A hopeful movement: Working for justice in Israel-Palestine through boycott and divestment

Note: For the past 46 years, Israel has occupied the Palestinian territory of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. It has illegally moved its own population into Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, confiscating Palestinian land and exploiting Palestinian natural resources. The companies that provide services to these Jewish-only settlements are complicit in the development of an apartheid system. In this guest blog post, Palestinian Quaker Sandra Tamari tells about an effective effort in her community to raise awareness and put pressure on one of these companies to change. - Lucy

We didn’t think we could do much. Eight activists from the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee showed up at St. Louis City Hall on a Wednesday afternoon in December 2012 with hand-written stickers that said, “Investigate Veolia.” Our goal was to postpone approval of a proposed Veolia water contract with the city, but we knew it was a longshot. We had only learned about the contract days before and didn’t have much time to mobilize a campaign. To our pleasant surprise, nine months later, the Veolia contract is still on hold, and our efforts have helped lead the way to changing Veolia’s corporate practices that violate human rights in Palestine

Veolia is a major target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to compel Israel to abide by international law through economic activism, and the company has lost over $16 billion in contracts following campaigns across the globe citing Veolia's complicity in Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights. Veolia profits from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by providing services, such as trash collection, water services and bus lines, to illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land. Palestine activists formed a coalition to oppose Veolia with groups supporting the environment, labor, corporate accountability and public utilitiesSt. Louis activists for Palestine justice

Our coalition to “Dump Veolia” steadily grew. On July 2, 2013, the St. Louis City Public Utilities Committee of the Board of Aldermen hosted a public hearing to accept citizen testimony regarding the contract. Over 150 citizens packed the hearing room in City Hall on a rainy summer evening to ask the city to oppose Veolia. Paul Moriarty, a philosophy professor and member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, testified by saying, “We are connected to the rest of the world. When I was younger, I was part of the anti-Apartheid movement. I think that if we were doing business back then that was supporting the apartheid government of South Africa, we would have recognized that as a concern for us at the local level. We have an obligation to refuse to do business with companies that violate human rights.”

One by one, citizens testified against Veolia. A city official asked the crowd if anyone not employed or contracted by Veolia was there to speak in favor of the contract. No one raised their hand. The hearing lasted three hours and much of the time was spent hearing testimony from Palestinians about Veolia’s operation of bus lines in the West Bank for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers. Palestinians are excluded from some of Veolia’s buses because they run on settler-only roads in the West Bank.

In an attempt to neutralize the testimony on Veolia’s operation of segregated bus lines in the West Bank, David Gaddis of Veolia, said: “Regarding the buses . . . there are 130 bus lines that run. There are three of those buses that ask for an ID, and it is a work permit. It has nothing to do with race, religion, or any of those sorts of things.” Shane Cohn, an Alderman for St. Louis’ 25th Ward, interjected: “Except that those work permits are issued based upon where you live and who you are.”

It was an amazing and dramatic moment. Having heard testimony from several Palestinians about their lived experiences of Israel’s discrimination and abuses, it was a member of the Board who challenged the Veolia executive. You can watch the exchange here.

Activists ask St. Louis to 'dump Veolia'Our message was heard and understood by a city official who then took a public stand in favor of Palestinian rights. And just this week, it was announced that Veolia sold its bus lines in the West Bank to an Israeli company. This marks one of the most significant victories since the BDS call was made by Palestinian civil society associations in 2005. Those who wonder how a localized action such as our work in St. Louis can have any effect on a conflict as seemingly intractable as that between Palestinians and Israelis now have a clear answer.

As a Quaker and a Palestinian, I am proud that the American Friends Service Committee is at the forefront of U.S. support for the BDS movement.. In 2008, AFSC’s board approved an investment screen aimed at companies that facilitate Israel’s violations of international law. In 2011, the AFSC joined with a coalition of human rights organizations under the banner We Divest to press TIAA-CREF, the largest retirement provider for people in the social services and non-profit sector, to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.

Several yearly, quarterly and monthly Meetings have adopted minutes supporting BDS campaigns. In September 2012, Friends Fiduciary Corporation divested all holdings in Veolia because of “environmental and social concerns.” Friends Fiduciary also sold all shares in Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar because of their complicity with Israel’s occupation. Despite these impressive actions, the number of Quakers involved remains relatively small.

Popular resistance in Palestine in support of nonviolent, effective means to achieve freedom from military occupation, equality for Palestinians in Israel, and justice for the millions of Palestinian refugees needs your action. As supporters of nonviolence, justice, and peace, we are required to take risks and be challenged about our comfort and privilege. We must examine how our lives contribute to war and injustice, and expend time and energy on efforts that oppose corporate crimes. John Woolman confronted us: “May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not.”

Sustainable activism for boycott and divestment of companies and institutions that maintain Israel’s discrimination of Palestinians is a hopeful movement committed to equality and justice. Veolia’s sale of its discriminatory bus lines in the West Bank shows the power of this tactic. It is my hope that more Quakers will explore how they can be part of this struggle for human and civil rights. It is my hope that this blog be inundated with minutes from Quaker meetings committing to BDS campaigns, inspiring stories of local organizing, work with Palestinians and more victories. Won’t you join us?

With the aim of finding ways for more Quakers to be in involved with this hopeful work for justice
and peace, the Quaker Israel Palestine Network (QPIN) is forming. You can sign up to be part of Q-PIN here.