Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions piles pressure on Israel

by Brian Durrans

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 3 September 2018, veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy declared: “More than the achievements of the economic, academic and cultural boycott, BDS [the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel] has succeeded in undermining the greatest asset of Israeli public diplomacy: Israel’s liberal and democratic image in the world.” [1]

On 10 April 2019, the US denied entry to prominent BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti for undisclosed ‘immigration reasons’ despite his possession of a valid visa. He was forced to cancel both a planned speaking tour and attendance at his daughter’s wedding. In an interview from his home in Ramallah (Occupied West Bank) with progressive US channel Democracy Now! he interpreted his exclusion as Israel outsourcing part of its anti-BDS blowback to its US ally. [2]


But restricting free speech so conspicuously comes at a price, not least in the form of a prominent op ed piece in the Guardian in which Barghouti was able yet again to promote the movement he helped establish. Since about 2014, when Israel responded to the growing threat of BDS by setting up its Ministry of Strategic Affairs to try to combat it, the US has played along by authorising anti-boycott laws, or governor-issued executive orders, in at least 27 US states. Earlier this year the Senate outsourced to individual states the power to sanction any US company deemed to boycott Israel. These examples of anti-Palestinian ‘lawfare’ are opposed by many concerned to protect free speech provision (First Amendment) of the US Constitution and, contrary to intention, encourage wider support of the Palestinian cause among rights-based campaigns in other fields.

Intemperate opposition to Palestinian rights also encourages supporters of BDS to ensure their arguments don’t just express outrage but are fit for purpose. For example, by taking part in Israeli Apartheid Week in March 2019, students in over 30 UK universities signalled not only their support for Palestinians and BDS but also their rejection of the delusion or anxiety that such support can be reasonably dismissed as anti-Semitic. The free ride which this accusation has enjoyed in the last few years means that those who advocate equal rights for all in Israel-Palestine, and are sometimes called antisemitic for doing so, can only conclude that in the great majority of cases where it is wholly unmerited, such an accusation serves only to deter legitimate criticism of Israel. The growth of support for BDS worldwide suggests that most people appreciate that such support expresses respect for human rights and international law.

Since the original BDS call in 2005, campaigners have, for example, persuaded many UK councils to deny contracts to companies complicit with Israel’s breaches of international and humanitarian law or to divest their pension funds from such companies. In January campaigners secured permission from the Supreme Court to challenge the Appeal Court’s misguided ruling that ethical divestment by Local Government Pension Schemes is unlawful. Given that the movement has had to raise substantial funds to press its case with no guarantee of success, this might seem a setback for the Palestinian cause. That, however, would be a foolish mistake for by making the case yet again for Palestinian rights and for respect for international law and by linking both to the principles of local democracy itself, the BDS movement wins new friends and extends its influence among wider circles of people whether or not the Supreme Court finds in its favour. Heads it wins (great); tails it can’t lose (but would have risked it by not rising to the challenge).

Commenting on his travel ban, the anti-BDS blowback in the US, Israel’s adoption of the (Jewish-only) Nation State Law and the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu in April 2019 for a fifth term as Israeli prime minister, Omar Barghouti makes precisely the same point as Gideon Levy did a few months before (quoted at the beginning of this article). Whatever flagrant outrages or hidden (because slower-paced) attrition Israel has in store for the Palestinians, its mask of liberal democracy can only slip further leading to further erosion of its own support-base and corresponding advances of the BDS movement itself.  (3)


As Israel’s apparent immunity to criticism provokes increasing dismay there is a risk that some activists will grow impatient with the tried and tested methods set out by the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) in 2005 and field-tested in the meantime. It may therefore be helpful to spell these out.

The movement chooses targets that are:

  • seriously complicit with, or profit from, Israel’s breaches of international law
  • operate globally so that actions can likewise span the world
  • offer opportunities for critical cross-sector alliances (e.g. on women’s rights, environment, anti-war, etc.)
  • vulnerable to reputational risk
  • not so heavily invested in Israel that they can’t easily extricate themselves
  • invite a good chance of winning even with the resources the solidarity movement has at its disposal

Most targets are companies, but they also include groups, institutions or individuals where talent or personal views are not at issue but complicity with breaches of international law is. Actions are taken by individuals, private and public bodies, at local, national, transnational and international levels and make the fullest possible use of mainstream and social media channels to promote the Palestinian cause. It should be obvious, for example, that even a company that trades with Israel or whose CEO is a known pro-Israel apologist – or simply one that some activists don’t happen to like -  doesn’t necessarily qualify a company as a suitable BDS target given that, on the above criteria, some other company is a better bet. 

Moreover, BDS is never just ‘against’ its campaign targets but always ‘for’ the united Palestinian call for Freedom (from Israel’s illegal occupation), Justice (the right of return of refugees) and Equality (the same rights for all within the boundaries of 1948 Israel). Despite the political divisions among Palestinians, these demands express their shared right to self-determination which, from its establishment, Israel has consistently denied them. Freedom, Justice and Equality make sense as rights of persons not of states. 

Critics of BDS like (or pretend) to belittle its achievements, though if these are so negligible, why bother to criticise them? In fact, BDS has a growing list of successful campaigns under its belt, such as SodaStream, Veolia, and G4S. An array of lawmakers, campaigners for social justice, students, women, Christians, musicians, BAME activists, parliamentarians, political parties, pension fund administrators, trade unionists, university senates and national, state and city officials, between them have endorsed BDS, announced or called for bans on settlement goods, urged an end to military aid or trade, promised divestments or recognised the role of BDS in combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. [4]

As campaigning continues on present and future targets, and continues to defy the attempted blowback, so the roll-call of BDS successes will grow until the ‘tipping point’ is reached. That’s when things get really interesting.

[1] For more on the rise of BDS, see:


[3] The report of the United Nations Independent Commission of Enquiry into the casualties during “Great March of Return” in Gaza, issued on 28 February 2019 and covering the last 9 months of 2018, further undermined Israel’s “liberal and democratic image in the world”: It found that Israeli snipers killed 189 Palestinians [including 35 children] and used live ammunition to injure over 6,000 unarmed civilians while over 3,000 more were hit by rubber-coated or fragmenting bullets or tear-gas canisters; and four Israeli soldiers lost their lives. According to its Chair, “The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that during the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of those violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and must be immediately investigated by Israel.” Both the behaviour it documents and Israeli attempts to dismiss the Report have provoked almost universal condemnation.   

[4]  In the last week of 2018, news came through that HSBC will divest from the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems (for background, see HSBC – drugs, arms and money in The Socialist Correspondent Issue 32).