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We spoke to one activist who told us that she was living under the bombardment in Cast Lead and she felt completely powerless. The only way she could feel powerful, that she had any agency and autonomy, in that situation was through the BDS movement and that's why she became a BDS activist


Research collective Corporate Watch have been at the forefront of the campaign to isolate the Israeli state through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). For several years they've been investigating companies and corporations profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories, not least in their tome Targeting Israeli Apartheid: A Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment Handbook.


The international BDS movement targets Israeli militarism, occupation and apartheid policies, in support of Palestinians. It started with a call from Palestinian civil organisations in 2005 for international solidarity activists to take action to boycott Israeli goods, to target Israeli companies and companies that are working in Israel or have partnerships with Israeli ones.


SchNEWS spoke to Tom Anderson, a BDS activist who recently returned from a six week research trip in Gaza.


So, Tom, you spent some time at the end of last year in Gaza. What were your aims for the trip?


We intended to to look at the effects of the ongoing siege on people in Gaza and to look at the way the Israeli companies and the whole economy actually profit from the siege. the other objective we had was to to make better links with people in Gaza because the siege has prevented many solidarity activists from even going to Gaza. It's made it very difficult for people to travel there. Because of that people, in Gaza are increasingly isolated from the international Palestine solidarity movement and the BDS movement. We wanted to begin to try to remedy that, to have more of a dialogue with people in Gaza and to amplify their voices.


Corporate Watch has done extensive research in the West Bank. Was this a very new direction for you to go in, to try and establish these links in Gaza?


Myself and Therezia Cooper [another CW researcher] have been in the West Bank many times since the last Palestinian intifada, but we haven't been able to go to Gaza, although we've tried to keep track of developments there. We've been part of the solidarity movement against the Israeli invasions of Gaza in 2009 and 2012. We wanted to see what was going on on the ground and establish better links.


What did you see of the effects on the ground of the siege when you were there?


First of all, it was difficult for us, as it is with many other activists and other people, to get into the Gaza strip. The way in which we got in was to get an invitation from a Gazan organisation and apply for a permit from the Egyptian government. An application to the Egyptian government takes about 6 weeks to process. Then you are given a permit to cross the Rafah crossing. [SchNOTE: Rafah is a town in the south of the Strip and shares a border with Egypt] We arrived in Cairo and intended to travel to Rafah to cross into Gaza. In fact, we weren't able to do that because the Egyptians had announced a closure of the Rafah crossing until further notice on the day that we travelled. We had to remain in North Sinai for seven days before the crossing opened again.

That's typical of the situation really, the Egyptian government is closing the Rafah crossing as a policy, when it likes, and is doing so because it has an interest in maintaining the siege of the Gaza strip.


And what benefit is that, because it benefits from a close relationship with Israel?


Yeah I would say because the Egyptian military regime benefits of a close relationship with Israel and the US and because of a desire to undermine the Hamas government. Hamas, of course, is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of which was in power in Egypt until the coup last year.


So those problems travelling as an international in the area are probably nothing compared to what the Gazans themselves suffer should they try to leave the territory. Is the fact that people struggle to move out of the strip one of the major effects of the siege?


Palestinians who want to travel in or out of Gaza obviously encounter far worse problems than we did. Palestinians coming into Gaza like we did very often have to sit and wait in Cairo. They are not allowed to travel into North Sinai until the border opens. They are monitored very closely by the Egyptian government and the police force. Palestinians are very often subjected to arrest in Egypt or harassment by the police and army, and they have to pay for hotel rooms while they are waiting the border to open.

Palestinians trying to leave Gaza have to apply for a permit to leave from the Palestinian Ministry for the Interior and are put on a list to go through the crossing. People with medical needs and foreign nationals are put at a high priority, but other people who just want to cross Rafah are just sitting there waiting for the crossing to open. And when it does, it often only opens for two or three days, or even just one day. People very often don't know whether they are able to cross or not, and when they do cross they are facing a very dangerous situation in North Sinai.

When we travelled back through the Sinai we experienced that ourselves. A car bomb went off about 100 metres away from us. After that the Egyptian soldiers at the checkpoints were firing their weapons randomly and indiscriminately and people were forced to take their cars into dirt roads in the desert to avoid the checkpoints.

One Palestinian we interviewed told us about the way the closure of the Rafah crossing had affected her life. She was an activist who was trying to facilitate conversations between activists within the 1948 borders of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, and they organised a conference outside Palestine for all of these people to attend. She spent months arranging this conference, but in the end she wasn't able to attend.

She went to the Rafah crossing on the Gazan side and every day she was turned away and she had to go back to Gaza city and attend the conference via a Skype call. That's just one example of how these closures are affecting people.

The Rafah crossing is the only way for people, apart from very privileged people, to leave Gaza, and during November I'd estimate the crossing was open ten days out of thirty.


And what did you see of the effects of the siege within Gaza for people going about their everyday lives within the territory?


Although bombings are taking place regularly, I think right now the main military policy against the people of Gaza is one of intensifying the siege.

One aspect of the siege that has had a direct effect on peopes's lives is the power cuts. Electricity in Gaza is provided by a combination of power lines from Egypt, power lines from the Israeli Electric company and electricity generated by the Gaza power plant.

