Johann Hari: We must choose boycotts that target the worst of Israel, not the best

What is needed is not an embargo but smart sanctions that cut to the heart of the occupation
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The Independent Online

When I spent a week in Hebron two summers ago, I would have backed a thousand boycotts: of Israeli academia, of Israeli goods, of Israeli sportsmen. I discovered a West Bank town beyond belief and beyond sanity. The 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron live under lockdown so that 450 settlers - that's 450 - can roam free.

When I spent a week in Hebron two summers ago, I would have backed a thousand boycotts: of Israeli academia, of Israeli goods, of Israeli sportsmen. I discovered a West Bank town beyond belief and beyond sanity. The 130,000 Palestinians in Hebron live under lockdown so that 450 settlers - that's 450 - can roam free.

For most of the year, these Palestinians are imprisoned in their homes. They are not allowed to leave for any reason; if they do venture out they can be - and often are - shot. Once every few days, they will be allowed to scramble around the city in a desperate, rushed search for enough supplies to last the next random period of imprisonment. The average Palestinian home in Hebron is tiny; families of eight people share a few rooms. Many families have outside toilets they can never reach; they use buckets. This is their life.

On the first day I visited, I assumed the curfew was on. Cracked steel shutters stood before every shop, and silence ruled the streets. But I found out this was a good day. No curfew was in place: it was just that Palestinians were either being turned away from the checkpoints that scar the city, or were too afraid to leave their homes. They cannot visit the old Palestinian market-place because it has been appropriated as a "safe zone" for the settlers, so they have shifted their shops to a barren patch.

As I was shown around, I noticed an odd wire mesh that hangs over the market. Naively, I asked what it was for. Greg Rollins, a worker for the Christian Peacekeeping Team based in Hebron, said softly: "The settlers throw things down at the Palestinians. Rocks and bricks. I've seen their children hurl their shit down here. So they put up the mesh. It doesn't always work."

Most of the people in Britain who have been campaigning for a boycott of Israeli universities - like professors Steven and Hillary Rose - are decent people trying to show solidarity with the Palestinians trapped in this half-life. They are enraged that the Israeli government, after 38 years of this occupation, is barely inching towards the two-state solution the world knows is necessary, and they want to try something - anything - that will nudge Israel forward. To accuse them of being anti-Semites, self-hating Jews, or quasi-Nazis - all insults hurled in their direction - is false and disgusting.

Today, the position of British academics on this question is unclear. Some seem to be enforcing personal boycotts; few attend academic conferences in Israel. The Association of University Teachers agreed to a boycott earlier this year but reversed their position yesterday.

The only sensible question now is: would the proposals help or harm the Palestinians? In 2002, we had a taste in Britain of what a blunt boycott of all Israeli universities would look like. Dr Oren Yiftachel is one of the millions of brave Israelis who has been arguing relentlessly for justice for the Palestinians. He has tirelessly documented the Sharon government's theft of Palestinian land, and even set up a radical Arab-Israeli journal that made the Israeli right combust with rage. That summer, he submitted an academic paper to a left-wing periodical called Political Geography in which he argued against the abuse of Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere. The article was returned to him unread; the journal explained that it was boycotting Israelis.

The clearest, bravest, most extensively documented opposition to Israel's crimes against the Palestinians has come not from Damascus or Riyadh but from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. If you want to know the full details of the crimes unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank, look to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. If you want to understand the real history of Israel/Palestine, read Tom Segev, Benny Morris (before his strange about-face in 2002), Ilan Pape, and Israel's other "new historians". A total boycott of Israel's universities will simply lock them out of international academic debate. If we act as if all Israelis are synonymous with Ariel Sharon, we will only drive the country further and further to the right.

Indeed, Israeli universities are universally regarded as one of the most progressive parts of the country. That's precisely why Ariel Sharon's government is eroding their autonomy and funding. Professor Neve Gordon of Haifa University is a fierce defender of the Palestinians (she has even been called "a fanatic anti-Semite" by US professors), but she pleads: "Unwittingly, American and European supporters of the academic boycott against Israeli universities are aiding this [right-wing Likud] attack. It will only weaken the elements in Israeli society that are struggling to preserve these havens of free speech from a right-wing assault."

Some of the proponents of the AUT boycott recognised this, proposing instead to boycott only two universities: Haifa, because it had apparently censored a graduate student's thesis about Israeli war crimes, and Bar-Ilan, because it has links with a campus for Jewish settlers on the West Bank. But even this seems too blunt: 20 per cent of Haifa's students are Arabs, and some of Israel's most prominent left-wingers are on the faculty. Do we really want to boycott them?

There is a better way. What is needed is not an embargo - à la apartheid South Africa - but smart sanctions. If we want to show solidarity with the Palestinians - and we must - then there is a group operating here in Britain and across the developed world that is making possible some of the worst atrocities against Palestinians. The corporation Caterpillar is the provider of 64-ton D9 bulldozers to the Israeli Defence Force that have been used to systematically level entire Palestinian towns. A blade on the back on the bulldozer - known as "the ripper" - has ripped through more than 40 miles of water and sewage pipes.

At least three Palestinians have been killed because they could not flee their homes in time, and more than 16,000 have been made homeless in the town of Rafah alone. The peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed by a Caterpillar bulldozer when she tried to protect the home of a local doctor from destruction. One of the reasons for the deadly collapse in Palestinian civilian infrastructure over the past four years is that demolitions are now so persistent that nobody is bothering to rebuild.

So here is a boycott that cuts right to the heart of the occupation, and claims no collateral damage on the Israeli left. The message is simple: Every person wearing trendy Caterpillar boots walks over the bloody rubble of the Palestinians. Every construction company that pays for Caterpillar equipment is helping those who profit from war crimes. You can join the campaign to stop the bulldozers at www.catdestroyshomes.org. In the fight for a safe, free Palestinian state alongside Israel, there are landmines on every side, and we have to be careful. We must choose boycotts that target the worst of Israel, not the best.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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