“A new way to fight”: Egypt and the BDS Movement


Badwan Abbas was five years old when the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) arrived at his home on 10 July, 1948.

Badwan had spent the early years of his life in Innaba, a village standing on what is now Kefar Shemauel, not far from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport.

Thereafter, Badwan would live life amongst the diaspora, moving from Jericho to Jordan, Jordan to Lebanon and back again; fleeing the Nakba and the itinerant poverty, unrest and war that followed it.

Nowadays Abbas’ grandsons, Iyad and Mohamed, live in Al-Amari camp on the outskirts of Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank, along with around 10,500 other registered 1948 refugees.

Walking around the camp together, we suddenly stop on one stretch of road.

Mohamed points up at a settlement on the hill above us – Psagot. In 2002, an Israeli tank fired shells down into the camp from the hillside, killing the wife and three children of a Hamas official, Hassan Abu Qweik. They exploded at the spot we are standing on.

We talk about Europe and Palestine, Egypt and Palestine; how they are linked and how they are not.

Lots of people ask about the situation in Egypt, about Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Later, a local community organiser tells me: “When Egypt is down, Palestine is down too.”

Around Al-Amari you feel the presence of large looming forces – settlements, revolutions, reconciliation deals, politics, history.

Iyad and Mohamed both believe that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is the most important international development that supports activism within Palestine itself. “It’s the most active thing happening now,” Iyad explains.


Occupation economics

The economics of Israel’s occupation are opaque. Israel’s defense budgets is a state secret, companies often refuse to talk about the effects of the boycott movement, while settlement enterprises allegedly rent offices inside Israel proper to protect their occupation-end businesses.

Israeli economist Shir Hever estimated last year, in Generation Palestine: Voices from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, that Israel paid out approximately US$3 billion in civilian costs (by propping up settlements with “housing, infrastructure, services and taxes”) and another US$6 billion in military costs (“including Border Police deployment, imprisoning Palestinians, protecting the colonies, the Separation Wall, and so on”) – costs that are increasing year-on-year by around seven per cent, Hever claimed.

It is harder to ascertain how BDS is affecting the economy, because few people inside Israel actually want to talk about it.

“In fact,” Hever says over the phone, “I had a friend who worked in a high-tech company, who told me his company lost a US$9-million contract after Mavi Marmara” [the Freedom Flotilla incident which left nine Turkish activists dead in 2010].

And then he suddenly remembered who he was talking with and said: “Please don’t tell anyone.”

“They’re afraid this kind of information might come into the light. [So] it’s not easy to say exports have dropped this much, or the stock market has dropped this much, because if companies refuse to provide the information we can’t really make a measurement.”


Economic normalisation, political embargo

Back in Egypt, the effects of normalisation, embargo or boycott can be easier to decipher.

Egypt is estimated to trade millions of dollars each year through natural gas sales, including some US$300 million in 2012, and is reportedly on the verge of signing a new gas contract.

In the past, these deals have sometimes come at a price, arguably paid for short-term political gains.

A recent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) report stated the country had lost US$10 billion through selling off natural gas in “corrupt” cut-price deals with Israel, Jordan and Spain before the revolution. “One Israeli economic reporter has calculated that the cheap natural gas [Hosni] Mubarak sold to Israel for a fraction of its market value was equivalent to giving Israel a subsidy of US$10 billion,” Hever adds.

US-levied Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) also encourage trade with Israel.

Established in the mid-2000s, designated industrial areas were granted duty-free access to US markets, providing – and this is buried in the official documentation – all products had an 11.7 per cent Israeli component. The latest figures (excluding Q4) show Egypt exported US$621.7 million-worth of food and textiles through this system last year.

Big-name corporations with contentious roles in the Israeli occupation also host significant operations, including Veolia and the private security firm, G4S, which contracts out to shops, apartment complexes and business around Egypt.

Telecomms company Mobinil is majority-owned by Orange, the French telecoms firm blamed by activists for leading Israeli expansionism in Palestinian territories by providing telecommunications infrastructure to new or under-development settlements on Palestinian land.

“Right now I’d say most Egyptians would maybe assume that, apart from the gas line, there’s not much corporate cooperation going on between the two places,” suggests British-Egyptian activist and filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton.

“You have to look and see what companies are involved. Some of them will be attackable and accessible.” He points to larger companies like Mobinil and G4S.

“Although these are enormous corporations, we can also target smaller Egyptian companies which use their services…so maybe you can’t shut down Veolia but you can pressure local businesses and councils to cut their ties with Veolia.”

Some observers have also stressed it is important not to overstate Egyptian trade with Israel, which is often done quietly and away from view.

In the meantime, parts of Egyptian society uphold quasi-embargoes reminiscent of the Arab Boycott, which lasted from the 1930s until around the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

A 1970s-era ban on visiting Jerusalem by the Coptic Church still exists, but is losing ground. Last year the Israeli economy reportedly made US$11.4 billion through tourism, with 3.54 million visitors coming to the country by the end of 2013, according to Ministry of Tourism figures. Hundreds of Copts are known to disobey the ban each year.

Other groups more specifically align themselves with BDS. Egypt’s independent trade unions endorsed BDS in the wake of the 2011 revolution, cutting ties with Israeli union, Histradut.

And last year a range of Egyptian civil society groups also joined Arab organisations in calling for a boycott of G4S for “its involvement in Israeli occupation and oppression.”


Quick dollars

And yet generally, when Iyad and Mohamed talk about BDS, they talk about Europe or Palestine, not so much Arab countries. Do they feel that countries like Egypt are helping?

“Arab countries are only looking out for themselves,” Mohamed replies. “I’m talking about governments. Many Egyptians, most of them, support us and they are not happy with what their government does.”

“Arab governments are only ever out to make a quick dollar,” Robert Hamilton agrees, “and the quickest and most corrupt dollar often comes from Israel. There’s no question there’s a huge gulf between the behaviours of the governments and the wills of their people.”

Mohamed believes that whereas BDS activists in Europe, for example, can leaflet, picket or protest relatively freely, in Egypt the dynamics are different. A protest law introduced last year forbids gatherings of more than 10 people without approval from the Interior Ministry. “[Egyptians] say they support us in Palestine, but that they can’t do anything.”

“Things like the BDS campaign have been very effective in creating a narrative that allows people to see how they personally are empowered to act – and that doesn’t really exist in Egypt,” Robert Hamilton explains, “so people don’t really know how to display solidarity in a practical or economic way.” But, he adds, Egypt’s situation might actually bring Palestine back to the fore.

Meanwhile in Al-Amari, two brothers believe BDS is helping to challenge 66 years of history.

“We want to find a new way to fight,” Mohamed says, “not just clashes and stones.”