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Boycotting Israel: the situation has changed and I have changed my mind too

The latest Israeli assault on Gaza is for one scholar an occasion to rethink the fundamental arguments for and against a boycott of the country.

Israel’s slaughter in Gaza must make us all pause and ask whether we should rethink our stance on the Palestine conflict. The killing is presented as a regrettable response to Hamas’s provocations, an almost routine police action as the Israeli euphemism "mowing the lawn" suggests. However the very fact that this is regarded as normal means that we are dealing with a highly abnormal situation, which demands a radical response.

This is not self-defence

Israel’s claim to be acting in self-defence is much too easily accepted by western governments and media. The present crisis arises from Israeli aggression against Hamas following the murder of Israeli teenagers, which Israeli officials now admit was not carried out by Hamas. The recent escalation of rocket attacks was a response to these Israeli actions.

Moreover this crisis is the continuation of a larger conflict in which Israel cannot generally evoke self-defence. Its violence is not defending it against illegal aggression; instead Israel is enforcing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and Palestinian resistance is justified in principle. Israel has withdrawn its settlers from Gaza, but retains overall economic and military control and imposes a cruel blockade. In the rest of the Palestinian Territories, in the West Bank, Israel retains direct control and has promoted massive illegal settlement.

Israel’s legal duty is to end the occupation and rectify the injustices it has committed against the Palestinians. Only if it did that and still faced rocket attacks would it have a legitimate general claim to act in self-defence.

Israel’s legitimate defensive interest is therefore a limited one: the prevention of Hamas’s illegitimate rocket attacks on civilians. It possesses extremely effective means of shooting them down, and while it is understandable that it also wishes to destroy the military infrastructure that makes them possible, it does not have a right to do this at the expense of the population of Gaza.

It is clear that the larger air, sea and ground attacks on Gaza are illegitimate because they are utterly disproportionate to the requirements of ending the rocket threat. Moreover Israel is obliged by international law to take precautions to protect civilians from the force it claims to direct at Hamas. Any precautions it has taken are obviously completely inadequate.

In reality the careless targeting of homes, hospitals and schools and the relentless, murderous destruction of neighbourhoods compellingly suggest that civilian harm is completely intended by the Israeli government. This violence is effectively targeted at Gaza’s civilians as well as Hamas. In the light of the pre-existing blockade directed at Gaza’s population over many years, Israel’s violence can only be interpreted as an extreme continuation of collective punishment.

Israel’s use of force in this assault, as in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the two previous major attacks on Gaza, thus involves far more than the risk-transfer war that other western countries routinely practice. This is at least classic degenerate warfare, recalling Britain’s great shame of the second world war, its targeting of German cities to break civilian "morale". This is "war" of a kind that the Geneva conventions of 1949 outlaw. Indeed if Israel’s aim is now to destroy Gazan society, rather than just to subjugate it, the killing in Gaza raises questions of genocide.

Sanctions, "apartheid" and "singling out" Israel

In the face of this horror, we all have a duty of solidarity with the victims. In the short term, that means pressurising, and getting our governments to pressurise, Israel to stop the bombing. However it is obvious, after this third assault in six years, that we must act now to stop a fourth and a fifth. This means working towards a political solution to the occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

Many have long argued that boycotts and sanctions are the principal means that global civil society can exert towards this goal. The example of South Africa is usually cited in support and Israeli rule over Palestinians is compared to apartheid. I do not usually agree with Noam Chomsky, but his recent assessment puts this claim in perspective:

"Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African-style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country's workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse."

South Africa never bombed black areas to smithereens, and the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 (with sixty-nine deaths) pales compared to what Israel is doing to Gaza.

Opponents of boycotts and sanctions like the late Norman Geras, a respected Marxist academic, argue that they "single out" Israel when other states are doing far worse things. In the region today, Syria has killed many more, and Egypt’s new regime too, its total soon to be boosted by mass death penalties. Yet the South African boycott, which Norman supported, also singled out one regime, by no means the most murderous of its day. In 1961 Mao Zedong was completing the "great leap forward", which caused tens of millions of deaths, but there were no calls for sanctions against China from those who targeted apartheid after Sharpeville.

