The final month of 2017 was not the quiet wind-down of the year that Palestinian human rights defenders would have hoped for. In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would move the US embassy to Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, Palestinians took to the streets in numbers. They were protesting over the announcement, but even more so, what it represented: unbridled US support for Israel’s ongoing colonisation project, and governments around the world, which may express disapproval, but continue to licence corporations to trade in arms with Israel and continue involvement in the illegal settlement enterprise.
Israeli security forces cracked down on the unarmed protests using tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire, resulting in hundreds of arrests, injuries and some deaths. Palestinian human rights organisations had no break over the winter holiday season as they scrambled to provide support for families in locating their injured or arrested loved ones.
In the first week of 2018, Israel released a list of twenty international charities, human rights organisations and campaigning groups that it will block from entering Israeli borders. War on Want is included on the list, alongside other social justice heroes such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and the pacifist Quaker group, American Friends Service Committee.
The reason given for the ban on these organisations? All of them have undertaken Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns (BDS) designed to put economic pressure on Israel by campaigning to withhold support from companies complicit in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people, including firms providing military equipment used in Israel’s violent crackdowns.
These BDS tactics have been adopted by groups around the world, including War on Want, specifically to get at the root causes of Palestinian insecurity in the face of a continual onslaught of human rights abuse. While Palestinian human rights organisations are in the direct line of fire, it’s the responsibility of groups abroad to pressure our own governments and institutions to stop supplying Israel with the material support it needs to carry out its militarised repression.
Undoubtedly, the primary targets of Israel’s repression are Palestinians standing up for their rights. They are targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial, incitement and threats by Israeli government officials, and a wide range of surveillance and ‘black ops’ attacks on Palestinian individuals and organisations.
This latest ‘ban list’ is an extension of the logic. Israel rightly assumes that the Palestinian movement for justice benefits from the support of charities, human rights organisations, and solidarity groups around the globe, which echo the Palestinian-led call for accountability.
Banning entry to those who stand up for human rights is a way Israel tries to isolate Palestinians and to keep others from supporting them.
This is not the first time that War on Want has been included in a list of ‘objectionable’ international organisations by an apartheid regime. In the 1980s, War on Want supported South African anti-apartheid efforts, both in South Africa and in the UK. In fact, it was the BDS tactics of that era that inspired the BDS movement of today.
Feeling threatened by ever-increasing calls for justice, the South African apartheid regime tried to thwart international support for the anti-apartheid movement by forbidding South African organisations from receiving international funds from groups like War on Want.
As in our contemporary case, this was a part of a larger effort to crush the anti-apartheid movement, by primarily targeting South African activists using arrests and violence, but by extension focusing on international advocates for equality and justice. The regime invested millions of pounds in surveillance operations abroad, planting media stories smearing the anti-apartheid movement and promoting government fabricated “dialogue” projects in an attempt to undercut the calls for boycott.
Recalling this history is crucial, as it lends some perspective on Israel’s actions today. In December, the Israeli government approved over £50million of funds to go towards public campaigns and media efforts abroad, specifically designed to smear the BDS movement. As 2018 progresses, we can expect to see the effects of this here in the UK, with projects on university campuses such as the “bridges not boycotts” speaker tours. Israel is taking its moves straight out of the South African apartheid playbook.
But even more important than recalling similar tactics of repression, this historical precedent gives us reason to continue the work we are doing. We will not be deterred by threats, travel bans or attempts to silence us. When we stood up against apartheid in South Africa, our work was threatened in similar ways, and we insisted on continuing then to work in active solidarity with South Africans seeking justice. We were on the right side of history then, and we know we are this time as well.
Militarism and Security Campaigns officer at War on Want