Heights). Following pressure from the Israeli Embassy, however, Harrods was forced to step back. Nevertheless, the boycott campaign was far from failure because Harrods decided to mark on its shelves the precise origin of those products.

“It took more than 25 years between the first call for boycott in 1959 to the final reaction of the international community in the mid-80's,” says Bengani Negeleza. “It's a very long process before tangible results are achieved.” Negeleza and Nieuwhof both emphasize the importance of internal mobilization as key to any successful boycott campaign. “The boycott campaign in South Africa started inside the country with consumers themselves, and it's very important to underline this because without any involvement from inside the country, it's more difficult to spread the message of boycott outside.”

“Concerning South Africa, it was obviously not possible for people to stop buying essential foodstuff, but we convinced them to boycott certain products for one week for example. After this we met with human right organizations, churches, students associations, women's groups and business organizations from around the country. The success for us was not the number of people taking part in the boycott but the media coverage of the event, which gave us more credibility and showed the strength of the resistance inside the country. Thanks to this first step, we managed to send the message outside the country and start the international solidarity movement.”

This is the challenge for a successful boycott of Israeli goods. Commenting on the situation in Palestine, Nieuwhof remarks: “I don't feel a strong push inside Palestine. This is maybe what weakens the message of boycott against Israeli products, and it is, in my opinion, the main difference between what happened in South Africa and what we see in Palestine.”

Nathalie Bardou is an intern with BADIL. She previously worked as a journalist with Groupe-Ayache in France.