Rank hypocrisy and shameless double standards are by now the unsurprising hallmarks of the UK Government. But it has excelled itself in its rapid and enthusiastic conversion to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) now seen as both a morally appropriate, and potentially efficacious, strategy designed, in this case, to persuade Russia to reverse its invasion of Ukraine. Until this moment, the UK Government, along with allies, has been vehement in its opposition to BDS, specifically in regard to Israel, casting upon it no end of calumnies.
On the basis that a policy should be expressive of an informing principle, and that consistency in the application of a principle is both desirable and necessary, we are entitled to ask: What circumstances justify the implementation of BDS, and what circumstances appear not to do so?
Compare and contrast: BDS in respect of Russia and in respect of Israel
The case where BDS has been so vehemently opposed is of course in respect of Israel’s policies and actions towards Palestine and Palestinians. As indicated above, and in contradiction to the stance taken in the Israel/Palestine case, the UK Government and its allies are enthusiastically implementing BDS against Russia and Belarus.
The scope of this BDS campaign is stunning. By way of example it includes, but is not limited to, moves to curtail Russia’s ability to trade in international markets, to export its oil and natural gas along with wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics and maritime technologies. The EU and the UK are also closing their airspaces to Russian aircraft, including the private jets of Russian oligarchs
It hardly needs this article to inform readers of some key features of Russia’s actions in respect of Ukraine. But in seeking to understand what, on the one hand, urges the Government to enthuse about BDS, and on the other, what urges it to deprecate BDS so vehemently, some attention to detail is required.
Ukraine can be characterised as a state that, until now, has been able to exercise its right of self-determination. A neighbouring state, a relatively powerful one – Russia – commanding in particular military resources far in excess of those available to Ukraine decided, for reasons of its own, that Ukraine was no longer entitled to unfettered self-determination, and it should, in effect, become part of Russia.
One can discuss what precisely might be meant by ‘become part of’, but I think it fair to say that Russia was and is determined to extinguish Ukrainians’ enjoyment of unfettered self-determination. And to this end it launched, and is currently conducting, a brutal military assault that in practice, and inevitably, targets not only an opposing military, but also civilians.
Aside from Russia seeking to extinguish Ukrainian self-determination, there are no doubt other features that weighed with the UK and its allies as justification for implementing stringent BDS against Russia. However, it is also surely the case that seeking, by force, to nullify a state’s or people’s capacity for self-determination are grounds enough for BDS to be an appropriate policy response. And what’s true in one case, if similar considerations apply, should be true in another.
Turning now to Israel and its relationship to Palestine/Palestinians what do we find? Once again, it hardly needs this article to inform readers of salient features, but some detail here is useful.
In 1948 Israel pronounced itself an independent state, specifically an independent Jewish state. In order for the Jewish character of the new state to be assured, it was necessary to reduce the number of indigenous Palestinians living within its (then) boundaries. This was achieved by a range of methods including the deployment of significant military might that destroyed Palestinian villages, massacred Palestinians and created an atmosphere of fear such that many Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries. In establishing for itself the right to self-determination, Israel sought to extinguish fulfilment of this right for Palestinians. And it has, thus far, succeeded.
Though on a different scale to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, there are distinct similarities between the Russia/Ukraine conflict, and the Israel/Palestinian situation. Both involve the use of force to achieve political goals. Both target civilians. Both Israel and Russia’s aim was, and is, to deny their respective victims the right to self-determination, this denial secured by force of arms.
On the grounds of consistency, as enumerated above, it’s clear that the UK and its allies would be justified in implementing a policy of BDS against Israel as a whole (see below). Certainly, there are no grounds to deprecate BDS aimed at Israel, still less to seek legislative authority to ban or curtail it, as is mooted to be the UK’s present intention.
Caveat: 1948 or 1967?
For the purposes of this article, I want now to enter a caveat or variation to what has been said thus far. The logic of the previous section, as stated, is that it is legitimate to implement BDS against Israel as a whole. There is, however, a strand of Israel-critical thinking – sometimes characterised as a liberal-left strand – that accepts Israel’s culpability for the oppression of Palestinians dating back to 1948, the establishment of the Israeli state, but is more circumspect about what penalties Israel should suffer as a result. In the light of this, let us take a different starting point and focus on the 1967 war and Israel’s conquering of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza (OPT).
There can be no argument that Israel is the occupying power in the OPT, an occupation enforced by a combination of the Israeli military (Israel Defence Force) and the semi-military force, the Border Police.
The OPT is under military law. Among the many egregious features of this brutal occupation are the targeting of civilians – children, women, men – the use of live fire, not least against children, the destruction of homes and the necessities for earning a livelihood, the theft of vast areas of Palestinian lands and the establishment of Settlements on stolen Palestinian land. In addition, there are severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement both within the OPT, and in relation to travel (when allowed) between Israel and the OPT.
In terms of the Jewish-only Settlements, although within the OPT areas, they are not under military law, as are OPT Palestinians, but under Israeli civil law. The Settlements are also woven into the fabric of the Israeli economy, and many of the products grown or manufactured there are sold in international markets. Put another way, the ability of the Settlements to trade in international markets means that that aspect of international trade – possibly the Israeli hummus you buy in the supermarket – in effect supports the illegal, apartheid-based Jewish-only Settlements. For many taking 1967 and the occupation as their starting point, they hold that any BDS measures should be restricted to those that penalise the Settlements, but not Israel as a whole.
BDS justified in case of Israel/Palestine
For the purposes of this article, which is concerned to identify a principle that either justifies, or does not justify, BDS, I have no need to delve further into whether 1948 or 1967 is an appropriate starting point, whatever my personal view might be.
What has been established is, whether 1948 or 1967 is taken as the starting point, in both cases, Israel, by force of arms, by personal and economic oppression, denies, as a matter of state policy, by the minute, by the day, by the week, by the year, by the decade, the right of Palestinian to self-determination.
I have suggested that one aspect of the UK and its allies’ justification for implementing – incredibly stringent – BDS measures against Russia is its aim to nullify, by force of arms, Ukraine’s right to self-determination. There is not a cigarette paper’s distance between the justification for BDS against Russia, and the justification for BDS against Israel, either as a whole, or restricted to the Settlements. The point is, the in principle position is secure. If BDS is justified against Russia, it follows that it is against Israel as a whole, on in relation to Settlements only.
It would be absurd to believe that consistency in the application of principle will play any part in determining the UK’s stance on BDS in respect of Israel. But perhaps the UK and its allies, at some level, and unwittingly, have closed the door on some of their justifications for opposing BDS against Israel, and/or its Settlements. Not a minor point if the UK, and indeed at least some of its allies, move legislatively to curtail the promotion or implementation of BDS.
Stop Press! Threat against Amnesty Apartheid report
The source of immediate threat is from the UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). They are able to muster formidable legal resources against their chosen targets – essentially those who are Israel-critical or anti-Zionist. They have now asked the Charity Commission to investigate the involvement of Amnesty International Charities in their report ‘Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity’.
Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, says: ‘The Report is not for the public benefit, but rather consists of misleading and inflammatory allegations that will exacerbate the serious problem of antisemitism in the UK and around the world.’
In a way it is a secondary matter whether this, or other complaints, are justified. The fact a complaint has been made, has a chilling effect. It also requires the ‘defendant’ to expend time and money attempting to fend of the accusations.