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

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496