The relevance of boycotts and sanctions to the Israeli case


Boycott advocates counter, in any case, that supporters of Israel also single it out, justifying exceptional levels of western political, financial and military support. Clearly it would be strange to rule out boycotts and sanctions from the Israel-Palestine conflict in principle, because Israel is itself applying comprehensive sanctions to Gaza. The real question about such measures is not whether we are applying them to all bad regimes equally, but whether they are likely to help move the political situation forward in the particular case.

There are good reasons why boycotts and sanctions seem an unusually attractive weapon against Israel. Its dependence on support from the United States and other western states means that opposition to Israel in these societies could also have exceptional political consequences. (It is perverse of Chomsky to argue that there are weak prospects of success.) Although it remains difficult to imagine official sanctions by governments, even of the limited kind taken against Putin’s Russia, Israel’s dependence means that unofficial boycotts, on a sufficient scale, might have an unusual political effect, maybe even more than they did in South Africa.

The difficulty of the effects of severe sanctions, raised by the blockade which has impoverished Gaza (and by sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), do not appear likely to apply in the Israeli case. A rich western society can surely withstand considerable economic and other pressure without its fabric crumbling or its people being deprived of life-saving medicines. A society that so overwhelmingly supports such severe sanctions against others cannot complain about the more limited sanctions and boycotts that its opponents might mobilise against it.

Why I was reluctant to support boycotts

In earlier discussions, I did not support a general boycott of Israel (although I boycotted goods from illegal settlements). This was not because I was impressed by prominent pro-Israeli arguments, for example that boycotts of Israel evoke boycotts of Jewish shops in Nazi Germany. Boycotters almost always distinguish clearly between Israeli businesses and institutions and Jewish businesses and institutions in general.

Indeed boycotters, like western critics of Israel generally, usually distinguish much more carefully between Israelis and Jews than do supporters of Israel. The latter’s identification of Israel with the world Jewish community almost invites a new kind of anti-Semitism, but western opponents of Israel are mostly scrupulous in avoiding this.

For these reasons, I previously defended boycotters while opposing boycotts. My reluctance to support the latter had much to do with some of the forms they took. I was repelled by the notorious removal of individual academics from editorial boards, simply because they were Israeli.

I remain opposed to any boycott of individual contacts on account of nationality, and believe it is important to maintain individual communications. Indeed it is crucial that direct support is given to courageous Israeli individuals and groups who oppose war and occupation. In due course I discovered, of course, that this is the mainstream position of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement (BDS).

I was also suspicious of the logic of collective punishment involved in ostracising Israeli institutions. As an academic, I valued academic discourse and although I knew that Israeli universities were implicated in injustices against Palestinians, they were also disproportionately centres of debate and even opposition. I worried that blanket academic boycotts could weaken these. Similar arguments applied to the media, which contain some important bastions of free discussion.

However the decisive reason for not supporting boycotts and sanctions was that there always seemed some prospect, however tenuous, of negotiations leading to a settlement. Even if this was bound to be largely on Israeli terms, it seemed important to me (as it did to many Palestinians) to pursue the prospect. Even an unequal peace could open up cooperation based on common economic interests (Israel-Palestine is the size of Greater Los Angeles, as Bernard Avishai points out) and in the long run enable Palestinians to improve their situation.

So I thought it important to avoid doing anything that might make it more difficult, and worried that this could be the result of a large-scale boycott.

What has changed

There were always counter-arguments. Given the inequality between Israel and the Palestinians, external pressure could help even up the balance of forces and so lead to a marginally more just settlement. Peaceful global boycotts could encourage peaceful forces inside Palestine at the expense of the armed militancy which feeds Israeli militarism. Perhaps I didn't give enough weight to these claims.

What convinces me of them now is that the pro-dialogue forces in Israel have never been weaker. Not only do almost all Israelis (87% in one poll) support their government's current slaughter, but also the anti-war movement is the smallest of all Israel's wars. Most important, the real negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that took place in the days of Ehud Olmert appears to have been definitively cast aside.

