Stephen Hawking’s decision to withdraw from Israel’s President Conference deals a huge blow to Israel’s attempts to whitewash its crimes by branding itself as a technologically advanced liberal democracy. His decision highlights the growing consensus that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is intolerable. More than that, Hawking has made an immensely significant contribution to the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that has in recent years won support from musicians, artists, trade unions, faith groups and people all over the world.
Such effective forms of solidarity are badly needed in the face of government inaction. A ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004 on the illegality of Israel’s Wall and settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories failed to persuade western governments to take action against Israel’s continued violations of international law. The reality is that Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people are only made possible through the continued financial, military and diplomatic support it receives from western states.
Palestinian civil society thus joined in 2005 to call for broad boycotts, divestment initiatives, and sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognised in full compliance with international law. This call was endorsed by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions, and social movements.
While Matt Hill argues  that “the problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear,” the demands set out in the BDS call could not be any more straightforward: Israel must comply with international law. It must end the occupation, respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and guarantee equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Campaigns against institutions operating in the Occupied Territories, the kind Hill recommends, are indeed taking place and play a major role in the growth and success of BDS. Such campaigns, including boycotts of and divestments from Elbit, Veolia, Sodastream, Ahava, and numerous other companies, can be hugely powerful. French multinational Veolia looks set to end some aspects of its involvement in illegal Israeli settlements after losing billions of pounds worth of local government contracts in the UK and across Europe in the wake of BDS campaigns against it. Facing complaints from its members, the Co-operative supermarket chain agreed not to source fruit and vegetables from any Israeli company that operate inside illegal Israeli settlements. Campaigners are now pressuring Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets to do the same.
Israel’s human rights violations however are not just limited to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Bedouin community of Al-Arakib has seen its village in the south of Israel bulldozed more than 50 times. In Gaza, Palestinians live under a brutal siege and millions of Palestinian refugees languish in refugee camps outside their homeland.
Likewise, campaigns seeking to end the international support on which Israel’s continued impunity relies cannot focus solely on the settlements. One major BDS campaign targets security giant G4S over its contract to equip and service prisons inside Israel at which Palestinians prisoners, including children, are held without trial and subjected to torture. In the past year, banks, charities and universities across Europe have cut their ties to G4S, hitting the company’s bottom line and ensuring that there is a price to pay for corporate complicity with Israeli crimes.
Public appearances in Israel by prominent figures help Israel portray itself as a state like any other. Like Hawking, many other eminent figures including Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Alice Walker, Iain Banks have pledged not to participate in events inside Israel in order to put pressure on the government to abide by international law. News of Hawking’s cancellation was front page news in Israel, reminding Israelis that the status quo is unsustainable and that their country is becoming a pariah in the way that South Africa once was.
Negotiations lead nowhere, not because Palestinians have insisted on a “fantastical goal”, as Hill argues, but because, ultimately, the outcome of any negotiation closely reflects the balance of power between the negotiating sides. As long as Israel can count on a blank cheque from the international community, a toothless world public opinion, it will continue to displace more Palestinians and further abuse and curtail their rights. The purpose of BDS is to alter the balance of forces that maintains the current situation.
There is another aspect in Hawking’s support for BDS that Hill sadly misses. In his letter to the organizers, Hawking makes a point of explaining that his decision to withdraw was based first and foremost on the advice of his Palestinian colleagues, academics whose freedom of speech, movement, teaching and learning is denied daily by Israel’s occupation. To support Palestinian rights means little without the fundamental willingness to listen to Palestinians voices who are best positioned to explain why Palestinians advocate a global, non-violent campaign of BDS and see it as a necessary and effective form of solidarity.
Rafeef Ziadah is a member of Palestinian BDS National coordinating committee and Senior Campaigns Officer with War on Want