Interview with BDS Australia: While Israel continues its genocide, the movement will grow

June 12, 2024
At the Palestine rally on June 9 in Gadigal Country/Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

Apartheid, a system of racial segregation implemented by the South African government in 1948, imposed white minority rule over Black South Africans.

Amnesty International, among other human rights organisations, have declared the state of Israel is also running a system of apartheid: Indigenous Palestinians are systematically being discriminated against, brutalised and their human rights denied.

The system in South Africa was brought down by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), which formed in London circa 1960.

It started as a boycott on South African goods, but developed into a mass global boycotts and economic sanction campaign.

This, together with the resistance organisations inside the country pushed the apartheid regime to fall in 1994.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, focused on Israel, was established by Palestinians in 2005 and is based on the same principles.

Hilmi Dabbagh, a co-founder of BDS Australia, explained in a 2019 interview that BDS was impacting Israel at a much faster rate than AAM did in South Africa.

Former Marrickville Greens Councillor Cathy Peters co-founded BDS Australia.

Peters moved a successful motion, in December 2010, which committed Marrickville Council in the inner west of Gadigal Country/Sydney, to divest from and boycott Israel, and international corporations supporting Israeli apartheid.

That decision was overturned in April 2011 due, in large part, to federal MP Anthony Albanese, who pressured Labor councillors to rescind the motion.

Peters told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that BDS Australia has now merged with Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), at a time when the global protests against genocide are increasingly focusing on BDS actions. 

In mid-April as the Gaza solidarity encampments were being set up, divestment was front and centre of the discussion. After months of boycott calls, Starbucks outlets in Gadigal Country/ Sydney looked empty compared to last year. How has the BDS movement grown over recent months?

The BDS campaign has grown hugely Gaza over the past 8 months as a result of Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza.

After October 7, many people started their own boycott as they were desperate to take action in the face of the government’s inaction.

There was a rush of spontaneous international calls for boycotts on McDonalds, Starbucks and other companies supporting Israel.

Since then, there’s been a move to more strategic targets, as the level of complicity in Israel’s genocide, apartheid and persecution rests far more heavily on key international companies.

During Israel’s 2008 massacre in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, the BDS movement called on dock and maritime workers to refuse to load or offload Israeli ships.

The #BlocktheBoat movement has continued and unionists worldwide have taken action in solidarity with the call from Palestinians to boycott Israeli ships.

We’re now seeing actions at many Australian ports and internationally against the Israeli company ZIM shipping, which has been transporting and delivering weapons and goods to Israel for decades.

Unionists for Palestine and the Palestine Justice Movement in Sydney and Free Palestine Melbourne have led the boycott ZIM shipping campaign with protests at ports in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle.

There was a National Day of Action to boycott apartheid Israel and ZIM shipping at all capital city ports on May 25.

The Maritime Union of Australia Sydney Branch has supported all these protests.

We’ve also seen a huge upsurge in student activism and the establishment of student encampments which are demanding universities reveal, and then divest, from ties with weapons companies, Israeli universities and complicit institutions and companies, such as Elbit. 

This is a watershed moment for Palestine solidarity and the BDS movement.

In addition there have been boycott actions targeting weapons and weapons component manufacturers, such as Bisalloy, Thales, Quickstep, Elbit, Ferra, L3Harris and BAE Systems Australia. 

Labor has issued hundreds of military export permits to Israel; it also facilitates the export of weapons’ components for the F35 fighter jet, which Israel uses to bomb Gaza. 

PSA for Palestine, a campaign by public servants calling for action, is a big development. Sanctions calls have been coming from peak human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International Australia, and high-profile artists, commentators and lawyers.

Cultural and sporting boycott calls have intensified, including calls on SBS to not screen Eurovision, as it would not ban Israel’s participation.

The Palestine Football Association in May called for a boycott/ban on Israel competing in the FIFA World Cup, and this call was echoed by Craig Foster, a former international soccer player and now human rights advocate.

How would you say the BDS movement had been growing before last October?

