gaza protest London
Demonstrators march on Whitehall in London to oppose Israel's actions in Gaza Getty

The leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has urged the UK government to slap sanctions as scything as those being imposed on Russia against the Israeli state.

In an interview with IBTimes UK, Hugh Lanning, chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), said the tide of public and governmental opinion has turned against Israel and that BDS, the global lobby group campaigning to penalise Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian Territories, has enjoyed unprecedented support in recent weeks.

"In the past all the mainstream parties wouldn't countenance any discussions. The Labour Party of which I'm a member was very keen to not be associated with anything that said boycott. The glass ceiling has been broken with talk of the arms embargo and military trade.

"We get the feeling that people are anxious. Individuals who have been outraged by what they've seen want ways in which they can individually protest. Boycott actions are being seen as a way the person in the street can say: out with that," he said.

The groundswell of public opinion against Israel can be seen in countless examples of anti-Israel activity across the UK. Today it was reported that Buycott, an app that allows consumers to search for products linked to countries or companies, has gathered 350,000 supporters for two anti-Israel campaigns.

Under pressure from BDS, the security company G4S announced that it will stop operating Israeli prisons which allegedly hold Palestinians illegally. John Lewis has stopped stocking Soda Stream products because the company has a factory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"The shock around what people are seeing [in Gaza] means an awful lot more people are seeing BDS as legitimate and to be targeted at Israel because of what they've done," Lanning said.

Lanning urged the government to take swift action over an arms embargo on Israel and said the organisation will be lobbying officials in the UK and EU to alter the terms of trade agreements with Israel.

"If you apply international law to other areas of trade: we'll be asking the government to not just look at military but to apply wider sanctions. Look at the Russian sanctions of the military, high-tech and finance sectors. We think we're in similar territory and they ought to be considering sanctions on Israel if they don't abide by international law," he said.

Annual bilateral trade between the UK and Israel exceeds £3bn, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying he would "review" the country's arms exports arrangements, amid a public and media backlash.

The CEO of British Israel Chamber of Commerce Dermot Kehoe, however, told IBTimes UK that he is confident trade sanctions will not be enforced.

"British politicians on both sides of the house have repeatedly made it clear that they oppose any boycott or trade sanctions on Israel, and despite concerns over the recent conflict this is not likely to change.

"Successive UK governments have recognised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and the best way to promote a solution is to engage positively with both sides. UK-Israel trade has grown rapidly in recent years to the benefit of both countries and David Cameron made clear in his recent visit to Israel that the UK is committed to further developing bilateral trade," he said.

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Palestinians sit amid the ruins of destroyed homes in the Shejaia neighbourhood of Gaza City Reuters

Cultural Boycott

The boycott made headlines this week when the Tricycle Theatre in London refused to host the UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) because it was partly funded by a donation from the Israeli Embassy. The move led to accusations of anti-Semitism and collective punishment.

It followed two Israeli arts companies having their acts cancelled at the Edinburgh Festival following protests by pro-Palestine campaigners at the venues.

Lanning defended the cultural boycott, saying that the moves are valid because of the "complicity" of those acts affected.

"We don't say that everyone in Israel is horrible but we do judge them on what they do or say. There are artists of Israeli origin that take state funding or support what Israel is doing.

"The issue doesn't arise for artists in Israel performing in Israel. It's if they want to come here and want people overseas to buy tickets or organisations to provide facilities for them, you look at their track record and ask if you're comfortable working with them," he said.

The Tricycle's artistic director Indhu Rubasingham said that the theatre wished to keep the festival and offered to raise alternative finance to that donated by the Israel government. To criticise the theatre for anti-Semitism is wrong, said Lanning.

Asked whether it could turn into a witch-hunt, with people boycotting Israelis with no connections to the government, he said "that's a risk", and urged campaigners to focus on legitimate targets.

Lanning compared the Palestinian situation to that in South Africa in the 1980s, when a high-profile campaign of boycotts of South African goods, culture and sport was credited with helping bring an end to apartheid.

However, while he said the South African situation was "relatively clear-cut", the Palestinian case was "much more complex and diverse".

"With South Africa it took years, we don't expect an overnight shift. But if I was them [Israel] I'd be worried about the number of organisations, people and government that are thinking about it [the boycott and sanctions]. If you also look at the popularity of Israel in polls, there's now a reputational risk to doing business there," he said.

Lanning also welcomed the news that the National Union of Students (NUS) has voted in favour of amended a motion supporting BDS against Israel. He said he expected other organisations to follow suit.

"It's good that the students are joining. There was an active discussion at the Labour Party's policy forum which is expected to come up at conference and I'd imagine there'll be an emergency measure of the TUC. That institutional change has been slow and cautious, but it's become easier for organisations to say: "There's a wronged people here and we need to be publicly on their side."

The next target of BDS action is beauty company Garnier, which donated care packages of deodorants, soaps and other cosmetics to female Israeli soldiers.

"We want to challenge that and it's already started on social media," Lanning said.