Defying leaders, Norway trade unionists endorse Israel boycott
Activism and BDS Beat 18 May 2017
Norway’s largest and most influential trade union organization has called for a full boycott of Israel.
Last Friday, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) voted to endorse a statement that embraces the entire slate of demands in the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
The Palestinian BDS National Committee hailed the decision as courageous and urged LO to pressure the Norwegian government to end military ties with Israel.
At its annual congress, LO delegates voted 197 to 117 to demand an “international economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel” as a means to end the blockade of Gaza, remove Israel’s wall in the West Bank, respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees and ensure “equal rights for all.”
Full boycott, full explanation
Sara Bell, leader of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees in the city of Bergen, was a key organizer among those putting the boycott on LO’s agenda.
Bell told The Electronic Intifada that the original language simply stated: “LO supports the international BDS movement, and will work for an international trade boycott of Israel.”
But with several other unions and local branches supporting the boycott, the final wording included clauses on the right of return as well as demanding that the Norwegian government recognize the state of Palestine on the 1967 boundaries and takes steps to ensure “a democratic state solution with equal rights for all.”
The declaration states that since international political efforts and dialogue have not produced results, it is now necessary to “work for an international, economic, cultural and academic boycott to achieve these goals.”
Something of a thriller
“The voting process was something of a thriller, but the result was overwhelmingly in favor of boycott,” Bell said. “I’m still pretty euphoric about it.”
“I think the result reflects ordinary Norwegian people’s understanding and rejection of the horrible injustices the Palestinian population has been suffering for far too long,” she added.
The primary debate at the LO congress was not over whether to boycott, but how.
LO president Hans-Christian Gabrielsen had urged only a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
He warned that adopting the full boycott could prevent LO representatives from traveling to visit Palestinian trade unions, due to a new Israeli law that bars entry to BDS supporters.
Nothing to lose
However, that law does not distinguish between boycotts limited to settlements and broader boycotts of Israel.
A boycott of settlement goods had already been adopted at a previous LO congress.
And, LO’s newspaper FriFagbevegelse reported earlier in May that two LO members have already been denied entry by Israel this year because of their Palestine solidarity activism.
Gabrielsen also argued that a full boycott would hurt Palestinian workers and labor unions.
This claim was blunted by the fact that the BDS call has been endorsed by the Palestinian trade unions federation PGFTU.
Its general secretary Shaher Saad also spoke at the LO congress.
“We are a people who need help and solidarity from our friends, and we need it now,” Saad said.
Boycott not the goal
Like many LO leaders, Bell has visited Palestine, most recently traveling to the Gaza Strip in March with a union delegation. Bell told the LO congress about Abd al-Rahman Wahdan, a potato farmer from Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza.
During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, Wahdan’s house was occupied by Israeli forces for three days, Bell told the congress. Some family members fled to Jabaliya refugee camp, others stayed in Beit Hanoun. Eight were killed by a bomb in Beit Hanoun and four others by airstrikes in Jabaliya.
Today, Wahdan farms potatoes close to the no-go zone enforced by the Israeli military inside Gaza near the boundary with Israel.
Bell said her union helps fund irrigation systems for Wahdan and other growers in the area where farmers are frequently shot at by Israeli forces and have their crops sprayed with poison by Israeli aircraft.
“Boycott in itself isn’t a goal for us,” Bell told The Electronic Intifada. “Our goal is to end the occupation, end the siege and blockade of Gaza, end the illegal settlements, and start working for freedom, democracy and equal rights. We hope many other trade unions will follow us and join this effort.”
Criticism was swift and predictable. Foreign minister Børge Brende tweeted that Norway’s current right-wing government “strongly” opposed the LO’s decision. “We need more cooperation and dialogue, not boycott,” Brende wrote.
In January, during a visit to Israel, Brende signed an agreement on scientific cooperation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A spokesperson for Norway’s far-right Progress Party called the resolution “shameful.”
Israeli ambassador to Norway Raphael Schutz called the decision “immoral” and claimed it reflected “deeply rooted attitudes of bias, discrimination and double standard towards the Jewish state.”
He added that the measure placed the LO “shoulder to shoulder with the worst enemies of Israel.”
But solidarity activists are welcoming the vote as a sign of change.
“Such popular resistance from the grassroots of the Norwegian labor movement shows just how out of sync with the public both Norwegian and international politicians are in allowing Israel impunity against human rights and international law violations,” Tora Systad Tyssen, chair of the Association of Norwegian NGOs for Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada.
Kathrine Jensen, chair of the Palestine Committee of Norway, said the vote demonstrated that Israel had not succeeded in its “war on international solidarity.”
And on 9 May, days before the LO congress vote, the municipality of Lillehammer passed a resolution to boycott Israeli settlement goods.
This made it the third major city in Norway to call for a settlement boycott, following Trondheim and Tromsø.