BDS Campaign in Britain Nearing Watershed Moment

Supporters and opponents of the boycott movement against Israel are keeping a close eye on British water meters, of all things, to gauge the success of their efforts.

LONDON – An ongoing campaign by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against an Israeli water-management company working in Britain could prove a major test-case for the success of the boycott campaign in Britain.

Since early this year, the British branch of the movement that seeks to isolate Israel diplomatically and punish it economically over its policies toward the Palestinians has been trying to bolster opposition to a contract signed three years ago between Arad Technologies and the British water provider Southern Water. The 36 million pound (NIS 200 million) contract signed in 2010 for advanced digital water-management and monitoring systems also included 600,000 advanced water meters meant to be installed in Southern Water customer homes in southeast England.

The Israeli firm Arad was founded in 1941, before the state of Israel was established, by two northern kibbutzim. Today it is a publicly owned company that BDS activists have pilloried for selling equipment to Israeli settlers in the West Bank and to the state-owned water corporation Mekorot, which is accused of depriving Palestinian and Bedouin villages of sufficient water.

Like similar anti-Israel initiatives, this one remained a little-noticed post on a website for months, until one couple – Caroline and Edmond O’Reilly of Brighton, who support the local chapter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – successfully petitioned Southern Water to remove the Arad water meter from their home and replace it with a second-hand, non-Israeli meter.

Heavily invested in its contract with Arad, Southern Water must have hoped that by spending an estimated 200 pounds to accommodate the O’Reillys, the matter would have been put to rest. But when its technicians came to replace the meter, they were greeted by a small demonstration of pro-Palestinian protesters and journalists and, for a moment, it seemed the boycott campaign had scored a victory.

It is difficult to gauge the success of the BDS movement in actual economic damage to Israel. By almost all financial parameters, Israel’s trade with countries where the boycott movement is particularly active has been booming and growing annually. Israeli exports to Britain alone were up 55 percent in the first quarter of 2013. On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made that the BDS campaign aims to harm Israel’s image more than its revenues. This is most often, and most effectively, achieved by urging famous singers not to perform in Israel, or imploring other high-profile personalities like Professor Stephen Hawking not to participate in Israeli conferences. In this case, however, the boycott supporters are trying to attack Israel’s “Startup Nation” image by targeting its technological companies.

So far the campaign against Arad in southern England has had mixed success. Southern Water has not been deterred, installing about half of the water meters it purchased in private households. Despite reports on the anti-Israel campaign in a number of regional and national newspapers, there doesn’t seem to have been a surge of customers in the area taking a cue from the O’Reillys and requesting their meters be replaced. On the other hand, the campaign has garnered support from at least one member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP, who wrote to a constituent that choosing Arad came “at the expense of Palestinian human rights.” Lucas has been an outspoken critic of Israel for years, but she lacks any real political clout.

The true test of the campaign will come over the next few weeks, as the boycotters seek greater publicity for their cause, mainly through leaflets they plan to distribute. For the first time, ordinary citizens who have had the Arad meter installed in their homes will face a choice: to remove or not to remove the Israeli presence in their midst. The campaigners hope that thousands of requests for replacements would put a serious dent in Southern Water’s pocket, deterring it and other British water companies from doing business with Israelis in the future.

Pro-Israel groups will also be watching events closely, hoping to be able to announce another failure for BDS efforts. If this turns out to be the case, it may not be a sign of abundant philo-Zionism in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, but rather a cost-effective measure that British households hope will keep their water bills to a minimum.

Reuters