During the time that we were there the power plant wasn't operating because the agreements that the Palestinian Authority reached with the Israeli government means that the PA agrees to buy fuel from Israeli companies and that fuel is provided to people in Gaza to supply the power plant. The Hamas government are demanding that the PA stops charging them for tax on the fuel that they are purchasing. Because of that the fuel isn't entering Gaza and the plant isn't operating.

The result of that is that people are only supplied with power for twelve hours or less a day and that for the remainder of that time they are without electricity generating it with small petrol powered generators. Petrol stations are buying fuel from Israeli companies - so the Israeli companies are benefiting from this situation, but for the people of Gaza what it means is the majority of the time people's homes are not supplied with electricity. That's going to be more and more important as winter sets in.

As we were leaving the first rains were starting. After that, a big crisis happened because there was major flooding in Gaza and, of course, people's homes are not supplied with power for heating. There were major fears of a health crisis. The hospitals in Gaza are supplied with electricity by generators, as are the sewage facilities and so on, so there is a massive strain. they have to buy fuel for these generators, and they aren't reliable. They are supplying vital equipment which is used in maternity wards in hospitals, or sewage plants which if they stop working will eject raw sewage into the streets.


You said there was a strong movement within Gaza of people involved in the BDS movement and other activism, what resistance did you see when you were there?


In terms of a popular movement BDS in Gaza is younger really than it is in the West Bank. The first really popular calls for BDS were made in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. We spoke to one activist who told us that she was living under the bombardment in Cast Lead and she felt completely powerless. The only way she could feel powerful, that she had any agency and autonomy, in that situation was through the BDS movement and that's why she became a BDS activist.

She couldn't leave Gaza, she was trapped in an open air prison being bombed by the Israeli state and the only way she could take action against that was to call on the international movements to take action in solidarity.

When we arrived there people were very keen to hear about the actions which people had been taking in solidarity with people in Gaza internationally. And we were inundated with invitations to speak at universities, to organisations in refugee camps, trade unions, employees associations, and activist groups, political parties all of them asked us to come and talk. We were struck by the level of engagement with the BDS movement that people expressed and the level of enthusiasm. It really struck us that this is a movement that really is wanted by people in Gaza.


And did you come away with an impression of what would be the most powerful targets for BDS activism, which supports Gaza in particular?


I think all of the BDS actions which people are already doing in support of Palestine are actions in solidarity with people in Gaza. One thing people want the movement to know is that they don't want people to think of them as Gazans but to think of them as Palestinians, and to think of their struggle as one and the same as the struggle of those in the West Bank or Bedouins struggling to stay on their land in the Naqab witin the 1948 borders of Israel.

One area of particular concern for people in Gaza is the issue of prisoners. Every week in Gaza City there is a vigil, which was started during the 1990s by the families of Palestinian prisoners from Gaza who were serving sentences inside Israeli jails.


Are they the G4S run jails?


The British-Danish company G4S signed a contract in 2007 to provide equipment and services to Israeli prisons. We interviewed a number of released prisoners in Gaza who had been in Israeli jails within the last few years. We also spoke to prisoners' associations. People were very keen on feeding into, and being part of, the international campaign against G4S and they saw it as being a very powerful thing in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners.


What else about BDS resonates with Gazan Palestinians?


The other campaign that we were particularly interested in was the campaign the Israeli arms industry and particularly Israeli drone technology. Drones are an increasingly integral part of the Israeli military assault against the people of Gaza. In the last major attack in 2012, deaths caused by drones exceeded those caused by any other weapons. They are becoming the most dangerous weapon being used by Israel against people in Gaza.

Drones are a constant presence in the skies, particularly in the south of and the extreme north of the Gaza Strip. There's no escape from them. If you hear an F16 or an Apache you can run and hide because you know that it's there to target someone, but drones are there all the time so there's no hiding from them. People we interviewed told us about the interference that drones cause to TV programmes. That's one way you can tell they're there. People complained they couldn't watch Arabs Got Talent because drones were in the skies above their houses.

We interviewed several families who had lost loved ones in drone attacks, for instance one family who in 2009 had tried to flee their home because of the advance of Israeli forces towards their house. They'd walked out of their house trying to find sanctuary in a UN school and they had been directly targeted by a drone which fired a missile which killed two members of the family. We also interviewed a family who had lost their 18 year old daughter in a drone strike in 2012.

Both of those attacks had seemingly no military objective. Families try and take legal cases against the Israeli military but really there's no recourse to any kind of compensation or even an apology from the Israeli army when these attacks happen. These families were very clear that the companies that were manufacturing these technologies should be a target for the international movement.

The companies making the drones used in Gaza are generally Israeli companies and they are using experience they are gaining to market their technology internationally, as 'battle tested'. As a result Israel was the biggest exporter of drone technology in the world in 2013 and Israeli drone technology has been exported to 49 countries across the world. Obviously the fact that Israeli companies are able to make money this way not only means they can profit from the crimes they are carrying out, but that the Israeli economy and particularly the economy of the arms trade which is closely linked to the military is bolstered by these foreign sales and strengthens Israel's ability to carry out more attacks against the Palestinians.

In terms of the BDS movement and what people can do, I think it's extremely important to target Elbit. Elbit is an Israeli private company. It's currently working with the British government to develop British drones which will be used in Afghanistan. They have operations in the UK and I think it's of paramount importance that people work to end the profitability of this business.



Tom and Therezia are doing a talk at the Cowley Club about drone use in Gaza on Wednesday 29th January at 7pm, including what people can do to join the international movement against drone technology.





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Twitter: @SchNEWS