Jerusalem - Recent successes in the Palestinian campaign to boycott Jewish settlements have given fresh impetus to calls for sanctions against Israel like those that brought down apartheid in South Africa.
Since the European Union said it would block grants and funding for any Israeli entity operating over the 1967 lines, a growing number of international bodies have taken similar steps to cut ties, in a move that has sparked alarm in Israel.
“This has happened in recent days,” commentator Chemi Shalev wrote in the newspaper Haaretz, listing a series of steps as proof that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement was gaining ground.
“The Dutch water company Vitens severed its ties with Israeli counterpart Mekorot, Canada's largest Protestant church decided to boycott three Israeli companies; the Romanian government refused to send any more construction workers; and American Studies Association academics are voting on a measure to sever links with Israeli universities,” he wrote.
The boycott debate has been further stoked by the death on December 5 of Nelson Mandela as the world remembered his life's work in pushing for a global boycott that contributed to bringing down the minority white government of Pretoria.
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BDS movement is picking up speed. And the writing on the wall, if anyone missed it, only got clearer and sharper in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela,” Shalev argued.
And global scrutiny of Israel's ties with the apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s only served to give “valuable ammunition to those who would equate the two.
“More ominously, from an Israeli point of view, the analogy between today's Israel and yesterday's South Africa could also stoke a belief that the former can be brought to its knees in much the same way as the latter was in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” he added.
The BDS movement has never shied away from using language equating Israel's rule over the Palestinians with the former regime in South Africa, and a recent statement denounced the Jewish state's “system of colonisation, occupation and apartheid over the Palestinian people”.
Also this month, Britain toughened its stance on trading with Israeli entities over the Green Line which separated Israel from Arab-held territory up until the 1967 war, warning investors not to get involved.
“There are therefore clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity,” said a statement on the UK trade and investment website, warning of potential “reputational implications” and advising businesses to first seek legal advice.
Although the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is not identical to that which existed in South Africa, critics say there are many similarities, pointing to the systems existing in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS, said that “despite the obvious differences between apartheid South Africa and Israel's multi-tiered regime of oppression of the Palestinian people, there are ample family resemblances. Israel's reign over the Palestinians constitutes occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
“Regardless how we define Israel's regime of oppression, a main lesson we have learned from Mandela and our South African comrades and colleagues is that internal resistance must be coupled with sustained, effective international solidarity, particularly in the form of BDS, to isolate the oppressive state and compel it to respect its obligations under international law,” he told AFP.
Israeli political sources quoted Friday in the newspaper Maariv said the new EU guidelines, which come into force on January 1, were only the beginning of a sustained European campaign to single out Israel.
“In the spring, they will present to Israel the policy of marking goods that were produced in the settlements and are marketed to Europe,” the paper said.
Earlier this month, Andreas Reinicke, the EU's representative to the peace process, warned that if the ongoing peace talks failed, the campaign to clearly label products as made in the settlements would gain pace.
He said the number of countries supporting such a move had leapt to 14 from two in February 2012.
Another Haaretz commentator said the absence of Israeli officials at Mandela's memorial “was no accident,” saying it was astounding that Israel was “unrepresented at the world's moral summit”.
“This was a vital summit... Israel isn't facing any conventional military threats; no one threatens its warplanes. The danger it faces is the loss of legitimacy,” wrote Ari Shavit.
“To survive in a tough Middle East, we need the West's support, and therefore, we must be an inseparable part of the West.”
Israel's growing isolation is also worrying its main ally, Washington.
“The wholesale effort to delegitimise Israel is the most concentrated that I have seen in the 40 years I have served,” US Vice President Joe Biden was quoted as saying on December 10.
“It is the most serious threat in my view to Israel's long-term security and viability.”