As people around the world protest against Israel’s genocide in Gaza, Mary Smith draws some lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Campaign against South Africa, arguing that more urgently than ever, we need to build a global BDS movement against Israel.
The scale and barbarity of the Holocaust can be difficult for us to comprehend in the present day. As it fades from living memory, subsequent generations struggle to wrap their heads around how such horrors came to pass. How could the world stand by while 6 million Jews, among others, were being systematically murdered by the Nazi regime?
Yet here we are, watching a Genocide unfolding in Gaza in real time, in our time, on our screens, moment by bloody moment. The most densely packed strip of land on the planet has had the explosive equivalent of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima / Nagasaki, dropped on it. And, in an outrageous but grimly predictable fashion, most world leaders, along with the mainstream media have aligned themselves with those indiscriminately bombing children, and denying those who have not yet been bombed access to water, food and electricity.
The only light in this dark hour is the howl of rage from decent people all over the world. Unbelievably, the rulers have banned demonstrations in support of Palestine in some of the worlds’ major cities – yet millions turn out anyway. Football fans defy the elites and display the Palestinian flag at major events, and workers, artists and academics stand up to bullying and intimidation in their respective institutions. In our thousands, in our millions, we must strengthen, deepen and widen our bonds of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Genocide as Self-Defence
“Israel has a right to defend itself”, is the excuse peddled by ‘the West’ – the USA leads with it and the rest dutifully fall in line. Following the Hamas attack on Oct 7, the depravity of the Israeli response has been mind-numbing. Since the Nakba, the theft of Palestinian land in 1948 to create the apartheid state of Israel, Palestinians have exercised their right to resist the occupation by any means necessary, many paying with their lives. The population of the whole region is roughly 50% Arab and 50% Jewish, but 95% of the deaths, prior to Oct 7, have been Palestinian. Israel has been ‘defending itself’ with billions of dollars worth of US supplied weaponry and economic aid since its inception.
There is an important question we might put to Israel’s international backers, to those who claim to be so committed to democracy – does an apartheid State have the right to ‘defend’ itself, against the victims of its apartheid policies? Of course they would reject the label of apartheid – it’s not a ‘good look’. But increasingly, over the last 3 years or so, that is exactly how human rights organisations have described the Israeli state, even in Israel itself.
“A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime. Israeli apartheid, which promotes the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians, was not born in one day or of a single speech. It is a process that has gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit, with mechanisms introduced over time in law and practice to promote Jewish supremacy. These accumulated measures, their pervasiveness in legislation and political practice, and the public and judicial support they receive – all form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labelling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met”.
So says a report from The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – B’Tselem. And they are not alone. In recent years Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also labelled Israel an ‘apartheid’ state, one that operates a regime that “is designed to privilege Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians”.
We have seen how the pro-Israeli propaganda machine, internationally, goes on the attack, not only since Oct 7th but long before it. The hounding of Jeremy Corbyn and other socialists from the Labour Party in Britain is just one example. They seek to position Israel as the victim of terror and intolerance – to disagree is to be labelled ‘antisemitic’. They want to portray Israel as an island of Western style democracy in a sea of unstable, chaotic Islamism. All very useful to Israel’s role as the ‘watchdog’ for the USA and US interests in the oil reserves of the region, and, of course, justifying their actions against Palestinians who resist.
Calling out the Israeli state therefore, for what it actually is, a disgusting apartheid regime, and has been since its inception, is essential to challenging it and securing justice for Palestinians.
Apartheid South Africa and the Boycott Movement
‘Apartheid’ has a rotten ring to it, doesn’t it? Nelson Mandela, 27 years in Jail for challenging South African apartheid – he’s regarded as a hero right around the world. Years of struggle of the ordinary people there, especially the youth, in the townships and bantustans. And crucially the magnificent strikes and stay-aways of black workers, that finally broke the will of the rulers to maintain their hated apartheid rule. The tenacity and courage of South Africa’s freedom fighters inspired a growing international solidarity movement against apartheid, based on a boycott campaign against South African goods and services, sports and cultural events. Ireland played an exceptional role in that movement, most notably in the Dunne’s strike of 1984-87. Ordinary workers, most of them young women, in Dunne’s Stores in Henry Street, Dublin, struck in support of a trade union directive to boycott South African goods. Their strike lasted nearly two and half years and became an international ‘cause célèbre’ that in turn generated more solidarity with the struggle in South Africa.
