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French Firm Latest Target of Palestinian-Led Movement to Boycott Israel

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    While many Israelis were enraged by comments from the chief executive of the French telecommunications company Orange, who told journalists in Egypt that he would like to cut ties to an Israeli cellphone service provider that operates in the occupied West Bank, pro-Palestinian activists working to isolate Israel argued that the statement was insufficient.

    The Orange chief executive, Stéphane Richard, made the comments in Cairo on Wednesday, but his company has been under pressure from activists in France and elsewhere who are seeking a radical change to Israeli policies through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, known as B.D.S. The campaign is modeled on the 1980s movement that helped undermine international acquiescence to apartheid in South Africa.

    As Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian rights activist, explained in a New York Times Op-Ed essay last year, the movement, started in 2005, has three demands: the end of Israel’s occupation and control of the territories it seized in 1967, full equality for “Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.”

    While many international observers and diplomats see Israel’s control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza as the major obstacle to peace, it is the activists’ third demand, concerning Palestinians displaced the year Israel was founded, 1948, that disturbs many Israelis the most, because a return of those refugees and their families would threaten the country’s Jewish majority.

    As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have accused B.D.S. activists in Europe and the United States of attempting to “delegitimize” Israel and suggested that the movement is a cover for anti-Semites who aim to destroy the Jewish state.

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    PM Netanyahu: The boycotters of Israel must be exposed for what they are. They’re classical anti-Semites in modern garb.

    — Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) Feb. 18, 2014

    “In the past, antisemites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state,” Mr. Netanayhu told Jewish-American leaders in February. “And I think it’s important that the boycotters must be exposed for what they are. They’re classical antisemites in modern garb.”

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    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks on the boycott movement to the Conference of the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in February. IsraeliPM, via YouTube

    The B.D.S. movement has achieved a number of modest successes, such as persuading European stores to withdraw goods made in Israeli settlements and some banks to withdraw from building projects in the West Bank. The European Union, however, has refused to endorse the boycott movement, while drawing a legal distinction between goods produced in Israel within its 1967 boundaries and those made in Israeli towns and settlements that are beyond them in occupied land.

    Another part of the campaign is to dissuade performance artists and other notable figures from appearing in Israel.

    Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet and activist, who is a strong supporter of B.D.S., said hundreds of artists and others had canceled appearances in Israel or had declined invitations to go in recent years. Many did so in response to B.D.S. requests, he said, reflecting what he called a broadening appeal of the campaign.


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    Part of the reason, Mr. Kanazi said, was attributable to what he described as the polarizing effects of the Netanyahu government’s policies toward the Palestinians.

    “It’s not simply that the cultural boycott is growing but people are more publicly supportive of it,” he said.

    Examples of prominent artists who have canceled events, turned down invitations or called for a cultural boycott of Israel over the past several years, Mr. Kanazi said, included the musicians Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, the authors Alice Walker and Junot Díaz, the rappers Talib Kweli and Boots Riley, and the filmmakers Mira Nair and Jean-Luc Godard.

    The activists are currently pressing the Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to cancel a concert in Tel Aviv, scheduled for late July. Last month, the American singer Lauryn Hill backed out of a performance in Israel after a similar effort. (She explained on her Facebook page that she canceled because she could not arrange a second, separate concert in the West Bank.)

    Other musicians, including Madonna and Elton John, have performed in Israel despite the pressure.

    Last month, a group of French aid groups and trade unions, including France’s Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development, released a report critical of what it called “Orange’s Dangerous Liaisons in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” and activists staged a protest at the company’s annual meeting in Paris.

    While Orange does not directly operate in Israel or the West Bank, an Israeli company, Partner Communications, operates a cellphone service with the brand name Orange Israel under a licensing agreement, so the activists argue that the French company profits from the occupation.

    The report said that the company’s Israeli affiliate had built more than 100 telecommunication antennas and relays on confiscated Palestinian land, and operated shops in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian telecommunication businesses are barred from competing for customers.

    B.D.S. activists, including the Palestinian-American blogger Ali Abunimah, have also drawn attention to Orange Israel’s sponsorship of two battalions of the Israel Defense Forces, including a tank battalion that was involved in last summer’s Gaza war, under the Israeli “Adopt a Warrior” project.

    Images of Israeli soldiers clustered around Orange trucks near the front line during the fighting last year in Gaza, where they could reportedly charge their phones and get extra batteries, were shared on social networks last week by B.D.S. activists in Egypt.

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    @orange feeling pressure over profits from Israeli occupation | @intifada http://t.co/gecavfkVss pic.twitter.com/NoifxoFAsL #قاطع_موبينيل

    — BDSEgypt (@BdsEgypt) May 26, 2015

    As France 24 reported, last year “the French Foreign ministry warned citizens against engaging in economic activities in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.”

    In an update posted on Twitter on Wednesday, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, reminded American readers that under the Geneva Convention, “settlement policy in occupied territories is illegal. It is illegal to contribute to it in any way.”

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    4th Geneva convention : settlement policy in occupied territories is illegal. It is illegal to contribute to it in any way.

    — Gérard Araud (@GerardAraud) June 3, 2015

    “While it is up to the president of Orange to define the commercial strategy of his company, France is firmly opposed to any boycott of Israel,” the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a statement on Friday. He added, however, that “France and the European Union have a constant and well-known position” against Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.

    .@LaurentFabius : "La France et l’Union européenne ont par ailleurs une position constante et connue de tous sur la colonisation."

    — France Diplomatie (@francediplo) June 5, 2015


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