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United Church wing calls for boycott

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TORONTO — A Toronto presbytery of the United Church of Canada (UC) is calling on its members to boycott six Canadian and Israeli companies because of their activities in “illegally occupied territories.”

The Holy Land Action and Awareness task group, a creation of the Southwest Presbytery, or section, of the UC, said on its website that it hopes to “inspire people of conscience to refuse to do business with companies who are enabling the illegal occupation: Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, Motorola, Caterpillar, Veolia Environnement and Indigo Books.”

In announcing the boycott, the task group cited the appeal by Palestinian groups for an international boycott, as well as a recommendation of the general council of the United Church of Canada.

“In 2009, the General Council of the United Church of Canada recommended that members prayerfully consider their actions directed to end the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and towards reconciliation, including but not limited to economic boycott.”

Rev. Brian McIntosh, spokesperson for the task group, said supporters of the boycott are being asked to send letters “to the companies and the distributors of their products asking that they do not distribute their products and to tell them to cease producing in the occupied territories.”

He said the task group contacted the companies directly, but they have ignored their request.

According to the task group’s website, “Caterpillar supplies bulldozers and earth-moving equipment to the Israeli military”; one of Motorola’s subsidiaries “supplies Israel with the military tools to sustain its occupation and oppression of Palestinians”; Ahava extracts its minerals and operates from a part of the Dead Sea that is in the West Bank, while Veolia Environnement, through its subsidiary Connex, is a central partner in a $500-million light rail system that will link Jerusalem to West Bank settlements.

As well, Indigo majority owners Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz founded the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides scholarships for study in Israel and other support to IDF troops without families in Israel, including those participating in the Cast Lead operation.

The task group believes a boycott is “the last non-violent way to get things to happen. Our position is that as in South Africa, after how many years of apartheid, there will be a response with growing international economic pressure,” Rev. McIntosh said.

“I think economic pressure from around the world, applied in growing strength, will cause Israel and the companies to think twice about continuing these illegal activities in the territories.

“We see this as a policy of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation since 1967 and calling for enforcement of Geneva Conventions and UN resolutions around international law and illegality of economic activities in occupied territories.”

When asked whether the presbytery had launched similar boycotts against countries such as Syria, Libya, Iran or China, Rev. McIntosh said, “We don’t see it as equivalent to other situations in the world in so far as there’s been a lack of international response to Israel and these companies.”

When asked if the presbytery was asking the Palestinians to change their behaviour in any way, he replied: “The campaign is in solidarity with the Palestinians. If you’re asking if we are choosing sides, we are, as we don’t see the suffering as equal in this situation.

“Israel has acted with more culpability, and there have been few departures to violence by the Palestinians since the second intifadah.”

Turning to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military operation in Gaza that came after 10,000 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel, Rev. McIntosh said: “Cast Lead was a horrific campaign in 2008-09, and now they’re not allowing in humanitarian aid,” referring to the proposed international flotilla that promises to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Rev. McIntosh said the onus is on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.

“We see that Israel needs to show good faith… because they hold the power.  The Palestinians have no power as a political entity.”

The presbytery’s boycott policy comes only about three months after a two-week mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories by senior UC leaders.  The mission, three days of which was led by Canadian Jewish Congress, was meant to provide balance to the church’s position on the conflict.

At its 2009 General Council, the Church adopted policy items that called for full Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, recognition of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territories and “ending all forms of violence by the Israeli government upon the Palestinian people.”

The church, however, voted down a proposal for boycott, divestment and sanctions, in part after lobbying efforts by Congress.

National UC spokesperson Bruce Gregersen said local regions (presbyteries) of the church can adopt their own policies vis-a-vis the Middle East and the Southwest Presbytery’s views “are not at variance with the overall national policy.”

The church leaders’ recent trip to the Middle East will prompt a policy review, but any new changes won’t be debated until the next General Council in 2012. Gregersen acknowledged the west Toronto presbytery’s views could have an influence on the larger Toronto wing of the church and on the national body as well.

Asked if he thought a boycott could advance peace, Gregersen said the Church’s policy is to “encourage the end of occupation… which is necessary for a peaceful resolution.”

Moshe Ronen, chair of the Canada-Israel Committee, said the presbytery’s boycott “is a futile initiative… It’s a campaign that does not advance anything.

“If you want to promote peace, this is not the way.”

Ronen said the UC policy has mischaracterized the root of the conflict.

“It’s not properly focused. It’s focused on the occupation and presents it as the central or core issue, but it’s not. The core issue is the non-recognition or acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.”

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