Not something we’d buy into

Apps now provide shoppers information on goods covered by the BDS campaign. Image: Mat Patchett...
Apps now provide shoppers information on goods covered by the BDS campaign. Image: Mat Patchett/Getty Images
As the conflict in Gaza rages on, people around the world are using boycotts to hit Israel in the wallet, Tom McKinlay writes.

There’s money to be made from occupation, according to Jewish Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein.

Lots of it. Especially if you’re not fussed whose money it is.

In his recent book The Palestine Laboratory he recounts the experience of weapons industry researcher Andrew Feinstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, at the Paris Air Show.

There, Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest defence company, was showing off its equipment — killer drones used in Gaza and the West Bank.

Potential buyers were shown actual footage of reconnaissance of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

"A target was assassinated," Loewenstein writes.

Investigating the footage later, Feinstein discovered the incident it featured resulted in the deaths of innocents, including children.

Loewenstein’s book goes on to detail the way in which Israel has monetised the expertise the country has amassed surveilling, monitoring and corralling Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli Defence Force-connected start-ups that have spun off those efforts and the spread of their hardware and software to repressive regimes around the world, where they are used to control other populations.

There’s a connection between the story and New Zealand.

Back in 2012, the NZ Super Fund excluded Elbit Systems Limited from its investments, citing findings by the United Nations that the company was involved in illegal activities in the occupied territories.

It is a decision claimed as a victory by the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS), an international movement designed to pressure the Israeli government to end its occupation of Palestinian lands — including Gaza and the West Bank — extend full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land.

It’s been getting renewed attention as a result of Israel’s massive military response to the October 7 Hamas attack and kidnappings.

A Dunedin supporter of the BDS campaign was recently trespassed for two years by New Zealand supermarket chain Foodstuffs after placing stickers on Obela hummus in a Pak’nSave; not at the time, but the next time they shopped there, store video having apparently been used to identify them.

Obela hummus is made by Israeli firm Sabra — which is jointly owned by Strauss Group and PepsiCo — a BDS target for donating food to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

A Times of Israel story in January detailed the slump in Sabra sales in the United States, though said it was due more to salmonella and listeria contaminations than BDS.

But for the Dunedin Pak’nSave shopper, it was certainly about the more than 31,000 Palestinians who have now been killed in Gaza by the IDF in the past five months — actions the International Court of Justice says could plausibly qualify as genocide.

Leave Obela on the shelf and make your own hummus, it’s too easy, the shopper says.

"There’s no need to be buying it from halfway across the world."

Supporters here say BDS is our kind of protest, inspired as it is by the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.

Dunedin woman Dr Rula Talahma, who grew up in the West Bank and has lost long lists of friends and family members in the current assault on Gaza, recalls the words of Nelson Mandela: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians".

The BDS campaign began in 2005, following the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the defeat of Palestinian uprising the Second Intifada. It co-ordinates targeted boycotts of Israeli-made goods, or the products of companies supporting Israel’s occupation, alongside cultural and academic boycotts; it encourages divestment from Israeli entities that "sustain Israeli apartheid"; and calls for government sanctions against the country.

It was a civil society response to the situation then, and presented something of a challenge to the traditional leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the rising influence of Hamas. Indeed, historian Rashid Khalidi, in his book The Hundred Years War on Palestine, says such civil society initiatives as BDS have done more to advance the cause of Palestinians than either the PLO or Hamas in recent years.

Dr Talahma remembers the years in the occupied territories after the Second Intifada as grim.

"I recall personally feeling that there was not much hope at that time of any change."

But Palestinians had their own history to look to for inspiration — beyond the example of South Africa.

"We had a few examples in history," she says.

"So in 1936, and this is not known to a lot of people, was the Great Arab Revolt."

Palestinian Arabs living at the time under British control, and concerned about continued Zionist-inspired immigration and land purchases from Europe, launched a six-month general strike.

"They wanted to bring everything to a halt at the time as a way of peaceful demonstration."

Similar tactics were used again during the First Intifada, Dr Talahma says, to bring economic pressure to bear on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"So we would go into general strikes so many days of the year that it felt for me as a continuous general strike."

Graffiti supporting the strike action is a vivid memory of her childhood.

"But BDS, it’s not particularly intended for Palestinians inside Palestine, it is intended for supporters across the globe, what they can do in support," she explains.

As someone now living in New Zealand, her approach is to shop local.

For example, she says buy Whittaker’s over Cadbury.

Cadbury chocolate, once made in Dunedin but no longer, following its purchase by multinational Mondelez, is on the BDS list as parent company Mondelez invests in Israeli food start-ups.

Starbucks is another BDS target with a local presence, for its support of the IDF.

"Why would we have an international coffee chain here in New Zealand, as we are, you know, a nation of good coffee snobs," Dr Talahma says.

Approached for comment, Starbucks NZ said they had none "at this time".

Phone apps to support BDS, with which shoppers can scan product codes to check on the supply chain behind them, claim hundreds of thousands of users.

Palestinian farmers inspect damage to more than 300 of their olive trees, cut down by Israeli...
Palestinian farmers inspect damage to more than 300 of their olive trees, cut down by Israeli settlers at Mihmas district of Ramallah in West Bank. Photo: Getty Images
The campaign has attracted some high-profile and hefty support. The Council of Trade Unions here and sister organisations offshore back it. Lorde backs it. In 2018, she pulled out of a concert in Tel Aviv saying, "I think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show".

It wasn’t the end of the matter, as two New Zealand Lorde fans who had written an open letter asking the singer not to perform, were subsequently sued in Israel under the country’s 2011 Law for Prevention of Damage to State of Israel through Boycott — the first time the anti-BDS law was successfully applied. The pair were fined, but refused to pay.

