Why are pro-Palestinian activists targeting Barclays bank?
In recent weeks, pro-Palestine protests have been held across the country in response to the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Among the calls for a ceasefire, activists have been pushing for a boycott of companies believed to be funding or supporting Israel’s military machine or state policies.
Popularly known as ‘BDS’ – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a Palestinian-led movement for “freedom, justice and equality”.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, campaigners believe boycotts are a legitimate means of pressuring Israel to comply with international law.
“Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes,” a statement on the BDS Movement website reads.
“BDS is now a vibrant global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots movements across the world. Since its launch in 2005, BDS is having a major impact and is effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.”
For the last 18 years, the movement has targeted arms companies, popular food and clothing brands, banks, supermarkets and academic establishments; consistently raising awareness and using direct action to apply pressure on them to sever ties with what activists describe as “Israeli apartheid”.
While many BDS campaigns can appear to be long drawn out David vs Goliath type ‘battles’, the movement has also arguably had a great deal of success, causing sales figures for big name brands to slump during key Palestinian action, UK factories tied to Israeli weapons manufacturers to close, and encouraging student societies, trade unions and arts & cultural organisations to boycott brand Israel.
This has been especially prevalent during the most recent bout of Palestinian solidarity action following Israel’s attack on Gaza post October 7, currently showing no signs of slowing down in the wake of 25,000 people reportedly killed by the Israeli military in just under four months, according to the Gaza health department. Death toll figures so shocking, South Africa has begun legal proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) describing the state’s actions as “genocide”.
Such has been the international outrage around the disproportionate Israeli response to the Hamas attack on October 7, protests around the globe have pushed a renewed call for a boycott of companies allegedly enabling the Middle-Eastern nation.
Prominent names among these are Starbucks, McDonalds, Carrefour, Sabra, Google, Disney, Burger King, Amazon, Elbit Systems and Barclays, say proponents of BDS.
In response to criticism, Starbucks said that it is against all violence, while McDonalds HQ points out it doesn’t support either side in the conflict and different branches of its restaurant are run independently in various countries. Other big brands have similarly attempted to neutralise the impact of boycott action but for many, there’s been very little let up since the latest episode of violence flared up.
Earlier this month, the chief executive of McDonald’s suggested global sales had indeed been impacted by the recent action. Chris Kempczinski said the fast-food giant had been negatively affected in both Middle Eastern markets and “some outside the region” following calls for a boycott of the chain.
The BDS movement faces stiff opposition from the European Union, which officially rejects the ideology. Countries including Germany have criticised it while the United States has had measures against it passed in more than 30 states. Pro-Zionist groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have described the movement as antisemitic and “discriminatory”.
Two weeks ago, British MPs backed the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, which would effectively attempt to block Israel boycotts if successful, essentially preventing public institutions in the UK from launching their own boycotts. Israel is the only state explicitly named in the legislation, alongside the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It comes as no surprise Amnesty International has described the proposed legislation as “draconian”. “It’s utterly bizarre that ministers are trying to prevent members of councils and other public bodies from being able to consider the carnage in Gaza” explained the human rights organisations’ UK representative Sacha Deshmukh.
Presently intensified as a reflection of current events, mass boycotts in support of Palestine are nothing new and certainly didn’t begin on October 7, 2023.
Last year, on Saturday 23 September, hundreds of protesters descended on more than 25 Barclays branches across Britain to demand the bank divests from arms companies supplying Israel with weapons used in its attacks on Palestinians.
The campaigners were taking part in a National Day of Action organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), War on Want and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) calling on Barclays to “Stop Banking on Apartheid”.
Protesters accuse the bank of facilitating Israel’s brutal assaults on Palestinians, which had – up to that point – killed more than 200 Palestinians in 2023 alone. That figure currently stands in excess of 25,000 civilians, between October 2023 and now.
Research released by PSC, CAAT and War on Want uncovered that “Barclays holds over £1 billion in shares and provides over £3 billion in loans and underwriting to 9 companies whose weapons, components, and military technology have been used in Israel’s armed violence against Palestinians.”
Since the research was released, Barclays branches have been the site of regular protests to demand the bank ends its complicity in Israel’s militarised attacks.
Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, says “As Israel continues its brutal attacks on Palestinians, Barclays shameful complicity in Israel’s violence must end. The dozens of protests on Saturday showed the growing pressure on Barclays to divest from all companies supplying Israel with weapons and military technology.”
In light of recent protests outside its UK branches, Barclays has said it is committed to respecting human rights as defined by the International Bill of Human Rights, but didn’t deny working with the defence sector.
A Barclays spokesman told The Telegraph on 20 January: “As a universal bank, Barclays provides a range of client services in relation to the shares of publicly listed companies, including those in the Defence and Security sector.
“Such client-driven activities may result in Barclays holding shares in those companies, for example, through hedging positions, market making, custody and underwriting activity.
