Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

By Rwayda (Rod) Al-Kamisi

This FUSE article from issue 36-2 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a global campaign applying moral and economic pressure on Israel to end apartheid and its occupation of Palestine. The call for BDS was first made in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, unions, movements and political parties representing the West Bank, Gaza, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the diaspora. Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against the racist system of apartheid, they called upon international civil organizations and people of conscience around the globe to impose broad boycott, divestment and sanction initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa during the apartheid era.

The BDS campaign demands that Israel recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully comply with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194. [1]

Forty-six years into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel continues to illegally expand its colonies into Palestinian territory. Sixty-five years after the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Indigenous Palestinian population, forcing a majority of Palestinians to become stateless refugees, Israel’s entrenched system of racial discrimination remains intact. The recent Israeli military aggression against Gaza [2] is the latest act in the decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people. Thus, the BDS campaign calls upon global civil society to boycott Israeli and international products and companies profiting from the violation of Palestinian rights, including Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions; divest from corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensure that university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance these companies; and impose sanctions to demonstrate disapproval and educate society about violations of international law and to end the complicity of other nations in these violations. [3]

In an effort to educate people and promote BDS, Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) was established in 2005. The first IAW event was organized by the Arab Students’ Collective at the University of Toronto and has since spread all over the world. IAW raises awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies, practices and institutions that affect all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the diaspora, as well as Palestinians inside Israel. In 2012, the BDS Global Day of Action took place in 23 countries, and the eighth annual IAW was organized on campuses in over 200 cities around the world.

Israeli Apartheid Week has also become a solidarity network, which links a wide range of groups and issues relating to international justice. IAW uses a variety of formats for popular education, including film screenings, lectures, cultural events and protests. Speakers who have presented at IAW include Tyendignaga Mohawk activist Shawn Brant, philosopher/theorist Judith Butler and author/activist Naomi Klein.

Popular consumer boycotts of Israeli companies complicit with occupation have not only raised awareness across the world, but have had a significant economic impact on specific corporations. For instance, Agrexco, Israel’s former largest exporter of agricultural produce, entered liquidation towards the end of 2011 following a campaign of blockades, demonstrations, popular boycotts and legal action in more than thirteen countries across Europe. Other successful boycott campaigns include the UK-based Co-operative Group (the largest co-op in Europe), which, following a determined campaign by its members, introduced a policy to end trade with companies that source products from Israel’s illegal settlements. [4] Thanks to a sustained campaign against Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics company situated in the illegal West Bank settler colonies of Mitzpe Shalem and Kaliya, the company was forced to close its stores in the UK, Norway, Japan and Canada. [5] As a result of Palestinian civil society’s call for action against G4S (a private security company complicit in the detention of Palestinian political prisoners), the European Parliament elected not to renew their contract with the company. [6] Furthermore, scores of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers have refused to perform or publish in Israel following pressure from the BDS movement including, in 2012, musicians Cat Power, Mashrou’ Leila and Zakir Hussain, and scholars Jacques Rancière and Katherine Franke. Also in 2012, Egyptian media collective Mosireen, Iraqi-Canadian MC The Narcicyst and American hip hop duo Rebel Diaz refused to participate in Creative Time Summit events, citing the annual New York-based forum’s partnership with the state-funded Israeli Center for Digital Art. [7]

Despite the apparent success of BDS actions, critics have asked why Israel is singled out and not other countries that commit human rights violations, arguing that this is because of an inherent anti-Semitism. [8] In 2009, Naomi Klein addressed this question:

The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa… Economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active complicity…Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the BDS strategy should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work. [9]

Veterans of the South African anti-apartheid campaign who led successful boycotts have also echoed these sentiments. Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize and archbishop-emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, wrote:

[The] harsh reality endured by millions of Palestinians requires people and organizations of conscience to divest from those companies [profiting] from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians. Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land. [10]

In December 2012, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), made BDS part of its official policy. The University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union (GSU) also endorsed BDS recently, joining other Canadian universities, including York University, the University of Regina, and Carleton University.

Toronto’s ninth annual Israeli Apartheid Week is set to take place from 1 – 10 March 2013. This year’s IAW campaigns stand in solidarity with the Idle No More Indigenous movement. Confirmed speakers include Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation activist and the Peace River tar sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Alberta, and Razan Ghazzawi, frontline Syrian blogger and activist. There will also be a special screening of Roadmap to Apartheid with Cinema Politica at the Bloor Cinema. Cities across Canada and the world are also set to host IAW events.


[1] “Introducing the BDS Movement” BDS Movement (online).

[2] For background on the eight-day assault that began 10 November 2012, see Sharif Abdel Kouddous, “Gaza’s ‘Severe Damage’ and Why Truce Won’t Stop the Violence of Occupation,” Democracy Now! (26 November 2012; online).

[3] Nora Barrows-Friedman, “BDS Roundup: The BDS Movement, Seven Years On, ‘Stronger, More Effective and More Diverse Than Ever,’” The Electronic Intifada (11 July 2012; online).

[4] Tracy McVeigh and Harriet Sherwood, “Co-op Boycotts Exports from Israel’s West Bank Settlements,” The Guardian (29 April 2012; online).

[5] Palestinian BDS National Committee, “BDS Campaigners Force London Ahava Shop to Move,” BDS Movement (31 March 2011; online).

[6] The European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine, “G4S Loses Its Contract with the European Parliament,” BDS Movement (17 April 2012; online).

[7] Nora Barrows-Friedman, “BDS Roundup: The Victories of 2012,” The Electronic Intifada (2 January 2013; online).

[8] See Sami Hermez, “Answering Critics of the Boycott Movement, The Electronic Intifada (1 October 2009; online).

[9] Naomi Klein, “Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction,” The Nation (8 January 2009; online).

[10] Desmond Tutu, “Justice Requires Action to Stop Subjugation of Palestinians,” Tampa Bay Times (1 May 2012; online).


Rwayda (Rod) Al-Kamisi is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, currently in her last year. Her specialization is women and gender studies, with a minor in history, and she is currently completing her thesis on the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Al-Kamisi is part of Students Against Israeli Apartheid and a writer for the U of T newspaper, The Varsity. She also volunteers and writes a blog for the Centre for Women and Trans People at U of T.


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