Breaking the Oslo discourse
Public discourse on the conflict over Palestine in Norway has been very strongly related to the notions that were established with the Oslo-process since the 1990s. The Norwegian government had seemingly achieved the unthinkable, bringing what came to be known as “the parties” to the negotiation table and sealing a historic deal for peace. Thus the 90s came to be characterized by a strong hegemony of dialogue and “partners of peace” discourse, less being noted about the imminent flaws of the Oslo-setup - the lack of binding paragraphs to hold Israel accountable for their escalating violations of Palestinian rights, not least of which was the explosion of settlement expansion, the ongoing military and settler harrassment of Palestinians, and the insidous marginalization of Palestinian refugee rights. This is not to say that there were no critical voices. Respected academics and the core of the solidarity movement were quick to register their warnings, and increasingly raised critical voices to break the heavy curtain of myopic peace lingo and the notion of Norway as the broker of a historic solution.
From earlier times the call to boycott Israel had been a standing parole of the solidarity movement, including groups with clear political positions such as the Palestine Committee. However, in the post-Oslo period, it was not before the eruption of the second Intifada that the call for boycott was raised again in a systematic manner. To the backdrop of the one-sided war in Palestine, it became all too clear that what was sorely lacking over the past decade had been strong action from ordinary people, organizations and governments to put effective measures in the way of Israeli colonial expansion. The vicious Israeli clampdown of the second Intifada, including but not limited to heavy artillery from both ground and air, and the strangulation of the occupied territories, made activists seek clearer stands and measures of confrontation to expose these crimes.
It was in 2001 that a group of Norwegian activists from different solidarity organizations established a working group that cleared the ground for the launch of a national campaign calling for consumer boycott of Israeli goods.
Consumer Boycott and the Labor Movement
The result was the “Boycott Israel” campaign. A number of solidarity organizations, trade unions, political parties and humanitarian organizations were systematically approached to join in order to boost support for the campaign. Activists argued that “Boycott is a direct means of action when morality, rationality and international law is met with nothing but contempt.” Tens of organizations joined the campaign, and activists started early actions including picketing, putting up posters and organizing actions at local grocery stores. The boycott came to public attention when transportation workers took direct action and blocked the distribution of fruit and vegetables from a distribution centre in Oslo that was a hub of Israeli produce distribution. The major political breakthrough, however, came with Israel's “Operation Defensive Shield” reinvasion of the West Bank in the spring of 2002. On Labor Day (May 1) of that year, the head of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), by far the largest union block and a considerable political actor in Norwegian social democracy, Mrs Gerd Liv Valla, called for the consumer boycott of Israel in her national Labor Day speech. It was a strong message in support of the growing movement for taking direct action against Israel's occupation, a statement that was all the more significant coming from such an influential Norwegian figure.
The reactions were strong as could be expected. The speech was reported in Israeli media, and Gerd Liv Valla came under heavy attack from Norwegian apologists for Israel's apartheid regime, as well as mainstream Norwegian politicians and influential characters from abroad. A highlight of the Liv statement aftermath came later that year in a meeting between the LO and the old icon for Norwegian social democrats Shimon Peres that was reported as “the worst meeting ever.”
The LO call for boycott was particularly significant in light of the LOs historical role as part of a Norwegian labor movement, a movement that had been very friendly to the Zionist colonial project, particularly with the Histadrut, for decades. From the early 1980s, however, parts of the Palestine solidarity movement in Norway worked systematically to have the labor movement change towards solidarity with Palestinian workers and the Palestinian struggle. Over the years, a considerable number of Unions had established relations with Palestinian counterparts, and the LO itself with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). The LO call for boycott in the spring of 2002 was therefore also a symbol of the historic shift within the movement. Though it caused harsh reaction, to the extent that the LO has been forced to retreat from its clear call for boycott, a number of unions still carry the BDS torch, and the call is still very much alive in the Norwegian labor movement. The Unions may indeed be the most important arena for BDS mobilization in Norway.
Moving Forward with BDS
The consumer boycott has continued to be on the Palestine solidarity agenda since the events of 2002. While activists continued to work to build a consumer boycott, the issue of sanctions was later brought forward by the Socialist Left party in the Norwegian parliament in the form of bills calling for a total embargo and boycott of Israel especially focused on the arms trade. A standing bill forbidding sales of weapons to countries at war proved inefficient when it was discovered that Norway had continued to sell arms to Israel. The problem of components and arms sold through third countries has also been debated and challenged in parliament, as it was also discovered that Norwegian fuel components were used in American Hellfire Rockets, used by the Israeli military in Gaza.
In spring 2005, the Norwegian Association of NGOs for Palestine (FuP) organized a national conference titled “How to make Israel comply with international law: The call for boycott and sanctions” held in Oslo. In a sense, the conference was the culmination of a growing debate on the role of a wider BDS approach in solidarity work. FuP is the main platform for solidarity in Norway, comprising about 20 NGOs, among them core solidarity groups like the Palestine Committee, left wing parties and youth parties from left to center, as well as trade unions and some humanitarian organizations. The platform endorsed consumer boycott in 2002, and has since adopted various positions in support of BDS. At the time of the conference, clear but scattered messages had been coming from Palestinian civil society callng for BDS, messages that would crystalize later that year in the Unified Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS until Israel complied with international law, a call which only confirmed that BDS was the way forward. BDS activists emphasized the analysis of Israel's system of oppression as an apartheid system, similar to that implemented in South Africa. As such, it marked an understanding that BDS had to be on the agenda of solidarity for the time to come, and this message was conveyed to the wider solidarity community.
Regional Boycott - Sør-Trøndelag
The next major landmark bringing BDS further came at a provincial level, when in 2005 a motion for boycott of Israeli goods was put forward in the province council of Sør-Trøndelag, the third largest proince in Norway, and the first in Europe to have implemented a boycott against Apartheid South Africa. The motion passed by a majority vote, and from then on, public institutions in the province were compelled to boycott Israeli goods when buying goods and services.
Again the reaction was massive. The governor of the province, a representative of the Labor party, was the target of this round of Zionist pressure, especially since the local labor party branch had voted in favor of the boycott. The solidarity groups launched a global support campaign, with the help of groups in Palestine. Thousands of letters and emails were sent to the governor congratulating him and his legislature on their position and their courage. The Zionist counterattack also involved letters and emails, but also had major influence on the foreign policy establishment in Norway. Zionist pressure on the governor aimed to reverse the democratic decision, and call for a revote. Unfortunately, the pressure succeeded, and the boycott motion was indeed reversed in March 2006, although the Socialist Left Party and the Red Electoral Alliance stood firm and voted against any reversal.
Boycott in the Corridors of Government
Since 2005, numerous BDS initiatives have been carried out. And with the inclusion of the Socialist Left Party into a new center-left government, boycott was again to be debated on a nationwide scale.
The Socialist Left had a long tradition of solidarity behind them, and in the run up to acheiving a place in the government in 2005, activists within the party had won support for an apartheid analysis and a call for BDS within the party, adopted on-the-record by the party congress. It was also decided by the party organizations to launch a nationwide campaign for the boycott of Israeli goods just after the party had entered into the new government coalition.
In some chaotic days of January 2006, the issue exploded into the mainstream media. Party leader, and now Minister of Finance, Kristin Halvorsen, defended the party position and also expressed her personal boycott policy of not buying Israeli goods. The news was broadcast worldwide and the reactions were immense, including an official statement denouncing Halvorsen's statement by the US State Department. This lead to intensive “damage control” measures by the foreign policy establishment. The Labor party foreign minister followed the US line in denouncing the finance minister's statements, and immediately wrote a letter both to the Israeli foreign minister and the US secretary of state, the latter starting with the now-famous heading “Dear Condi.” In the letters, he not only assured that boycott was not Norwegian policy, but that it would never be, and also that Norway recognized Israel's right to exist within “secure and defensible borders.” This wording, departing from the customary language of international law, and bowing to Israel's language notoriously used by Israel for further colonial expansion beyond the 'green line,' was since withdrawn by the foreign ministry as a ”mistake.” The chaos ended with the Norwegian prime minister demanding that the finance minister publicly withdraw her support for boycott.
Though this may seem to be a setback for the movement, the reality was that for those few weeks, all of a sudden the entire country was debating the boycott of Israel. It became something normal to hear people discussing the matter in barber shops, living rooms, classrooms, and at the dinner table. The Socialist Left party took a severe beating, but persevered, and went through with their boycott campaign nonetheless. Government policy definitely was lost, but BDS was also put up for the public to take a stand and others to join. An opinion poll suggested that one-in-five Norwegians fully supported the call for boycott, a significant encouragement indeed!
Since the two above cases, the BDS issue has entered a new phase in Norway. The issue is widely known, but there are still massive obstacles and challenges to overcome before BDS becomes public policy, as evidenced by the effectiveness of the Zionist reaction described above. Still there are several local consumer boycotts that are ongoing. More recently, specific issues have been raised relating to divestment, particularly as it pertains to the Norwegian Government's pension fund, as well as for confronting Veolia which is rapidly expanding its presence in Norway, for their involvement in the Jerusalem light rail.
The Norwegian Government Pension fund, one of the largest investment funds globally, has invested in bonds and stocks in Israel since 2005. The bonds invested in the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) have drawn special attention for IECs involvement in the building of illegal infrastructure in occupied territories, and recently for their involvement in cutting off the electricity supply to the besieged Gaza strip starting in winter 2008. A number of individuals and organizations have called for divestment, and Norwegian People's Aid have brought it to the attention of the ethical advisory council of the Pension Fund, which has yet to announce its decision. Larger sums have also been invested directly in Israeli state bonds. Similar calls for divestment have been launched, and this is a major task for the BDS movement in the time to come. These public investments in Israeli apartheid will be the real test for the Norwegian BDS struggle in the near future.
This summary of BDS initiatives, successes and failures so far has of course not been able to cover more than few parts of the vast number of actors and initiatives. However to build a strong BDS-movement in Norway that could really push for change in policies, emphasis should be placed on finding efficient platforms of national coordination. Solidarity movements are all too often fragmented and the main victim of this disunity is the effectiveness of Norwegian solidarity. With considerable support such as that of Trade Unions however, and with the issue put up on the table for the public debate through the events of recent years, the dedicated actors working for BDS in Norway stand on solid ground. Although we have not yet won the battle for public policy adoption of BDS, the success of BDS lies in the change it brings to the debate on how to grapple with Israel's apartheid regime.