Boycotts and protests – how are people around the world defying Israel?

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Al Jazeera takes a look at the movements against Israel and illegal settlements in Palestine.

From Jakarta to San Francisco, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 18,700 people, including more than 7,700 children.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Events Data Project, a nongovernmental organisation specialising in conflict data collection, from October 7 to November 24, there were at least 7,283 pro-Palestine protests that took place in more than 118 countries and territories.

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Many more have chosen to express their condemnation using their purchasing power, opting to boycott products and services that support Israel, in turn fueling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was set up in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups.

Censoring voices on campus

In the United States, students at several universities, including Columbia University in New York City, have said their attempts to speak out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza have met intimidation and censorship.

Standing in front of the colonnade of Columbia University's Butler Library, students hold up handwritten signs on cardboard to show support for the Palestinian cause.
Students at Columbia University rally on October 12, 2023, in support of Palestinians facing Israeli bombardment in Gaza [Jeenah Moon/Reuters]

“I think being at a school at Columbia that has so much global power, I felt the need to act. And also, I just think that this issue is one that connects so many other ones where we see police violence, settler colonialism, these issues that are so important in America as well,” said Daria Mateescu, a law student at Columbia University.

Mateescu, 25, is a first-generation Romanian American who leads the Columbia University Apartheid Divest student group, a coalition of about 80 student organisations that see Palestine as the vanguard for collective liberation of the marginalised.

She said she and her peers feel the university is not listening to student voices calling for divestment from Columbia’s Tel Aviv campus, which Palestinians and Arabs cannot attend; reaffirmation of free speech on campus; and reinstatement of two student groups –  Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) – that were suspended by the university in November.

Mateescu said that in addition to protests on and off campus, members of the community are making consumer choices tied to what they believe.

“People are really respecting the targeted boycotts for places like McDonald’s or Starbucks … ‘We don’t buy from these places.’ That’s incredible to hear,” she told Al Jazeera.

Mateescu said there’s a Colombia-specific boycott list that’s being shared on social media to make local consumer choices.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, a group of students at the University of York have also been holding events to raise awareness about the events in Palestine.

The students requested their identities be concealed due to the backlash for publicly supporting Palestine.

“I do find that a lot of people don’t want to take a stance on it and are sort of sitting in the middle and a lot of people that I know don’t really understand what’s going on very much because there’s quite a lot of misinformation. I would say it’s your duty to uplift voices that aren’t necessarily being heard,” one of the society members said.

“I think for me to take the small action of not buying a coffee at a certain chain, it’s very easy to take small actions to make sure that there’s less money being directed towards violence,” she said, explaining the steps she is taking.

Another member said they are focused on educating people who may not be equipped with information to form an opinion on the conflict and the conditions of the Palestinian people.

March for Palestine in London
Demonstrators hold Palestinian flags and signs during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during a weeklong truce between Hamas and Israel in London on November 25, 2023 [Hollie Adams/ Reuters]

What is BDS?

The BDS movement, established by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, has seen a renewed global interest despite being banned on many US and Canadian campuses and in at least 35 states in the US.

The movement seeks to challenge international support for what it calls Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism – where colonists replace the Indigenous community – and uphold the principle that “Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.”

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the US civil rights movement and the Indian anti-colonial struggle, BDS aims to make boycotts effective by focusing on selected companies and products that have a direct role in Israel’s policies against Palestinians.

Their campaign is divided into four categories:

Consumer boycotts: Boycotts of brands that have a proven record of complicity in abuses against Palestinians.

Divestments: Pressure on governments and institutions to stop doing business with companies that enable the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Pressure: Calls for people and institutions to pressure brands and services to end their complicity in abuses against Palestinians.

Organic boycotts: Grassroots boycotts of brands that openly support Israeli violence against Palestinians.

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Omar Bargouhti, one of the BDS co-founders, said Israel has for many years dedicated a full government ministry to fighting the BDS movement.

Barghouti told Al Jazeera that BDS calls for ending Israel’s military occupation, which began in 1967; dismantling its “system of apartheid as documented by Amnesty International and a global consensus of human rights organisations”; and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were forcibly displaced in 1948.

“Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement categorically opposes all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. BDS targets complicity, not identity,” Barghouti said.

The current boycott around the world against McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and other companies is coming from organic grassroots campaigns, not initiated by the BDS movement, he added.

One of the main reasons for this boycott spree is that the companies’ branches or franchises in Israel have openly supported and provided generous in-kind donations to the Israeli military during its offensive, he said.

Impact on locally owned franchises

Many Western brands, particularly those perceived to be pro-Israel, have felt the impact of the boycotts. Local franchise owners – including those of McDonald’s in EgyptOmanPakistan, and the United Arab Emirates – have issued statements distancing themselves from the actions taken by their Israeli counterparts.

Many franchises are locally owned, and business owners fear the economic damage and unemployment the boycotts could cause.

Barghouti feels there is an increased interest in the BDS movement, “The fact that many spontaneous boycott activists are now reaching out to the BDS movement for guidance on building strategic and sustainable campaigns gives us hope that indeed beyond stopping Israel’s current genocidal war in Gaza – supported by the US, EU, UK, Canada, Australia and others – we can channel all this unprecedented outrage into strategic campaigns that can truly cut a lot of the ongoing complicity in Israeli crimes.”

Companies linked to illegal Israeli settlements

In addition to BDS’s target list, the United Nations Human Rights Office in 2020 published a list of 112 business entities that had ties with Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” It also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory”.

