A succession of events starting in Barcelona, Spain, in February, and followed in Liège, Belgium, and Oslo, Norway, in April sent a strong message to Israel: The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is alive and well.
In Barcelona, the city’s Mayor cancelled a twinning agreement with the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The decision was not an impulsive one, although Ada Colau is well-known for her principled positions on many issues. It was, however, an outcome of a fully democratic process, initiated by a proposal submitted by left-wing parties at the city council.
A few weeks after the decision was made, specifically on 8 February, a pro-Israeli legal organisation known as The Lawfare Project, announced its intentions to file a lawsuit against Colau because she, supposedly, “acted beyond the scope of her authority”.
The Lawfare Project meant to communicate a message to other city councils in Spain, and the rest of Europe, that there will be serious legal repercussions to boycotting Israel. To the organisation’s – and Israel’s – big surprise, however, other cities quickly advanced their own boycott procedures. They include the Belgian city of Liège and Norway’s capital city, Oslo.
Protest outside the Israeli Embassy on 14 August 2020 [BDS South Africa]
Liège’s local leadership did not try to conceal the reasons behind their decision. The city council, it was reported, had decided to suspend relations with the Israeli authorities for running a regime “of apartheid, colonisation and military occupation”. That move was backed by a majority vote at the council, proving once more that the pro-Palestinian moral stance was fully compliant with a democratic process.
Oslo is a particularly interesting case. It was there that the ‘peace process’ resulted in the Oslo Accords in 1993, which ultimately divided the Palestinians while giving Israel a political cover to continue with its illegal practices, while claiming that it has no peace partner.
But Oslo is no longer committed to the empty slogans of the past. In June 2022, the Norwegian government declared its intention of denying the label “Made in Israel” to goods produced in illegal Israeli Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestine.
Though Jewish settlements are illegal under international law, Europe did not mind doing business – in fact, lucrative business – with these colonies over the years. In November 2019, the European Court of Justice, however, resolved that all goods produced in “Israel-occupied areas” had to be labelled as such, so as not to mislead consumers. The Court’s decision was a watered-down version of what Palestinians had expected: a complete boycott, if not of Israel as a whole, at least of its illegal settlements.
However, the decision still served a purpose. It provided yet another legal base for boycott, thus empowering pro-Palestine civil society organisations, and reminding Israel that its influence in Europe is not as limitless as Tel Aviv wants to believe.
The most that Israel could do in response is to issue angry statements, along with haphazard accusations of anti-Semitism. In August 2022, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt requested a meeting with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, during the former’s visit to Israel. Lapid refused. Not only did such arrogance make a little difference in Norway’s stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but it also opened yet more margins for pro-Palestinian activists to be more proactive, leading to Oslo’s decision in April to ban imports of goods made in illegal settlements.
The BDS movement explained, on its website, the meaning of Oslo’s decision: “Norway’s capital … announced that it will not trade in goods and services produced in areas that are illegally occupied in violation of international law.” In practice, this means that Oslo’s “procurement policy will exclude companies that directly or indirectly contribute to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise – a war crime under international law.”
Keeping these rapid developments in mind, The Lawfare Project would now have to expand its legal cases to include Liège, Oslo and an ever-growing list of city councils that are actively boycotting Israel. But, even then, there are no guarantees that the outcome of such litigations will serve Israel in any way. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.
A case in point was the recent decision by the cities of Frankfurt and Munich in Germany to cancel music concerts of pro-Palestinian rock and roll legend, Roger Waters, as part of his ‘This is Not a Drill’ tour. Frankfurt justified its decision by branding Waters as “one of the world’s most well-known anti-Semites”. The bizarre and unfounded claim was rejected outright by a German civil court which, on 24 April, ruled in favour of Waters.
Indeed, while a growing number of European cities are siding with Palestine, those who side with Israeli apartheid find it difficult to defend or even maintain their position, simply because the former predicate their stances on international law, while the latter on twisted and convenient interpretations of anti-Semitism.
What does all of this mean for the BDS movement?
In an article published in Foreign Policy magazine last May, Steven Cook reached a hasty conclusion that the BDS movement “has already lost”, because, according to his inference, efforts to boycott Israel have made no impact “in the halls of government”.
While BDS is a political movement that is subject to miscalculations and mistakes, it is also a grassroots campaign that labours to achieve political ends through incremental, measured changes. To succeed over time, such campaigns must first engage ordinary people on the street, activists at universities, in houses of worship, etc., all done through calculated, long-term strategies, themselves devised by local and national civil society collectives and organisations.
BDS continues to be a success story, and the latest critical decisions made in Spain, Belgium and Norway attest to the fact that grassroots efforts do pay dividends.
There is no denying that the road ahead is long and arduous. It will certainly have its twists, turns and, yes, occasional setbacks. But this is the nature of national liberation struggles. They often come at a high cost and great sacrifice. But, with popular resistance at home and growing international support and solidarity abroad, Palestinian freedom should, in fact, be possible.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.