The European Commission's decision to label products from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is the latest step by the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, established in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The Nov. 11 EU decision is the result of the combined efforts of different groups, including Palestinians in Europe. Palestinian institutions — such as the Palestinian Assembly in Germany, the Coordinating Council to support Palestine in Austria, the Palestinian Justice Center in Sweden, the Palestinian Forum in Belgium and others — are still working to strengthen ties with EU decision-making circles, be they the European Parliament, universities or others.
There were many efforts to boycott Israel on the academic and cultural levels in Europe in 2015. The UK's National Union of Students — which numbers about 7 million — called for a boycott of Israel on June 3, while some concerts by European artists scheduled to be held in Israel were canceled, such as Norwegian singer Moddi's show in January 2014.
On the economic level, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics announced in June that Israel's economy had incurred losses of about $6 billion in 2013 and 2014 as a result of the European boycott of agricultural products from Israeli settlements, and this figure is expected to reach $9.5 billion by the end of 2015.
Al-Monitor held face-to-face meetings and phone interviews in the West Bank and Europe to learn about the BDS movement’s achievements and failures as well as the challenges it has faced.
In 2015, Yousef Aljamal, a researcher at the Center for Political and Development Studies in Gaza, published the results of a study on the Palestinian diaspora’s role in the West in boycotting Israel he conducted from the University of Malaya in Malaysia, where he finished his master's degree this year.
He told Al-Monitor, “Palestinians in Europe and in the US have taken part in the boycott activities that focused on European universities and churches. They have also joined European and US institutions calling to boycott Israel. The European positions, which are relatively supportive of Palestine, have been a source of strength for the boycott activists, most of whom are not affiliated with political parties. Yet the Palestinian Authority is attempting to thwart the boycott efforts through normalization with Israelis.”
The BDS movement has increased its activities in recent months. The American Anthropologists Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions on Nov 22, and on Oct. 27, 343 British academics representing 72 British universities and academic institutions signed a petition to boycott Israel.
Majed Al-Zeer, chairman of the Palestinians in Europe Conference, told Al-Monitor the most important reasons behind the increasing European boycott include “the ongoing Israeli occupation in the occupied territories, the increased Israeli violence against Palestinians and the last three Israeli wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014. These have contributed to raising awareness about the boycott against Israel among Europeans. This is added to the emergence of professional Palestinian media, political and relief institutions — such as the Council of the European Palestinian Relations in Brussels, the Palestinian Return Centre in London and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in Britain — which have also contributed to the boycott and the establishment of ties with the European political classes.”
Zeer added, “Such institutions participating in the boycott have limited self-funding, and there is no official or factional Palestinian strategy to manage the boycott within Europe. The Palestinian division has contributed to weakening these institutions’ efforts.”
Although Palestinians in Europe have enjoyed major successes, they face serious problems, including the lack of financial resources, no backing from the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestinian political division and strong Israeli political influence in European capitals, despite its recent failures.
In this context, Adeeb Ziadeh, an associate fellow at the Higher Education Academy in the UK specializing in EU foreign policy toward the Middle East, told Al-Monitor, “Boycotting Israel is increasing in Europe, through measures similar to those used to oppose the apartheid in South Africa. European universities have stopped working with their Israeli counterparts, Europeans boycott Israeli goods and Israeli officers have been legally prosecuted upon their arrival to EU territories on charges of committing war crimes against Palestinians.”
Ziadeh added, “Although Palestinians in Europe are contributing to the BDS movement, there are no official statistics on their participation in such activities, despite their strategic success in [promoting] the BDS movement. They are doing so by spreading [the boycott activities] in European countries and cities with no Palestinian presence and paying visits to European decision-makers to promote boycotting Israel.”
The BDS movement in Europe has started to embarrass and confuse Israelis at the cultural, intellectual and academic levels. The Israeli government is working to stop the movement from expanding into additional academic and economic sectors.
The Israeli government first announced in June 2013 that the BDS movement represents a strategic threat to Israel. In April 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court ratified the “boycott law,” which entails legal prosecution, demands compensation from each person who calls for boycotting Israel and imposes significant economic sanctions on Israeli institutions that call for the boycott.
Hossam Shaker, a media adviser who follows the BDS movement from Austria, told Al-Monitor, “Boycotting Israel has evolved in recent years and has expanded among the masses in European cities and various sectors such as unions, associations, universities, consumer cooperatives, investment funds and municipalities. The boycott is expanding steadily. Palestinians in Europe are taking part in multiple ways in the boycott efforts by joining local and sectoral groups, contributing to media efforts and lobbies, hosting active leaders in Palestinian conferences and gatherings throughout Europe and by making calls and pressuring statements and positions.”
On June 4, former PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, now a member of the Fatah Central Committee and commissioner of international relations, said that the boycott of Israel is one of the means used by Palestinians to pressure Israel through international mobilization, without specifying the nature of the role the PA plays in supporting the BDS movement. Despite the Palestinian popular support for the boycott efforts, the PA has not officially encouraged them, likely because it fears Israeli sanctions for supporting the movement.
The outreach activities conducted by Palestinians in Europe can be considered successful. For example, in May 2015, Swiss activists spoke out against the Swiss purchase of Israeli drones on May 26, and before that on May 17, a number of famous personalities and international authors such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk and Salman Abu Sitta called for the suspension of the Israeli Football Association's FIFA and UEFA memberships.
Campaigns in Britain have called for the academic boycott of Israeli universities, institutes and academic events through public petitions and press releases, most of which are organized by British academics.
Haidar Eid, a professor of English literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza and a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, told Al-Monitor, “The boycott efforts have targeted Israeli academic institutions for their complicity with the policies of the Israeli occupation against Palestinians. Yet official Palestinian support for these efforts is unavailable, although Israel is alarmed by the extreme danger of a wider boycott. It transferred the issue of addressing it from the Israeli Foreign Ministry to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in June.”
Palestinians believe that while Israel's military superiority gives Israel an advantage on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories, to a lesser extent, Israel seems unable to confront Palestinians carrying out boycott campaigns against Israel within Europe.