“Barclays does not itself intend to make any direct strategic equity investments in the Defence and Security sector.”
Boycott action in Birmingham is as visible as pretty much anywhere in the country at the moment, given the ongoing and tense situation in Gaza.
Some of this action has been a little bit more ‘creative’ than in other parts of the country. At the start of November, a man was arrested after boxes of live rodents were released at McDonald’s restaurants in Birmingham.
During one incident at a McDonald’s in Star City in Nechells, there appeared to be dozens of mice painted red, black, green and white – the colours of the Palestinian flag – released into the restaurant. The story made national news.
Footage of another incident seemed to show a similar stunt at a McDonald’s branch in Perry Barr, where staff attempted to contain dozens of rodents under a plastic box. The mice were dropped by a man heard shouting: “Boycott Israel” and “F*ck Israel”. There were also reports of a copycat incident at a McDonald’s restaurant in Small Heath.
Although these examples are more daring, they’re an exception to the rule. Boycotts in Birmingham are nothing new and have been rather consistent.
Over the last decade a regular stall has been set up nearly every other week in Birmingham city centre, right outside Marks & Spencer, highlighting apparent links between the high street giant and stock being supplied from illegal Israeli settlements; something M&S has routinely denied. The store has now closed it doors and relocated to the Bullring.
In January 2009, politicians from all four parties on Birmingham City Council called on the council leadership to pursue a policy of instituting sanctions against Israel. The call, for a boycott of Israeli goods and services, was initiated by Cllr Salma Yaqoob (Respect) and supported by Tariq Khan (Lib Dems), Cllr Tahir Ali (Labour) and Cllr James Hutchings (Conservative); a pro-Palestine cross-party coalition unheard of at the time.
“This is a significant breakthrough,” said Yaqoob. “The principle here is moral consistency. It is not that Israel should be singled out for punitive measures, but that it should stop being treated with kid gloves and given diplomatic cover for acting above the law. For too long Israel has felt it can bomb and terrorise innocent civilians with impunity. International pressure on Israel has to be intensified to ensure it adheres to international law and UN resolutions.
“One of the factors that helped bring an end to the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa was international pressure for economic, sporting and cultural boycotts. It is time that Israel started to feel similar pressure from world opinion. We will now be pressing the council leadership to act on the strong feelings expressed across the whole of the city council.”
In more recent years, as tensions have flared between Israel and the Palestinian people, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have both come under fire from activists here in the UK. BDS advocates have previously encouraged the latter “to stop buying from companies that are profiting from Israel’s occupation”, with direct action in 2014 causing a Sainsbury’s store in Birmingham’s Martineau Place to temporary shut down.
Nearly ten years ago, on a busy Saturday in August, Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood joined a group of activists and took part in a pro-Gaza demonstration which forced the supermarket to close its doors. Waving placards and shouting chants, the protesters conducted a ‘die-in’ at the store, all while Mahmood addressed her YouTube followers: “We’re calling on Sainsbury’s and all other stores that trade settlement goods that they stop doing so.”
She was later reportedly “hauled in for talks” with the Labour party leadership who determined Mahmood was not calling for a boycott of goods made in Israel but for “proper labelling of goods”. The store eventually closed down permanently in September 2021, believed to be part of an unrelated corporate shake-up.
In November 2023, the very same Shabana Mahmood MP abstained on a crucial parliamentary vote calling for a Gaza ceasefire, much to the ire of Palestine supporters and a presently reinvigorated BDS movement. Mahmood maintains she is a “life-time supporter of the rights of Palestinians” but her critics appear unimpressed.
Salman Mirza is one of those critics. Immediately after the Gaza vote, he set in motion the registration of a new political party, ‘Never Forget Gaza‘. His dissatisfaction with Mahmood’s response to a ceasefire call spurred him to act decisively.
“MPs, like all of us, have seen hospitals, children and innocent civilians bombed, yet they think they can ride the storm and we will forget,” he told The New Arab in an interview.
“In 2024, there will be a simple message on every ballot paper: ‘Never Forget Gaza’.”
Mirza, who during a 2009 Gaza protest in Victoria Square called for “mass boycotts of Israeli goods” and for Birmingham to “become an Israel-free city”, still firmly believes in the power of the political boycott.
“Boycotts have been an effective tool of solidarity to support global and local movements for justice. From South Africa to sweat shops who have exploited workers, think a local shop refuses to serve disabled people, of course most decent minded people would actively support that,” he told I Am Birmingham.
“Israel in our and many other people’s eyes are committing war crimes and genocide in Gaza. So they are facing mass boycotts or products imported from there and the companies that support them.”
Last weekend, a mass march for Palestine in Birmingham attracted somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 people, the largest protest every held in the city. As speakers took to the stage, they urged voters to turn their backs on the four Labour MPs from Birmingham who had abstained on the Gaza ceasefire vote.
