Why major European cities are rejecting Israeli apartheid
A succession of events that started in Barcelona, Spain, in February before moving to Liege, Belgium, and Oslo, Norway, in April has sent a strong message to Israel: The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is alive and well.
In Barcelona, the city’s mayor canceled a twinning agreement with the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The decision was not an impulsive one, although Ada Colau is well-known for her principled positions on many issues. It was the outcome of a fully democratic process, initiated by a proposal submitted by left-wing parties at the city council.
A few weeks after the decision was made, a pro-Israeli legal organization known as the Lawfare Project announced its intention to file a lawsuit against Colau because she supposedly “acted beyond the scope of her authority.” It meant to communicate a message to other city councils in Spain, and the rest of Europe, that there would be serious legal repercussions for boycotting Israel. However, much to the organization’s — and Israel’s — surprise, other cities quickly advanced their own boycott procedures.
Liege’s local leadership did not try to conceal the reasons behind its decision. The city council, it was reported last week, had decided to boycott the state of Israel due to its regime of “apartheid, colonization and military occupation.” That move was the result of a majority vote at the council, proving once more that a moral pro-Palestinian stance is fully compliant with democratic processes.
Oslo, meanwhile, is a particularly interesting case. It was there, in 1993, that the “peace process” resulted in the Oslo Accords, which ultimately divided the Palestinians while giving Israel the political cover to continue its illegal practices and claim that it has no peace partner.
But Oslo is no longer committed to the empty slogans of the past. Its city council last week passed a decree boycotting the import of goods from the Palestinian territories Israel seized in 1967. The Norwegian capital will also boycott Israeli companies involved in exploiting the resources in the West Bank and Gaza.
In June last year, the Norwegian government declared its intention to deny the label “Made in Israel” to goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. Though these settlements are illegal under international law, Europe did not mind doing business — in fact, lucrative business — with these colonies. In November 2019, however, the European Court of Justice resolved that all goods produced in “Israel-occupied areas” had to be labeled as such, so as not to mislead consumers. The court’s decision was a watered-down version of what Palestinians had expected: a complete boycott, if not of Israel as a whole, at least of its illegal settlements.
However, the decision still served a purpose. It provided yet another legal basis for boycotting Israel, thus empowering pro-Palestine civil society organizations and reminding Tel Aviv that its influence in Europe is not as limitless as it would like to believe.
The most that Israel could do in response was to issue angry statements, along with haphazard accusations of antisemitism. In August 2022, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt requested a meeting with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid during her visit to Israel. Lapid refused. Not only did such arrogance make little difference to Norway’s stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but it also cleared the way for pro-Palestinian activists to be even more proactive, leading to Oslo’s decision last week.
The latest decisions made in Spain, Belgium and Norway attest to the fact that grassroots efforts do pay dividends.
The BDS movement explained the meaning of Oslo’s move. “Norway's capital ... announced that it will not trade in goods and services produced in areas that are illegally occupied in violation of international law,” it stated. In practice, this means that the city’s “procurement policy will exclude companies that directly or indirectly contribute to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise — a war crime under international law.”
Keeping these rapid developments in mind, the Lawfare Project will now have to expand its legal cases to include Liege, Oslo and an ever-growing list of city councils that are actively boycotting Israel. But even then there are no guarantees that the outcomes of such litigation will help Israel’s cause in any way. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.
A case in point was the recent decisions by the German cities of Frankfurt and Munich to cancel music concerts by pro-Palestinian rock legend Roger Waters. Frankfurt justified its decision by branding Waters “one of the world’s most well-known antisemites.” This bizarre and unfounded claim was rejected outright by a German administrative court, which last month ruled in favor of Waters.
Indeed, while a growing number of European cities are siding with Palestine, those who side with Israeli apartheid are finding it difficult to defend or even maintain their position, simply because the former predicate their stances on international law, while the latter’s are based on twisted and convenient interpretations of antisemitism.
What does all of this mean for the BDS movement?
In an article published in Foreign Policy magazine last year, Steven Cook reached the hasty conclusion that the BDS movement had “already lost” because, according to his inference, efforts to boycott Israel had made no impact “in the halls of government.”
While BDS is a political movement that is subject to miscalculations and mistakes, it is also a grassroots campaign that labors to achieve political ends through incremental, measured changes. To succeed over time, such campaigns must first engage ordinary people on the street and activists at universities, houses of worship, etc., through calculated, long-term strategies, themselves devised by local and national civil society collectives and organizations.
BDS continues to be a success story and the latest decisions made in Spain, Belgium and Norway attest to the fact that grassroots efforts do pay dividends.
There is no denying that the road ahead is long and arduous. It will certainly have its twists, turns and occasional setbacks. But this is the nature of national liberation struggles. They often come at a high cost and require great sacrifice. But with popular resistance at home and growing international support and solidarity abroad, Palestinian freedom should, in fact, be possible.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.