Waging Peace from Afar: Divestment and Israeli Occupation

A growing grassroots movement is using the techniques of the anti-apartheid movement to challenge U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

When Israeli commandos launched their assault on the unarmed flotilla
of ships carrying hundreds of humanitarian aid workers and 10,000 tons
of supplies for the besieged Gaza Strip, killing at least nine activists
and injuring scores more, part of the operation was "Made in the USA."

Decades of uncritical U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic
support has ensured that Israel's military power-nuclear and
conventional-remains unchallengeable. A U.S. pattern of using UN
Security Council vetoes to protect Israel from accountability has
ensured that Israel can essentially do whatever it likes with those
U.S.-provided weapons, regardless of what U.S. or international laws may
be broken.

Israel has long relied on the numerous U.S.-made and U.S.-financed
Apache and Blackhawk war helicopters in its arsenal-it's a good bet
those were in use in the May 31st assault in international waters. Use
of U.S.-provided weapons is severely limited by our own laws: The Arms
Export Control Act (AECA) prohibits any recipient from using U.S.
weapons except for security within its own borders, or
for direct self-defense. And no amount of Israeli spin can make us
believe that an attack by heavily-armed commandos jumping onto the decks
of an unarmed civilian ship in international waters has anything to do
with self-defense.

So yes-our tax dollars and our politicians' decisions play a huge
part in enabling not only the flotilla attack but Israel's violations of
human rights overall. But increasingly, across the country, people and
organizations are standing up to say no to U.S. support for those
policies of occupation and apartheid.

The main strategy is known as "BDS"-boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Based on the lessons of the South African anti-apartheid movement
of the 1980s, BDS brings non-violent economic pressure to bear in order
to end Israeli violations of international law. In 2005, a coalition of
Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call for a global
campaign of BDS. The call was based on the understanding that the
Palestinian struggle for human rights, equality, and the enforcement of
international law needed international support-and civil society
organizations would have to step in, given that the traditional
Palestinian leadership hadn't created a strategy for mobilizing such

The strength of the BDS call was its recognition that while a unified
global campaign was needed, conditions are different in every country.
So in Europe, the focus began on individual boycotts of consumer goods
produced in Israeli settlements. In countries like Brazil and India, the
emphasis was on military sanctions, pressuring governments to stop
buying Israeli armaments. And in the U.S., the initial focus was on

In fact, the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, the largest
coalition of organizations working on the issue, had been working on
divestment even before the 2005 Palestinian call. The movement began in
earnest following the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie,
a young U.S. peace activist killed as she tried to block the demolition
of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip by Israeli troops. Corrie was
run over by an armored bulldozer manufactured by Caterpillar, which
became the first target of the divestment efforts.

Since that time, BDS work in the U.S. has increased dramatically. In
addition to Caterpillar, the campaign is now targeting Motorola (the
company's Israeli affiliate provides special communications systems for
Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank) and Ahava (a cosmetics
company that uses mud from the Dead Sea, harming the fragile environment
as well as expropriating Palestinian land).

Across the U.S., churches, university campuses, municipal
governments, and many more institutions are debating divestment and
boycott resolutions. The Presbyterian Church is debating how to include
an anti-occupation approach within its socially responsible investment
policies. On June 15, the Northern Illinois Conference of the United
Methodist Church voted to divest from three corporations that profit
from the occupation of Palestine. And in spring 2010, Hampshire College
became the first university to divest from companies supporting
occupation-a moment of special resonance because Hampshire was also the
first U.S. college to divest from South Africa in the 1980s. When the
issue was debated in Berkeley's student senate, more than 4,000 people
mobilized to support divestment.

The U.S. Campaign is also working to end U.S.
military aid to Israel, calling for the enforcement of U.S. laws already
prohibiting Israel's illegal use of U.S. weapons. Really, it's a call
for sanctions from below. Who really thinks that giving $30 billion of
our tax money in military aid to Israel-already militarily powerful and
nuclear-armed-as promised by George Bush and now being implemented by
President Obama over the next ten years, is a good use of those funds in
this time of economic crisis? BDS is a strategic effort to change U.S.
policy to support human rights, equality, and an end to the occupation
rather than continued military build-up.

In the first 24 hours after the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, the
Obama administration limited itself to expressions of concern and regret
for the loss of life, along with a polite request to Israel for
"clarifications." But maybe the international outcry that followed the
attack, joined by the rising BDS movement in the U.S., will mark the
beginning of a shift in U.S. policy.

In the first days and weeks after the flotilla attack, BDS actions
across the United States took on new energy and achieved new results. In
California, hundreds of activists formed a picket line at dawn at the
Port of Oakland where an Israeli cargo ship waited, urging dock workers
not to unload the ship in protest of the flotilla assault. Workers of
the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) refused to cross
the picket line, a labor arbitrator immediately upheld their right to
refuse to unload the ship, and the shipping company abandoned the
effort. The ILWU workers joined counterparts in a number of other
countries, including Sweden, South Africa, Norway, and Malaysia, who
have all announced their refusal to unload Israeli ships.

The powerful example of the BDS movement that helped end apartheid in
South Africa is a constant source of inspiration. Current BDS campaigns
have learned key lessons and grounded much of their work in the
accomplishments-and, indeed, the challenges and even failures-of that
earlier, seminal version.

A generation ago, South African apartheid appeared to be an equally
impossible-to-change political reality. Considering that history, is it
so unlikely that Washington could tell Israel that we would rather keep
those $30 billion here at home to create 600,000 new green union jobs,
rather than support a foreign military force's ability to kill
humanitarian workers trying to break an illegal blockade in order to
bring desperately needed supplies to a besieged population?

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.