BDS supporters hailed Lorde’s decision as a major win, given her international profile — recalling the campaign against South Africa’s Sun City resort in the 1980s. Here this weekend, another chapter in the campaign will play out in New Plymouth, where IDF supporter Ziggy Marley is scheduled to take to the Womad stage — despite appeals to the festival organiser to withdraw his invitation.

Another BDS target as a result of the war in Gaza has been fast-food company McDonald’s, the Israeli franchises of which have given thousands of free meals to IDF personnel.

Sales in neighbouring countries plummeted as a result, and franchises there rushed to disassociate themselves from the Israeli outlets’ activities.

Approached for comment, McDonald’s here in New Zealand shared a statement from its "global team" saying it was dismayed by the disinformation and inaccurate reports "regarding our position in response to the conflict in the Middle East".

"McDonald’s Corporation is not funding or supporting any governments involved in this conflict, and any actions from our local developmental licensee business partners were made independently without McDonald’s consent or approval.

"Our hearts are with all of the communities and families impacted by this crisis."

Dr Talahma’s advice is, again, that when in doubt, to buy local, support the local cafes that have been doing it tough in recent times.

Another high-profile target of the BDS campaign illustrates just how fiercely this territory is contested.

The accommodation-sharing website Airbnb was targeted by the BDS campaign for listing settler properties in the occupied territories and the company initially responded by dropping illegal Israeli West Bank settlements from its site. However, it soon backflipped under pressure in the US and from Israel and today lists properties in the likes of Ma’ale Adumim — one of the illegal West Bank settlements last week included in an Israeli government plan for 3400 new homes. Ma’ale Adumim will host two-thirds of them.

Israel clearly takes BDS seriously, and government figures have levelled accusations of anti-Semitism against it. That view is supported by the German Parliament, which designated BDS as anti-Semitic in 2019. In Israel ally the US, a majority of states have laws or regulations to discourage boycotts. In one example, they were deployed against ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s when it said its products would no longer be sold in the West Bank. They’re back in shops there now, though under a different name.

It’s worth noting though that both the US and Germany have condemned Israel’s plans to extend settlements in the West Bank as illegal, which seems not very far from the NZ Super Fund’s 2021 decision to pull investments from five Israeli banks involved in the settlements — another decision welcomed by the BDS movement.

Palestine Solidarity Network of Aotearoa Dunedin organiser Brandon Johnstone pushes back against suggestions of anti-Semitism.

"We are targeting a specific government and its policies and the fact that those policies are discriminatory and causing widespread death and now famine."

The ethnicity or religion of the people is irrelevant, he says, adding that rallies in support of Palestine have been attracting support from the local Jewish community.

Academic boycotts are another important strand of the campaign and one in which a tertiary education-focused town like Dunedin could play a role, local supporters of BDS say.

It’s estimated thousands of students have now been killed in Gaza, hundreds of academics and the territory’s 12 universities have all been either destroyed or damaged — including Al-Isra University, home to the Gaza Strip’s only university hospital, which was reduced to rubble.

Prof Richard Jackson, co-director of the University of Otago’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies Te Ao o Rongomaraeroa, says staff concerned about the ongoing genocide and apartheid policies of Israel would support Otago joining the BDS campaign.

"Several scholars, myself included, asked the university to make a statement calling for a ceasefire and in solidarity with all the academics who have been killed in Gaza — and to condemn the destruction of every single university there — but we received a very weak response that declined to make any such statement," Prof Jackson says.

"I have personally adopted BDS and no longer co-operate in any academic service or activities with Israeli university institutions, due to their collaboration in the occupation and their co-operation with the IDF."

Boycotts work, he says.

"The economic costs in particular create leverage from the business community to pressure the politicians to make changes. This was exactly what happened in South Africa to end apartheid."

The university’s response to calls for a boycott demonstrate again the trepidation with which institutions navigate this issue.

Asked whether Otago had been approached about joining a boycott, acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson in a statement confirmed they had — "by several individuals and groups".

"Our deepest sympathies are with the people of Gaza during this time, but our focus is on the wellbeing of our community," Prof Nicholson says in the statement.

"More than 25,000 staff and students from a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities work and study here.

"We must continue to do all we can to ensure all of our community feels safe and protected."

Meanwhile, Dr Talahma searches supermarkets in vain for produce from Palestine, the dates from Jericho and the olive oil she once found on the shelves. There’s often nothing.

Suffocating control of the Palestinian territories, littered as they are with Israeli checkpoints, and the destruction of olive trees by settlers in the West Bank means less gets to market.

"Now, nearly 1 million olive trees have been either uprooted or burnt, cut and poisoned across the West Bank," she says.

It’s another example of how trade carries such conflicts around the world.

The shopper banned from Pak’nSave for stickering hummus sees it too.

She was told, as she was trespassed, that the supermarket is not a political place, they can’t get involved in politics.

"I think that’s absolutely not the case. Food is political. Especially when you are using it in a way that causes starvation," she says, referencing the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The same technologies used to restrict humanitarian supplies to Gaza are for sale elsewhere.

Loewenstein, in his book, writes about sales of Elbit’s battle-tested surveillance towers to the US for the increasingly militarised Mexico wall — infrastructure orginally designed for the IDF incorporating cameras, radar and laser illuminators.

Dr Talahma connects the dots, saying the occupation will continue as long as it feeds the Israeli economy.

"As long as the occupation is still profitable, they will continue. They don’t have any reason to cut it or de-escalate it."

On the other hand, if consumers around the world decided not to support those who fed the IDF or produced tech used in the occupation, that would change the game.

"It will put pressure on them in a peaceful way. Then this occupation is not profitable any more."