For many years Israel's settlement policies have constantly diminished what little chance there was of a viable Palestinian state. Settlers steal Palestinian land and homes, aided and abetted by Israeli law, bureaucracy and armed force. The "security" wall divides Palestinian communities. Army, police and settlers harass Palestinian families and the state fails to protect them from settler violence. State and municipal policies whittle away the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.

However Israeli leaders have kept the increasing fiction of a two-state solution alive and allowed John Kerry to shuttle too and fro in ever-more hopeless diplomacy. The US connived with this by never putting sharp pressure on Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu never really supported a two-state solution and his coalition's centre of gravity reflects the ever-strengthening pro-settler right, even as it includes some "moderates" like Tipi Livni. The exploitation of the teenage murders first to terrorise the West Bank and then shatter Gaza has made it clear that Israel has no interest in peace.

Netanyahu abandons the two-state solution


Peter Beinart draws attention to Netanyahu’s recent declaration: "There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." Beinart also cites the view of Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a Netanyahu sympathiser, that the prime minister was "insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state."       

Therefore Israel is dominated by forces which are wholly committed to maintaining control over the Palestinians and their territories. It is difficult to see a constellation of forces emerging which will change this any time soon - except possibly in the direction of yet more radical assaults on Palestinians, maybe within Israel proper. The attack on Gaza appears as a final confirmation of the direction in which Israel has been travelling for a long time. In this context, my reticence about the boycott is as futile as Kerry's willingness to continue shuttle diplomacy. Moreover, the distinction between boycotting Israel and boycotting settlements is meaningless since the state has committed itself totally to settlements, settlers and all that their growing dominance in the West Bank means for the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Boycott, an unavoidable political choice?

In this situation, for there ever to be a chance of change and a negotiated end to the occupation, Israel has to be subjected to much more of the coercion to which it so readily subjects others. This coercion can come in two forms. One is the violence of Hamas and others: indeed it is important to note that analysts increasingly emphasise that destroying Hamas will only open up the way for "more extreme" forces. The other is peaceful pressure, in the forms of civil protest inside Palestine, a boycott in western and global civil society, and sanctions by any governments on which civil society can exert sufficient pressure to act.

In the last decade, a vicious cycle of violence has helped close down civil protest and reinforce the relentless pro-settler, anti-two-state dynamic of Israeli politics as well as Hamas's dominance in Gaza. If we outside Palestine hope for a virtuous cycle of protest and dialogue, we have a duty to make our own contributions, through action as well as talk. Palestinians and Israelis cannot do this on their own. A general boycott of Israeli goods, along the lines of the South African boycott, seems the minimum that is needed.

How far should this be extended to cultural spheres like academia, media and the arts? In prioritising an economic boycott, we cannot neglect these areas. A boycott of Israeli institutions is a price they will have to pay to prevent a repeat of what we have seen over the last two weeks - or worse. While contacts with individual academics continue, boycotting conferences in Israel sends a strong message of international disapproval. Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend a conference hosted by president Shimon Peres worried Israel: its leaders even refrained from inciting accusations of anti-Semitism (usually made against those who boycott the country) against him. The rest of us may not be so lucky, but that too is a small price for standing up. In any case, abuse is weakening the potency of such accusations.

Israel's future

Many will say, as I might have said before, that isolating Israel will only reinforce the deep reactionary trends in its politics. This may be true in the short term, but it seems as though only a sharp challenge and dislocation will turn this society and state in a different direction. Israel is radically overplaying its hand locally, regionally and globally by spurning the opportunities for settlement with Palestinian leaders which are on offer. If its present course continues, it is probably only a matter of time before the state experiences a radical shock which will present it with the existential crisis that its leaders' rhetoric has long invoked to justify its atrocities.

Such a shock may come about through the accelerating instability of the wider Middle East, which hardly promises a safe environment for this outpost of the west. It would be better for everyone if it came through western states’ pulling the plug on Israel's support-mechanisms. Boycotting Israel is not just a way of helping the Palestinians: it could also be the best way to save Israelis from the consequences of their own folly.

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 


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