Stephen Hawking is right, it's time to end international support for Israeli impunity

As long as Israel can count on a blank cheque from the international community, it will continue to displace more Palestinians and further abuse and curtail their rights.

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

A woman shows a palcard reading 'Israel criminal, boycott Israel' during a demonstration on November 17, 2011 in eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafeef Ziadah is a member of Palestinian BDS National coordinating committee and Senior Campaigns Officer with War on Want

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism