More than 100 Palestine solidarity activists gathered in Melbourne over October 29-31 for Australia's first national BDS conference.
Palestinian civil society groups called for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel five years ago. The BDS campaign demands an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the dismantlement of the separation wall in the West Bank, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The BDS campaign has significant support, especially after Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in March, in which Israeli soldiers killed eight peace activists. Some labour councils and trade unions around Australia have endorsed the campaign.
The conference was launched with a public meeting on October 29 at the Victorian State Library, chaired by ABC satirist Bryan Dawe and addressed by Palestinian artist and activist Rafeef Ziadah, the Australian Society for Palestinian Iraqi Refugees Emergency’s Yousef Alreemawi, Israeli editor Ofer Neiman and Unions ACT's Kim Sattler.
Ziadah said she was happy with the outcomes of the conference.
"There was so much enthusiasm and dedication from the various Palestine solidarity groups. People really put differences aside and decided to work together in a non-sectarian way", she told Green Left Weekly.
Other guest speakers included prominent US activist Anna Baltzer and Australian-Palestinian author and activist Samah Sabawi. The conference also included a concert, which launched the group Australian Artists Against Apartheid.
The conference brought together activists from many Australian cities to establish a national agenda for the BDS campaign. It also coordinated actions and shared skills and experiences through action workshops and sector-based discussion.
Earlier this year, campaigners in Adelaide and Brisbane shut down stalls selling Israeli "Seacret" cosmetics. The cosmetics use minerals from the Dead Sea, which borders the occupied West Bank. Palestinians are routinely denied access to the western shore.
The conference adopted a four-stage calendar of actions for the BDS campaign, including a Christmas consumer boycott campaign, campus actions for the international Israeli Apartheid Week coinciding with Palestinian Land Day on March 30, and other actions coinciding with al-Nakba (the anniversary of the Palestinian expulsion from Israel in 1948) on May 15 and another in late September.
Ziadah said: "The vote on beginning a coordinated BDS campaign across many cities in Australia is ... a terrific starting point. [It's] really what this conference was about, bringing BDS work together and coordinating it.
"Getting activists in Australian cities talking about Israel as an apartheid state is a great achievement. The international BDS movement is only five years old, yet already we have students and trade unionists and people from different walks of life working together.
"The key now is doing the rank-and-file education and taking BDS actions."
A national network for BDS activists was set up at the conference to allow collaboration between campaign groups. The conference resolved to approach campaign groups to endorse the calendar of actions.
Israeli think tank the Reut Institute released a report in February that said the BDS campaign was a "strategic threat" to Israel's interests, and said cities such as Toronto, where Ziadah is based, were a "hub of delegitimisation".
Ziadah said: "This conference was the first step to creating many hubs of Israeli delegitimisation in Australia."