The BDS movement had grown prior to last October 7 in a number of significant ways.

Palestinian Australian artists and art workers in 2022 initiated a successful boycott action against the Sydney Festival for it accepting Israeli government sponsorship.

At least 100 artists withdrew in protest at the board’s refusal to reject the funds: it spotlighted the BDS movement’s cultural boycott.

Subsequently, the Sydney Festival resolved not to accept funding from any foreign government.

The action put all cultural institutions and festivals on notice that they will be targeted if they accept art washing funds by the apartheid Israeli government.

There was also a rise in student activism on campuses with key student councils and national bodies passing BDS resolutions.

The National Union of Students in December 2022 resolved to recognise and oppose “the system of apartheid and genocide against the Palestinian people, enforced by the state of Israel”.

NUS pledged its support to “the ongoing resistance of the Palestinian people for justice and freedom” and added its support to “the Palestinian solidarity campaign, including the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”.

It added that it “will defend affiliated student unions when they too demonstrate support for Palestine”.

Student organising rose on a number of campuses, especially at RMIT, where BDS Australia had been calling on the university to end its partnership with Elbit from 2022.

RMIT ended its complicity with Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer last October. This was a major win for BDS and for students’ actions against partnerships and collaborations between arms companies and universities.

The University of Melbourne Student Union in August 2022 and the University of Sydney Student Representative Council in August last year, passed motions supporting BDS tactics and the aims of the movement more generally.

BDS Australia had worked with students for Palestine groups nationally for some time and, last year, wrote to every student representative council and key student officers in all major universities about the need to take BDS action, given the far-right Netanyahu government’s ongoing apartheid and persecution of Palestinians.

The BDS Australia’s superannuation divestment campaign has involved well over 10,000 people who have called on their superannuation funds to reveal and divest from any investments in the 97 UN-listed companies and entities that are operating in the illegal Israeli settlements.

A lot of superannuation funds have wonderful sounding ethical frameworks, but virtually all of them have some investments in the listed companies operating in the illegal West Bank settlements.

The United Nations put out a list of 112 companies, a few years ago, that were operating in breach of international law. It then refined the list to 97 companies, which profit from the settlements.

The last development expressing this broadening support was when the Greens passed a BDS resolution last June. This was the Greens formal adoption of boycott, divestment and targeted sanctions, after 14 years.

Federal Labor came to power promising to recognise Palestine. But the Prime Minister has only shown his unbridled support for Israel since October.

Many, however, remember Marrickville Council’s BDS motion and are not surprised about Albanese’s actions.

You were the former Marrickville Greens councillor who moved the successful BDS motion. How did that come about and what role did Anthony Albanese play?

Marrickville Council had a sister city relationship with Bethlehem Council. Leichhardt Council had a sister city relationship with Hebron, also in the West Bank.

Many Marrickville councillors had travelled to the West Bank. Council invited a Bethlehem Council officer to spend three months in Sydney.

When I put the BDS motion up in late 2010, it was almost unanimously supported with five Greens, four Labor and one Independent in favour, and only two Independents against.

The idea was that as a result of supporting the boycott, council would prepare a report on council’s investments and contracts with companies that were BDS targets, such as Veolia or HP.

Leading up to the 2011 state election, Labor councillors were put under pressure. There was also enormous national pressure against Marrickville Council’s stand for the boycott.

The Israel lobby started an intense lobbying campaign, slandering council and spreading mistruths about BDS, that the media and Labor duly recited.

Kevin Rudd, the then foreign minister, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard firmed up Labor’s cosy relationship with the Israel lobby.

It was another opportunity for Labor to attack the Greens.

Marrickville is in the federal seat of Grayndler and the Greens Mayor at the time, Fiona Byrne, was standing as the state candidate against Carmel Tebbutt, Albanese’ former partner.

The Greens vote was steadily growing in Sydney’s inner west and Albanese chose to attack the council and the Greens.

However, the Greens received the highest first preference vote for the party in any seat that year. And, they won the seat (now called Newtown) at the next election.