According to Amnesty International, complicity in war crimes is an offence for which individuals, including business directors and managers, can be held criminally liable.

Ninety-four of the firms named are Israel-based. The remaining 18 are in other countries, including the US, UK, Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Thailand.

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Companies that have expressed support for Israel

Professor Joseph Sonnenfeld of Yale University keeps track of the major companies around the world that have expressed support and solidarity with Israel.

Many companies donated to international aid groups that also serve the besieged enclave of Gaza, many companies express support only, some expressed their support and aid for Israel and/or for Gaza.

From this list, Al Jazeera categorised the 212 companies according to the following criteria:

  • Denounced Hamas’s October 7 attacks (184 companies)
  • Said they “stand with Israel” (62 companies)
  • Pledged money to Israel or Israeli groups (35 companies)
  • Pledged money to aid groups specifically for Palestine (3 companies)
  • Pledged money to international aid groups (26 companies)

Of the 212 companies on Sonnenfeld’s list, at least 30 made financial pledges to Israel and its affiliated groups. Some of the largest pledges include: Michael Bloomberg ($25m), Jefferies ($13m), Blackstone ($7m), Salesforce ($2.4m), Boeing ($2m), Disney ($2m), Johnson & Johnson ($2m) and several companies pledged to match employee donations.

At least 16 companies pledged money to international aid groups. Among them were UBS ($10m), Chanel ($4m), Salesforce ($2.3m), Verizon ($2m) and an undisclosed amount from Capri Holdings, which owns Jimmy Choo, Versace and Micheal Kors.

At least three companies specifically pledged money to Palestinian aid groups, which include Accenture ($1.5m) for the Palestinian Red Crescent.

‘Paying more attention to BDS’

A’siah Abdalah
A’siah Abdalah [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

For 21-year-old A’siah Abdalah, boycotting is an essential part of her daily life beginning well before October 7.

Born and raised in Nicaragua, Abdalah used to rally against press censorship and femicide as a high schooler, efforts that sometimes made her parents worry for her safety.

Abdalah’s great-grandfather was Palestinian, but she never met him. Her interest in her heritage increased when at the age of 14, some boys were trying to pick on her at school by telling her that “you don’t have a country.” To prove her bullies wrong, she began to learn more about the history of Palestine.

Abdalah said that when she tells people she’s a Christian Palestinian, it often surprises people, which opens a door for broader conversations with those who assume that all Palestinians are Muslim.

The killing of Christian Palestinians in Gaza, she said, is “a genocide within a genocide … There are between 800 and 1,000 Christian Palestinians left. Bloodlines that can be literally traced back to the first believers – completely erased. Bloodlines, entire families gone,” she told Al Jazeera.

That’s why she makes a point of saying she’s Christian. “My Palestinian identity does not exist separately from my Christian identity. … It’s important for people to see and understand, especially in a country that deeply conflates Christianity with Zionism.”

Abdalah is currently a student at the University of New Orleans in the US state of Louisiana and hopes to go to law school.

“I’ve always boycotted certain brands because I keep track of the list,” saying she finds it important to check the official site for BDS because there is misinformation out there about the boycotts.

However, Abdalah faces a unique obstacle in Louisiana. In 2018, Governor Bel Edwards signed anti-BDS legislation forbidding the state from contracting with businesses that support the BDS campaign.

Still, Abdalah is hopeful that her university’s student government will put forth a symbolic statement in support of Palestine. For now, she focuses on boycotting McDonald’s, Starbucks and Disney.

‘I didn’t even understand that I was a Zionist’

Koda Sokol
Koda Sokol [Delaney Nolan/Al JAzeera]

Koda Sokol, an organiser with Jewish Voice for Peace, is a descendant of Holocaust survivors. His grandparents escaped to Israel to flee the genocide, “and so the attachment to Israel as a necessary solution for Jewish safety in my family is very tight.” His parents even urged him to sign up for the Israeli military when he was younger. “I was raised with compulsory Zionism,” he explained. “And it took me a long time to even recognise that.”

After high school, he moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz, a collective Jewish community. But after a few months, the kibbutz was bombed. Suddenly, he was forced to flee Israel.

He considers this a fork in the road – an event that could have pushed him in a radically different, more conservative direction. Instead, he said, “I was lucky to be involved in other organising spaces that exposed me to anti-Zionist organising.”

Sokol, who is queer and trans, likens the experience to being in the closet. Before transitioning, “I didn’t even realise that I was in the closet because I hadn’t been exposed to the possibility of being otherwise, and I think I felt similarly with Zionism, where I didn’t even understand that I was a Zionist. I just hadn’t been exposed to an alternative.”

Sokol is now a PhD student at the University of California Santa Cruz, where his dissertation addresses connections between transness and anti-Zionism as political identities. Many of the JVP chapters in the US, he pointed out, are led by trans people, “and I think that’s not a coincidence.”

“The Zionist propaganda machine is extremely powerful and effective at convincing people that there isn’t anything to mobilise around,” but social media has exposed people to new information, Sokol said, including information about the US role. “I think we’re seeing a lot of people understanding for the first time right now that this is a colonial, apartheid, genocidal situation even though it isn’t new. And I think it has a lot to do with social media.”

Actions like boycotts are important because they’re a way for people to exercise some degree of power, Sokol said. “I think this is an extremely overwhelming situation, and I think being overwhelmed can be a really de-mobilising feeling … If people don’t have something to do with those feelings, often they become conservative.” That is part of why boycotts are “a really necessary part of the movement”, he says.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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