On student unions and Israeli apartheid

“We are free today in this land because so many of our friends throughout the world supported us… [Students] were able to change the moral compass in your country…”

Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu is better placed than most to comment on the success students can have by standing in solidarity with oppressed peoples throughout the world. In a recent Students’ Union referendum, students at the University of Sheffield voted overwhelmingly to do just that.

PHOTO/ JohnJobby

A motion was put before the student body proposing that the Students’ Union commit itself to the global campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli companies and any company complicit in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The motion was approved by a margin of over 1700 votes, making the University of Sheffield the first Russell Group university to back the BDS campaign.

The call for BDS was made in 2005 by a cross-section of Palestinian civil society, inspired by the impact of a similar boycott campaign against South Africa at the height of Apartheid rule. It asks people of conscience all across the world to launch boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel. The campaign will continue until the Israeli government recognises its obligations under international law to accord the Palestinian people their basic human rights.

The BDS movement has seen significant backing from many prominent South African activists. This is unsurprising, with more and more commentators drawing worrying comparisons between the treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and that of black South Africans under the Apartheid regime.

Imprisonment without trial, torture of prisoners, and regular harassment at checkpoints that restrict freedom of movement – any one of these crimes can be attributed equally to the Israeli occupying force and the South African Apartheid security forces.

The comparisons drawn have also been those of hope, however, and the end of the Apartheid regime is an example of the success that an international BDS campaign can have as part of a campaign against injustice. Archbishop Tutu himself has always recognised the role that the international movement had in pressuring the South African government into change, and the hope is that a similarly concerted international effort could have as important a part to play in Palestine.

Indeed, the impact of the BDS movement is already being felt. At the end of 2011 Agrexco, Israel’s one time largest exporter of agricultural produce who were responsible for bringing products from illegal settlements to the shelves of our supermarkets, entered into liquidation following a campaign of demonstrations, lobbying, and popular boycotts in countries all across Europe.

The French multinational Veolia has also become a target for BDS advocates across Europe and Australia because of their involvement in the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR). The JLR links illegal Israeli settlements to occupied East Jerusalem, helping maintain the settlements and embed them deeper in occupied territory. The tramway has been condemned by 44 governments, including the UK’s, and was declared illegal by the UN in 2010. BDS pressure has led to Veolia losing contracts worth upwards of $14 billion, including those with Tower Hamlets and Swansea councils, who have both passed motions barring Veolia from bidding on any future contracts. Veolia have also become the first target for the University of Sheffield’s new policy as a result of their waste management contract with the university’s Accommodation and Campus Services. It just goes to show that companies directly facilitating the occupation may be closer to home than you’d expect.

Whilst governments and international organisations continually fail to take action in the face of systematic human rights abuses, the BDS movement is enabling ordinary people to hit companies involved in the occupation where it hurts the most: their bank accounts. These successes are sending a powerful message to the Israeli government, that they cannot simply breach international law with impunity.

This was the message students at the University of Sheffield sent with their resounding support for the motion, and a message we want to hear echoing around student unions all over the country: companies complicit in breaches of international law in the Occupied Territories are not welcome on our campuses.

The BDS campaign is still in its infancy, but it is gathering pace. With the South African boycott, it was the students who led the way with individual boycotts and displays of solidarity, changing the moral compass of their countries in the process.

By students’ unions around the UK seizing the initiative and taking this stance, we can perhaps get the needle swinging once more.