Albanese opportunistically courted the Israel lobby, statewide and nationally, and used it against the Greens, accusing the party of antisemitism.

I understand that Labor applied massive pressure on the four Labor councillors to vote to rescind the motion, which happened in 2011.

It was a difficult time for those four councillors, particularly one who had a Lebanese background, as they had strongly believed in BDS but were forced to back down.

The motion only asked council to investigate what investments it had and progressively reduce those — an ethical stand. Instead, it was hyped up to become a national scandal.

Christina Keneally’s Labor-run government even talked about sacking the council.

Despite this pile on, councillors received thousands and thousands of emails of support from Australia and elsewhere.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu's letter to then Greens Mayor Fiona Byrne congratulating Marrickville Council for taking a stand to isolate Israel. Photo: Pip Hinman

BDS Australia has been running a campaign to divest from Elbit Systems and in 2022, the Australian Future Fund did that. However, last year it begun investing with Elbit again. In February, Labor signed a new $917 million contract with Elbit Systems. Why?

To sign-off on this in the middle of a genocide was obscene.

The government has ongoing strong links with Elbit: you only have to look through the defence contracts to see that.

Elbit is Israel’s biggest weapon’s manufacturer and it sells its weapons “battle-tested”, meaning that they have been tested on Palestinians in Gaza.

When BDS Australia first began in NSW, the Royal Flying Doctors was looking at a partnership with Elbit at their Dubbo base.

We mounted a strong campaign against flying doctors partnering with a major weapons manufacturer and they subsequently cancelled their plan.

That was an early success for BDS Australia. But Elbit also has ties with state governments as well.

The Victorian government put $20 million toward the Elbit Centre of Excellence in Melbourne, which is working on AI technology.

Elbit also partners with various university departments. I mentioned the partnership with RMIT.

It is important to call out this company and the way it operates. It’s an international BDS target and it has operated with impunity worldwide: the government doesn’t seem to have any concerns about it.

But the $917 million approval is really the last straw: people can see the Australian government’s complicity in genocide by allowing that to go ahead.

Many would avoid buying a new HP, but will that make much of a difference? Why is boycotting, divesting and sanctioning such an effective way to create social change and, indeed, bring down apartheid?

The BDS movement is led by civil society organisations, not governments. The amount of pressure that can be placed on companies operating with apartheid Israel is huge. BDS has also been very successful in companies deciding to end associations with Israel.

The BDS movement was modelled on the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, which had huge success.

It aims to make Israel stand out as the pariah state that it is.

This happens when large organisations refuse to contract with Israel, when musicians refuse to perform, when academics and universities refuse to participate with Israeli universities, because most, if not all, Israeli universities are complicit in Israel’s persecution and oppression of Palestinians.

While governments have been inactive, BDS has been growing.

Major pension funds and superannuation funds in Europe and the United States have pulled their funds out of companies operating in the West Bank settlements.

Israel sees BDS as one of the major threats to its expansionist endeavours and it has put enormous resources into countering BDS, including slandering it as “anti-Semitic”, which it isn’t.

BDS is based on international human rights law.

BDS has gained a lot of traction over the last eight months. Israel’s genocide has turned world opinion against it and exposed the institutionalised bias here in Australia in support of an apartheid nation. How do you see the campaign developing?

What we are seeing, and we will see, is a progressive escalation of BDS actions and impacts worldwide: by civilians, unions, academics, religious bodies and NGOs.

This will be heightened as we see the final judgments from the International Court of Justice and the arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for key members of the Israeli government. 

Israel will be progressively shunned and it will face the consequences of growing boycotts and government sanctions. 

A number of Israeli ambassadors have been forced to leave countries around the world, and a number of countries have said they will implement the ICC arrest warrants, including against Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That is what Australia must do as well, if it supports international law. The BDS movement will continue to grow because of Israel’s genocide.

[This article, slightly abridged, was first published by Sydney Criminal Lawyers on June 7.]

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