Boycott of occupied territory settlement goods – a response

Fruit and veg, Jerusalem

Tony Daly responds to a range of the comments and feedback received by the authors based on a blog posted earlier this year with Colm Regan on the international boycott against settlement goods labelled as Israeli products from the Occupied Territories.


Recently, some 22 NGOs have been heavily criticised in their decision to join the campaign for public support to boycott settlement goods from the Israeli-occupied territories. Our original blog post focused on just one aspect of the campaign – criticism of Israeli state policy and the characteristic responses aired to this criticism, based on Ruth Dudley Edwards’s article on 28th January for the Daily Telegraph. Inevitably it was not possible to comment on all aspects of the boycott campaign. Despite clearly noting this dimension in the original blog, it has been the main criticism from the comments received.

We acknowledge that many of the points raised in criticism of the boycott campaign by others are legitimate points of contention and disagreement as has been the case historically regarding many campaigns calling for a boycott of one type or another over the years.  Those familiar with such debates will readily recognise that utilising the pressure of a boycott has a long and honourable (if always controversial) tradition as a tool for peacefully seeking justice and human rights.  Such boycotts have been directed at countries, companies, politicians, sporting and cultural organisations.

Boycotts have an important role to play in placing pressure on companies and governments to uphold globally acknowledged human rights standards and practices. The end goals in deciding to use boycotts in international campaigns generally seek national governments to take action, stand up and respect international law.

Contrary to what has been asserted, NGOs have been consistent in their use of boycotts and have by no means selectively applied them to Israeli issues and products alone. Taking a brief look at some boycott campaigns by Irish NGOs since the 1980s gives some context to this (aside from the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement boycotts, which are well known and a topic we will return to on this website in more detail. In the meantime, here’s a short history of the IAAM):

  • 1989 – present: Boycott of Nestlé products launched in Ireland due to Nestlé reneging on it responsibilities to enforce the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, in what has become one of the longest and largest running consumer boycotts in history, as reported earlier on this blog in February
  • 2003: Boycott calls in Ireland against Coca Cola because of actions to prevent the organising of trade unions in Columbia

The specific call for a boycott against settlement goods labelled as Israeli products from the Occupied Territories has not taken place in a vacuum: the Anti-Boycott Bill silences all democratic debate within Israel on the issue, entrenched policies on settlements (including retroactive protection for unsanctioned settlement building) and the geography of the separation barrier line are seen by many groups internationally to be negative, divisive, counterproductive and systematically discriminatory.

Seeking the ground for concession becomes deeply difficult when ‘security issues’ have countless meanings across both sides of the conflict, and especially when they run in competition to ‘trump’ each others’ concerns.

The collapse of the garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh last month, killing over 1,000 workers raises important questions in the debate on whether the use of a boycott is the most effective tool or not in seeking justice and human rights outcomes (in this case, against the Bangladesh government and retailers Primark, Benetton, Bon Marche, Mango and others). That fashion chains have worked with the Bangladeshi government since the accident to deliver a legally binding agreement should be commended, which includes the financing of fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use, the formation of trade unions without permission from factory owners and raising the minimum wage for garment workers.

Boycotts are not always necessary, as is clear from this example and from Primark’s previous response to the supply chain investigation by the BBC in 2008 which found evidence of garment work in India and Bangladesh being subcontracted to child labourers.

NGOs and governments don’t engage in international boycotts lightly.

As recently as March this year US President Barack Obama, on his first official visit to Israel and the Occupied West Bank was unequivocal about in how settlement activity goes to the heart of the matter in fresh attempts in restarting peace talks

“Israelis must recognise that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable, that real borders will have to be drawn.

Put yourself in their (Palestinians’) shoes. Look at the world through their eyes”

Traded products from the Occupied Territories remain a specific and legitimate target for boycott because of their economic, peace and justice implications, especially as Palestinians have been forcibly removed from land in order to produce such products.

In our view and in the context of the pressing need to challenge many aspects of Israeli state policy, the decision to support a boycott of settlement goods alone (note: not all goods or cultural products from the state of Israel) is neither an expression of anti-Semitism nor an apology for condoning Palestinian violence: it seeks to advance a carefully directed nonviolent campaign rooted in universal human rights principles.

Debate and discussion on the ongoing Palestinian – Israeli conflict is vital and urgent; those who criticise Israeli policy and practice and who argue for the use of strategies such as boycotts cannot be dismissed as being anti-Semitic or one-sided or as apologists for violence; boycotts have played an historically honourable role in the realisation of rights worldwide and will continue to do so.

Closing down legitimate debate and criticism on many dimensions of Israeli policy will do nothing to assist peace and human rights (especially those of Palestinians and Israelis).