Mel Frykberg, The Electronic Intifada, 4 March 2009
RAMALLAH (IPS) - "Standing United with the People of Gaza" is the theme of this week's Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), which kicked off in Toronto and another 39 cities across the globe Sunday.
A movement to boycott Israeli goods, culture and academic institutions is gaining momentum as Geneva prepares to host the UN's Anti-Racism Conference, Durban II next month amidst swirling controversy.
Both Canada and the US are boycotting the Durban II conference in protest over what they perceive as a strongly anti-Israel agenda.
The first UN Anti-Racism conference, held in the South African city Durban in 2001, saw the Israeli and US delegates storm out of the conference, accusing other delegates of focusing too strongly on Israel.
United States and Canadian support might have offered some comfort for Israel. However, international criticism of Israel's three-week bloody offensive into Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead and thousands more wounded, most of them civilian, has breathed fresh life into a boycott, divest, sanctions (BDS) campaign.
The BDS campaign followed a 2005 appeal from more than 170 Palestinian civil society groups to launch a divestment campaign "as a way of bringing nonviolent pressure to bear on the state of Israel to end its violations of international law."
In the wake of the BDS campaign, critics of Israel have lashed out at what they see as parallels between South Africa's former apartheid system and Israeli racism.
They point to Israel's discriminatory treatment of ethnic Palestinians within Israel who hold Israeli passports, and the extensive human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied territories by Israeli security forces.
During the apartheid era, ties between Israel and South Africa were extremely strong, with Israel helping to train South Africa's security forces as well as supplying the regime in Pretoria with weapons.
Meanwhile, Toronto, where the Israel Apartheid Week movement was born, will hold forums, film shows, cultural events and street protests to mark IAW week. One of the guest speakers is former South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils.
Kasrils is no stranger to controversy. His parents fled from Tzarist Russian pogroms carried out against Jews, and immigrated to South Africa at the beginning of the last century.
During white rule, as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), working both in exile and underground in South Africa, he was reviled by many white South Africans as a "terrorist."
He has also been labeled a self-hating Jew by many Israelis and South African Jews due to the strong stand he and the ANC have taken against Israel's policies.
Meanwhile, in New York, prominent IAW activist Nir Harel, a member of Israel's Anarchists Against the Wall, will also be courting controversy. His group regularly protests against Israel's separation barrier, which divides Israel proper from the Palestinian West Bank.
The barrier deviates significantly from the green line, the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank, into occupied Palestinian territory where it has swallowed huge amounts of land, dispossessing farmers from their agricultural crops.
Another Israeli activist, Matan Cohen, has been central in the first US college implementing a divestment campaign against Israel. Hampshire College in Massachusetts called for divestment from over 200 companies that the college says is responsible for violating its socially responsible investment policies in Israel.
The companies which provide the Israeli military with equipment and services in the occupied West Bank and Gaza include Caterpillar, United Technologies, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola and Terex.
A Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) petition for divestment was supported by more than 800 students, professors and alumni at the college, that has only 1,350 students.
Hampshire College may be small but it has been big in social activism. It was also the first US educational institution to divest from South Africa, ten years before other universities and colleges followed suit.
US campus activism is spreading. The University of Rochester in New York and members of the community are also involved in boycott activities.
Students from Macalester College, a liberal arts college located in St. Paul, Minnesota, occupied the Minnesota Trade Office in January and then picketed there 6 February, demanding that the state end all trade with Israel. New York University students too began a divestment campaign.
Professors and university employees in Quebec, Canada, endorsed the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees' call to boycott Israel.
SJP's actions at Hampshire College follow similar moves by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education in the UK.
In London, students held sit-ins at Goldsmith University and the London School of Economics, among other institutions. Similar protests have spread throughout the UK, with some winning concessions from university officials.
At Manchester University, about a thousand students joined a campaign equating Israel with apartheid-era South Africa, and called on the administration and student union to boycott Israeli companies and support Gaza and the BDS movement.
In Australia the University of Western Sydney's Student Association recently joined the international BDS campaign. International trade union support for political action against Israel has been seen from Spain to South Africa.
The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, under directive of the Council of South African Trade Unions, refused recently to unload an Israeli ship which docked in Durban, despite threats and pressure from both management and the Israeli lobby.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with 600,000 members in 55 unions, is preparing to start a boycott of Israeli goods.
Meanwhile, the biggest trade union in Canada's Ontario province, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), was forced under pressure to moderate its call for a boycott of all academic institutions in Israel. Instead it called for a boycott of Israeli institutions engaged in research which aided the Israeli military.