The importance of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is perhaps greater to the Palestinian struggle than it was in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. There, the most important element of any struggle – the organised power of the working class – could be mobilised. The vast majority of workers were black and once they became organised and flexed their muscle, the capitalist interests, particularly in the mining industries, knew the days of apartheid rule were numbered.
Because of the way the apartheid laws work in Israel, Arabs have been effectively excluded from the most important sections of the economy which have moved in recent years from agriculture to high tech armaments and security industries ever more closely integrated with the US. While there are some Jewish workers and professionals that bravely support the Palestinian cause, they are far fewer in number than is needed, and a shrinking minority at that. Palestinian workers can still impact the system, the bus workers and care-workers, for instance, the majority of whom are Arab, engaged in general strike action in 2021 in response to an increase in racism and settler violence directed against them. And a ‘stay-away’ by construction workers, again most of whom are Arab, cost their Israeli bosses €40 million. But the economic importance of agriculture and construction has receded in recent times; Palestinians are gravely disadvantaged, numerically and in every other way, in the now key armaments/tech industries.
Thus actions beyond the borders of Israel/Palestine are more important to the struggle than might be the case if the Israeli state had not produced such a rotten, distorted society. During the time of the Arab Spring, starting 2011, we got a glimpse of the potential across the region as the risen people began to challenge their local regime – Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and beyond. For the first time the border at the Raffa crossing was forced open! Palestinian oppression was an issue which touched Arabs across the region. What might be possible if the dictators were toppled? What help might the Palestinians be able to call on then? Tragically, the Arab Spring went down to defeat, but not without important lessons learned and certainly not without the potential to re-emerge.
BDS and International Solidarity
The importance of international solidarity to the Palestinian struggle in the West, is very real today. The BDS movement was launched in 2005 with a declaration from the Palestinian social movements and the trade unions, in the name of the “the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel”. Since then it has made an enormous contribution to the crisis of legitimacy of the apartheid state. That is why those who want to support the Palestinian cause must deepen and extend the BDS campaign here in Ireland; our government’s lack of engagement with BDS is to be anticipated, so lacking are they in principle or decency. Let’s hope Sinn Féin will overcome their reluctance to declare for BDS. They have inherited the mantle of our anti-colonial freedom fighters; it’s time they got stuck in.
There are at least three good reasons for building BDS for Palestine:
One is that it exposes Israel for what it is. Israel needs to keep up the pretence that theirs is a legitimate, democratic society. BDS frustrates that ambition by calling them out, making a pariah of their rotten state.
Secondly, it can hurt them economically. In share-holder meetings, council meetings, universities and colleges, among artists and academics, the question is being raised whether it is morally defensible or politically justifiable to conduct business as usual with companies that benefit from the racist policies and brutal oppression at the heart of the Zionist project. It’s not for nothing that the British government is trying to get a Bill through that would outlaw BDS campaigns in certain areas.
Lastly – the main enemy is at home. Our government is craven in its support for the US and wants to move us ever closer to NATO. The EU powers, likewise. The hypocrisy of the US and the EU in particular, in condemning Palestinians for claiming their right to their homeland, while gushing over their support for Ukraine in claiming theirs, is breathtaking. BDS effectively says we will not be part of this cosy consensus of US and EU leaders and the corporations and war-mongers they serve. We can help free Palestine, and in the process Palestine can help free us.
Through our trades unions and social groups, in our colleges and communities, we can raise the demands of BDS and solidarity with Palestine. International trades fairs and expos that feature Israeli goods or services can be picketed and challenged, as can cultural events linked to the apartheid state.
In the coming weeks many people will stage protests in and outside of shops and offices that carry Israeli goods or facilitate their services.
We should follow the example of workers in the US and Britain who have targeted Israeli companies such as Elbit Systems, an Israeli based weapons contractor, or the transport workers in Belgium who refused to handle weapons being transported to Israel. Let’s not forget that the US military use Shannon airport to refuel their jets on their way to kill civilians in the middle east.
The boycott of Israeli consumer goods when carrying out our weekly shop is to be encouraged and has an impact, but in the coming period, we should also take direct action in a more targeted fashion, and connect this to the growing mass movement against apartheid Israel in the streets.
IN OUR THOUSANDS, IN OUR MILLIONS, WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS