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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.