Campaigns for Israel boycott spread
By Will Youmans | Friday, 09.18.2009, 09:36 PM

One possible fallout from Israel's invasion and bombardment of Gaza during 'Operation Cast Lead' less than 10 months ago is that international activists are finding more support for calls to boycott Israel.

Though such campaigns have occurred through the history of Palestinian dispossession and life under occupation, the international campaign stems largely from a 2005 call by Palestinian civil society groups for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a way to pressure Israel to end the occupation.

As the recent campaign over the Toronto International Film Festival shows, it is a vibrant idea, but one that often fails to succeed. However, there have also been several recent, notable successes that show these tactics are spreading.

In Toronto, some filmmakers pulled their submissions to the festival, others protested, because it chose to celebrate Tel Aviv as a theme this year.

It began when John Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker, withdrew his documentary short "Covered" from the festival to protest the fest's showcase of Israeli filmmaking. British director Ken Loach, Julie Christie, Harry Belafonte, Wallace Shawn, David Byrne and Viggo Mortensen, among 1500 others, joined in to argue the festival organizers are partaking in the "Brand Israel" campaign, an official Israeli initiative to better the country's image.

The protests did not bring about a change, although the debate it spurred is significant. About 250 people attended a press conference held by critics of the Festival's Israel theme. Critics managed to persuade movie reviewer Roger Ebert to modify his earlier rejection of the protest. That it was controversial may be message enough.

However, the call hit several setbacks as Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman refused to participate in the boycott, and Jane Fonda reneged on her support of the call. High profile Hollywood celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jerry Seinfeld denounced the protest as a "blacklist."

Other recent campaigns are having more success.

A consortium of British labor unions just agreed to support a boycott of goods produced in some Israeli settlements. It also will advocate for an end to arms trading with Israel and disinvestment from some companies.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) will target products including dates, herbs, fruit and vegetables grown on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"We will support a boycott of those goods and agricultural products that originate in illegal settlements through developing an effective, targeted consumer-led boycott campaign," the TUC said in a statement.

A few weeks ago, the Norwegian government claimed it will divest its pension fund of holdings in Elbit Systems. The Israeli company manufactures the monitoring system installed on several parts of the West Bank apartheid wall.

Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said, "We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law." She explained that the wall violated the freedom of movement of Palestinians. The wall was considered illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

A narrower campaign to push for divestment from a group run by Israeli billionaire and settlement financier Lev Leviev, claimed a victory. The U.S. pension fund giant, TIAA-CREF, confirmed in statements to the media that it divested from Africa Israel Investments.

There are many campaigns that are still in the works, of course. Mondoweiss, an influential blog, mentioned others, such as "Code Pink's Stolen Beauty campaign against Ahava," as well as, "ongoing campaigns against Motorola and Caterpillar" and "growing calls in support for BDS like the one from Israeli professor Neve Gordon show that BDS is squarely on the Left's agenda."

Whether or not these activities have the ultimate intended effect is unknown. One thing is sure, the more Israel resists ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories, the more frequent such protests and calls will become. And that will mean more external pressure.

By Will Youmans

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