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Shir Hever: BDS movement including large scale divestment by big corporations and approaching the level of government sanctions

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The campaign for economic boycotting of Israel is more in the news these days than ever. Some European firms that had been investing in businesses doing business in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have now said they will stop doing that. There are resolutions in front of the Human Rights Council to increase sanctions or create some kind of form of opposition to further business operations in the occupied territories by settlements.

How effective is all of this? What’s happening with the boycott campaign?

Now joining us to discuss all this is Shir Hever. He’s a researcher with the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. He’s now in Germany doing his PhD. And he is a regular commentator on The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Shir.


JAY: So this seems to be quite contradictory information about how effective the boycott campaign is, even contradictory information coming from the Israeli government itself. Sometimes you hear people yelling, we’re under siege, we’re under siege, and then someone else from the Israeli government says, oh, this is minor, investment’s growing and we’re not really feeling the effects of this. How effective is the campaign right now?

HEVER: The campaign is now in a bit of unsure footing, because it has upgraded itself from a relatively scattered campaign of grassroots organizations in various cities trying to call on people to boycott Israeli goods to the next level. The next level is large-scale divestment by big corporations. And we’re approaching the level of government sanctions. There’s already one very important decision by the European Union that can be perceived as a sanction. And therefore the movement is now in a period of readjustment to their newly found influence. So I think there’s certainly a lot more in the BDS movement today than there was before.

JAY: Now, European-Israeli trade, the number I see is something like about $37 billion. It’s higher than last year. So things in terms of real numbers seem to be increasing, not decreasing.

HEVER: Well, of course. The BDS movement is calling for people not to buy Israeli products, but in effect it’s not a movement that can really end or severely stop the trade between Israel and Europe. And that’s not even the purpose of this movement.

These numbers are coming from a lot of different reasons, including a lot of programs that the Israeli government is trying to promote which increases trade in order to try to stave off the BDS movement. But I don’t think that this is where we see the evidence. We see the evidence with statements by Israeli businesspeople who are saying more and more that they feel that they cannot do business normally in Europe. There is one lawyer’s office that refuses to reveal the names of his clients or even their number, but he’s saying that he’s flooded by calls by Israeli businesses that ask him to help with legal advice about how they can deal with being boycotted in Europe. And as a result, they’re trying also to find alternative markets–so far, not successfully.

But part of the reason why we don’t see a very clear economic indication–BDS has affected the economy by 1 percent or 2 percent–we’re not going to be able to see that as long as Israeli businesses refuse to reveal this information. And that’s something very interesting, because Israeli corporations are effectively helping the Israeli government by keeping secret the information that they have about BDS.

JAY: Now, it would seem to–.

HEVER: They could–.

JAY: Sorry. Go ahead.

HEVER: Yeah. They could–these corporations, if they’re hurt and they lose contracts worth tens of millions of euros or dollars, they could say, well, this is not our fault, this is government policy. Why should we be punished? We want the government to compensate us, or the government should adopt policies that do not provoke so many boycotts around the world. But the corporations don’t want this kind of discussion at all; they are afraid that this will be perceived as unpatriotic. So, instead they’re keeping this secret, and in fact they become accomplices in the occupation and the colonialism.

JAY: Now, Netanyahu at the recent AIPAC meetings made a big part of his speech talking about the BDS campaign (boycott, divestment, sanctions), a very impassioned speech that Israel won’t bow down to this and it’s not going to succeed and it won’t win and so on and so on. But it seems to me it’s quite a acknowledgment of the strength of the movement that he even talks about it. You would think his better strategy is: don’t say a word, and try to marginalize it. It seems to have grown to a point he can’t use that tactic now.

HEVER: Sure. Well, Netanyahu is not speaking to the boycotters anymore. When the official line of the Israeli Ministry of Defense was to try to ignore this movement, not to acknowledge it, it was maybe a more intelligent strategy in terms of slowing down the effect of BDS. But now Netanyahu is just speaking to his own base and bringing up BDS again and again in his speeches, not just in AIPAC. But what he’s doing is not just saying BDS is going to fail–this is a point that he repeats again and again until nobody believes it anymore. But he’s also saying the people who support BDS are anti-Semites. And this is a very important point, because he’s crossed the line. He’s saying, basically, the people who criticize Israel and call for sanctions against Israel are anti-Semites because Israel is not really a state in the normal sense of the word but is somehow the representative of the Jewish people, and any action against Israel is an action against Jews, wherever they may be.

JAY: How is that playing in Europe?

HEVER: Well, it used to play very strongly in Europe. In fact, many countries in Europe, especially Germany, the Netherlands, France, were very concerned about any kind of accusations of anti-Semitism. And at that time it was sometimes possible to completely discredit journalists and politicians who would call for criticism of Israel or who would openly criticize Israel by accusing them of being anti-Semitic.

Now the situation is completely different, because at the moment–well, I’m in Germany; I can see this all the time that any kind of critic of Israel is immediately called anti-Semitic, and people are not afraid of that accusation anymore, because it has lost its meaning because it has been used so often. And this is actually worrying, because there are actual anti-Semites out there, and now real anti-Semites, people who hate Jews just because they’re Jews, are completely off the radar, nobody is concerned about them, because the people who are accused of being anti-Semites are people who are human right activists or Palestinian solidarity groups, even if in these groups there are many Jews, and even if these groups talk about democracy and equal rights, as if Judaism stands for the opposite of equality and human rights.

JAY: Right. Just one final point. There seems to be more discussion, indication at official European circles of support for certainly some kind of sanctions or a boycott of something to do with the activity in the occupied territories and in the illegal settlements. How much of that is posturing for the purposes of currying some influence, increased trade, markets in the Arab world? We know the French have certainly worked very close with the Saudis in Libya. The French are major arms exporters and commodity exporters, of course, consumer goods. How much of this is trying to pry some of these–opening some areas away from the United States, given the shifting politics in the Middle East?

HEVER: Yeah, so I wouldn’t call that posturing, actually. I would say there are real economic interests in the Middle East and European governments who are very interested in opening up markets in the Middle East. Unlike the United States, the European market is more civilian; the proportion or the importance of the arms trade is not as important to Europe as it is to the U.S., even though, of course, there is a big arms export from Europe as well.

But there was already a strategic decision in the European Union level that they want to promote the two-state solution, peace process negotiations, and so on, in order to pacify the region for economic reasons. And for that purpose, they were willing to set aside large amounts of money to try to help Palestinians build their own independent state. And this started from 1994. And now we’re 20 years later and there is no Palestinian state, or at least not a sovereign state, and there is no Palestinian economy to speak of because all that money that has been invested by the European Union has been invested into projects that Israel has shot down or physically destroyed, or through bureaucracy managed to eliminate or halt, and so on.

And over time, European politicians have been coming to the realization that it’s not enough to throw money at the problem. They also have to put some pressure on Israel to make sure that Israel will not destroy these projects. And that’s the only way that they’re going to achieve any kind of influence over the situation in the Middle East and the level of violence in the Middle East. And that’s why there were always people in the European Union trying to call for more sanctions or more strongly worded condemnations of Israeli policies. And they were silenced because the Israeli foreign office threatened them that they would be branded as anti-Semites. Now I think they’re not as afraid as they used to be, because this accusation has been used so much.

JAY: Right.

HEVER: And that’s why we’re seeing this debate becoming a little bit more open in the European Union.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Shir.

HEVER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.