The University of Oslo announced this week it is ending its contract with the security company G4S, which runs prisons in Israel. As a victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it is richly symbolic. Oslo was the city where the "peace process" bore fruit, with the accords of 1993 and 1995. However, nothing in them stopped the continued landgrabs or illegal settlement building that have marked the long years of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. G4S services the occupation, providing equipment and services to checkpoints, as well as Israel’s so-called separation barrier, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.
It should cause us in Australia to raise our eyes from a debate that is often little more than half-baked parochialisms. A couple of years ago, I took on some of them directly, along with Stuart Rees of the Sydney Peace Foundation. We contributed letters to a website called Galus Australis, on which Philip Mendes of Monash University had issued a number of ill-informed criticisms of the foundation and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
One of those who posted a response, "Akiva," observed:
"It’s pretty apparent that Mendes is punching considerably above his own weight here. Inaccuracies such as Stuart Rees points out are unacceptable and evidence of the sort of ‘sheltered-workshop’, closed-community approach to this sort of discussion. What may reassure one’s own (already convinced and paranoid) mainstream community just may not be good enough on a wider scale."
According to a large scale opinion survey, carried out in the UK and six other western European countries in 2010 by the polling company ICM, public understanding of the realities of the conflict has become much stronger over recent years. Fully 49 per cent of respondents could successfully identify Israel as an occupying power, compared with earlier surveys suggesting the proportion was much lower. Daud Abdullah of the Middle East Monitor, which commissioned the poll, linked this increased level of understanding, in turn, with "a growing rejection of Israeli policies," after a long period in which Israel enjoyed a "high level of support … because it was perceived as a progressive democracy in a sea of Arab backwardness".
This transition has probably travelled still further since the poll was conducted, as the world has witnessed another attack on Gaza, involving what Human Rights Watch called "serious violations of the laws of war," along with the fatal shooting of activists on board an aid vessel bound for the territory. The materials on board were needed because Israel keeps Gaza under a state of siege, designed — according to US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks — to "keep its economy on the brink of collapse".
That, by the way, makes it a collective punishment and therefore, according to the distinguished international jurist, Richard Falk, another war crime. The effects include the poisoning of Gaza’s water supply, declared undrinkable earlier this year because authorities there cannot import the parts they need to repair sewage systems damaged in the 2008-9 attack Operation Cast Lead.
These are among the reasons why, elsewhere in the world, there has been a steady growth in the BDS movement. Activists in civil society take matters into their own hands when their governments appear to condone such excesses on Israel’s part. The double standards are frequently outrageous. The European Union has accorded Israel full trading rights, the obsession over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions is seldom matched by calls for Tel Aviv to declare its own arsenal and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on.
Even that may be changing. What Britain and other countries have, which Australia so far lacks, is a substantial group of high level political figures, including members of parliament, who have taken the trouble to research the conflict and listen to multiple perspectives. The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, in London, for instance, has strong connections in all the major parties.
Some of what passes for debate here, of course, is the distinctive Australian political activity of contriving rustic justifications for meek followership of Washington. In the recent past, this has led us on to the extreme pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion. A couple of years ago, Australia joined just six other countries in voting down a motion at the UN General Assembly (GA) condemning Israeli ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem, and reaffirming support for the internationally recognised border. Julia Gillard apparently wanted us to repeat the performance last month when the GA debated granting observer status to the Palestinians, until an intervention by Bob Carr, which pulled Canberra’s vote back to an abstention.
But many European countries — including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Spain, Italy and Norway — voted in favour. Tellingly, the pressure was on those who abstained; UK Foreign Minister William Hague, attributed his government’s decision to the Palestinians’ unwillingness to commit themselves to "negotiations without preconditions".
This has been the mantra since the Oslo Accords: talks must take place with no regard for Palestinian rights or international law. A weak party — a dispossessed people clinging on to the remnants of a non-self-governing territory — is pitched in with a much stronger one, a national security state that boasts one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries. Guess who is to broker these talks? Israel’s chief arms dealer and diplomatic patron.
According to an insider account by Martin Indyk, the Australian who served as America’s Ambassador to Israel, at the failed 2000 Camp David summit President Clinton humiliated one Palestinian negotiator after another by bellowing at them, red-faced, for their refusal to make more concessions. Another Clinton adviser, Robert Malley, recalled how Clinton’s administration was prepared to concede the political difficulties confronting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; whereas the Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat, was expected to deliver his people, tribal style, to whatever was agreed — or take the blame for failure. Indeed, that’s how it turned out, and shortly afterwards the Al-Aqsa Intifada commenced.
Looking at the record of such episodes, it may be a case for Occam’s Razor — the simplest explanation being the most salient. Having a peace process necessitates a lead role for the US in the Middle East, which — given the region’s geopolitical and economic importance — represents a strategic prize. Peace itself would risk giving up that role. So, hitching our wagon to the US may not put us on the side of peace; something that more and more other governments seem to be concluding, as they refuse to follow the Americans through the voting lobbies.
Until very recently, the world at large has, in effect, condoned and supported Israeli militarism and lawlessness, and failed to empower Palestinians. While that imbalance remains in place, the pattern of violence — direct, structural and cultural — will continue. This is why Palestinian civil society issued the call for international solidarity in the form of BDS, and why we at Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies joined it in the first place. Yes, there are dissenting voices within Israel, but they are not strong enough to effect change by themselves, and neither can we expect the Palestinians to wait until they are.
The boycott campaign is a lead indicator of substantive political change at other levels. That is underway, and it was manifest at the most recent UN vote. Australia should get ahead of the curve or it will find itself on the wrong side of history.