This week the World Council of Churches (WCC) joined an ever expanding movement across the Christian World and condemned the “illegal” Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza while highlighting plans to apply “economic pressure” on Israel. Reminiscent of the Anti-Apartheid boycotts which rocked the racist regime of South Africa during the 1980s, the WCC meeting in Geneva this week noted Israel’s Colonization of the West Bank as “illegal activities … as if a viable peace for both peoples is not a possibility”.
Such an analysis reveals an awareness of the myth constructed by the Occupation Forces around any notions of a “peace process”. The construction of an Apartheid Wall throughout the West Bank, with a series of “security zones” and settler-only road systems, will steal 47% of Palestinian lands and leave those remaining in a series of imprisoned cantons. The committee's 150 members affirm: “The concern here is to abide by law as the foundation for a just peace,” noting “we are not blind to facts and must
not be complicit in them even unwittingly.”
The Council is the main global body representing around half a billion Christians in over 120 countries. It is a fellowship of churches, now 342, active in all continents from virtually all non-Catholic Christian traditions. Ideas around economic pressure were first mooted by the Presbyterian Church last year in the shape of divestment and boycotts of companies complicit in the Occupation. In July, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States which has 3 million members, voted overwhelmingly for economic pressure on Israel. Presbyterians’ are now engaged in discussions as how to remove any of the church's $7 billion investment funds from Israel. Specific companies such as Caterpillar whose bulldozers play a central role in the abuses committed by Israel are targeted via their “complicity” in the Occupation.
Measures to be implemented remain cautious – and largely hinge upon divestment campaigns – falling short of the full economic boycott needed to forge sufficient pressure on Israel. However, these developments herald the beginning of a truly international boycott movement. In the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1970s and '80s, the WCC led churches in an economic boycott of South Africa in the struggle for justice. Now the foundation of a similar movement is gathering momentum and pace as Israel continues to defy international law through its project of colonization and expulsion of the Palestinian people.
Grassroots social justice movements from across the globe have already initiated popular boycotts of Israeli products as well as divestment, responding from calls made from a cross section of Palestinian civil society groups, campaigns and trade unions. Their solidarity was crystallized by the overwhelming support for boycotts made by the 155,000 people who participated in the fifth annual World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil in early 2005. They have formed the embryo of a movement that could have enormous significance if a strong moral and ethical stance is reflected in a global movement to pressure Israel through increasing isolation.
Prior to the WCC announcement, the Anglican Peace and Justice Network (APJN) agreed to support the many churches, universities and trade unions in the West that are calling for a divestment campaign modeled on the popular boycott of Apartheid South Africa. APJN said it would press leaders of the 75 million Anglicans and Episcopalians worldwide to impose sanctions on Israel after an eight-day visit to the occupied territories.
That call was endorsed in October of last year by the Pax Christi Aotearoa of New Zealand. Again the church in New Zealand was inspired by the legacy of popular boycotts of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Kevin McBride, national coordinator of Pax Christi Aotearoa-NZ noted:
***image1***“We haven’t always known how to intervene from this distance but this initiative gives us a very concrete means of response”
Since last summer, other churches – including agencies of the Anglican Communion, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – have also examined the possibility of following the Presbyterians' lead in taking forms of economic action against Israel.
Vatican Cardinal Roger Etchegaray has said the Wall “inevitably creates a geography of apartheid, which provokes rather than controls violence” referring to the actions of Israel as “intolerable”. Israel has in recent month made various overtures to The Vatican in an attempt to bring it on-side. Any movements closer to Israel would clearly not be reflected by Catholic membership on the ground – particularly in the global South where the memories of liberation struggles are still fresh in the minds of many. Neither would it be reflected in those who participated in the massive anti-Apartheid solidarity movement in churches throughout South America during the 1980s. Already various Catholic churches such as Pax Christi have begun to look at ways of applying economic pressure on Israel.
The mounting call to find new and creative ways to isolate Israel until it ends the Occupation and its Apartheid policies symbolizes a new hope for the Palestinian people in their struggle for justice and freedom. Solidarity from a broad section of grassroots organizations located in churches, mosques, workplaces, community forums and universities gains in strength every day. However, a solid and coherent divestment and boycott programme does not emerge overnight. For example civil rights and Christian activists from Harlem in the 1950s worked tirelessly before their strategies had the power and means by which to hurt Apartheid South Africa. The question now is how movements committed to peace and justice of today can learn from the struggles of yesterday and forge the links necessary to find the unity and strength that can bring down the system of Apartheid waged against the Palestinians and end the Occupation.