They also urged supporters to boycott Israeli goods, a message that has been visible on numerous recent protest placards and banners. Some residents from predominantly Muslim parts of Birmingham claim the boycott has seen independent stores and cornershops slash prices to shift otherwise immovable stock – brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Cadbury’s, Nestle and so on, which BDS campaigners claim are accessories to Israel’s illegal settlement expansion project and aids to its war on Gaza.
“The shopkeepers have responded as such so they have, as a result of our efforts and our intervention, stopped purchasing and providing those goods,” says Javed Iqbal from Alum Rock Friends of Palestine.
Iqbal is one of the co-ordinators of weekly pro-Palestine protests in Alum Rock, where local residents march between Highfield Road and Saltley Gate. He was also instrumental in organising the mass rally held on Saturday 20 January.
According to Iqbal, the turnout from the ward was so high, it made up 10 per cent number of people marching from Sparkhill Park towards the city centre. He also believes a third of the people who came out to march did so “as a direct result of the effort the people of Alum Rock put in.” So impressive were these efforts, guest speaker Jeremy Corbyn MP singled out Alum Rock on stage during his headline speech.
During the last 15 weeks of campaigning around Saltley and Alum Rock, Iqbal believes their group has changed public opinion in the neighbourhood in favour of BDS action.
“In terms of impact, there has been a significant reduction in the number of items that are now being offered on the shelves in Alum Rock and there has also been a lot more awareness in people knowing what their buying rights are and ensuring none of their hard earned money goes to support the IDF forces being weaponised and bombing the innocent civilians, and also to ensure that those companies that have illegally occupied the territories don’t profit by selling, olives, dates and many other items as well.”
He added: “Working with the community, with the local traders’ association, this is a campaign that we’ll continue with this endeavour, we’ll continue to make whatever impact that we can.”
Younger activists gather in the city centre for fortnightly rallies. Joined by veteran campaigners from Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, the city’s main Gaza ceasefire protests began in High Street outside Primark and the Bullring back in October and have since shifted a few yards down towards Barclays bank. In fact, current protests are right outside Barclays, and not by accident.
“We turn up every single week to stand up and fight against organisations who allow this genocide to continue, who allow the oppression to continue,” activist Abu Umaymah told a crowd in Birmingham city centre on 14 January.
“When people support the Palestinian cause, they deserve our respect, they deserve for us to stand there in support with them, especially when their country is at risk of being bombed to pieces.”
Umaymah said the gathering was called to show support for the people of Yemen, for standing up against US support for Israel.
“Today we stand in support for the Yemenis who have stood up for the rights of the Palestinians, who have said ‘no’ to injustice, who have allowed and stopped any of this from continuing. They’ve taken on the pressure from the British MPs, they’ve taken on the pressure from all of the British public, and they’ve said ‘no’ to this oppression.
“They’ve stopped ships from coming into Yemen and as a result of that their country is being bombed, so as we’ve been calling out organisations like McDonald’s, like Coca-Cola, we stand in support for the Yemenis, we stand in support for the South Africans, and we stand in support for everyone who calls out the genocide.”
With the exception of excited Tiktokers dropping off colour coded mice into McDonald’s and members of Palestine Action daubing the odd building with red paint, much of Birmingham’s pro-Palestine protests have been relatively uncontroversial.
A handful of activists have managed to peacefully sit-in, die-in, leaflet drop, play instruments and make statements on megaphones both inside and outside Zara, Selfridges, several Starbucks cafés, and the Bullring and Grand Central shopping centre; but their passion shows no sign of abating. In fact, they appear to be attracting even more attention to BDS and related public stunts.
Calling for a ceasefire early on during this most recent news cycle of events unfolding in Palestine, hundreds of people ‘occupied’ Birmingham New Street Station on more than one occasion, each sit-in for several hours at a time. While remaining vigilant, staff and security stationed to guard most private property do appear to, for the most part, be allowing the direct action – not always, but mostly. There is no vandalism, no damage to property, no abuse or harm to individuals. It is collective non-violent peaceful direct action.
But can boycotting trendy mainstream restaurant and café franchises have real impact, and does it send out the right message? So far it would seem it can, at least in Birmingham where consumer focus seems to have shifted towards independent businesses and brands – especially those supporting the Palestinian cause.
Communities with high Muslim populations may be changing their spending habits in response to the plight of Gazans, as more and more Palestinians flags fly above the streets of Alum Rock, Small Heath, and Sparkhill, but is this trend being replicated in neighbourhoods with more diverse populations? Have Starbucks, Pret A Manger and Burger King seen a financial slump at their outlets in Birmingham’s city centre, or Kings Heath or at regional university campuses?
It appears, in much the same vain as the international Anti-Apartheid Movement opposing the South African system of racist segregation in the 1960s through to the 1990s, that the success of the pro-Palestinian BDS movement may indeed be determined by people power.
Campaigners from the Birmingham Palestine group have called a ‘Stand with Gaza Barclays Protest’ for Saturday 27 January between 12pm – 1pm outside Barclays bank in High Street.