The Moral Maze: Should Businesses Take Sides in the Israel-Hamas Conflict?

Israel-Hamas Conflict Corporate Response
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On October 7th, the militant Palestinian group Hamas launched deadly attacks into Israel from Gaza. In retaliation, Israel began airstrikes on Gaza. As the death toll rises, companies are grappling with whether to comment on the escalating crisis that has claimed over a thousand lives so far.

Hamas Assault Kills Hundreds in Israel

The assault by Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the EU, killed around 1,400 Israelis. Hamas claimed the attack was in response to Israel’s decades-long oppression of Palestinians. As news spread, some high-profile companies reacted by donating aid or condemning the “horrific terrorist attacks” on social media platforms. The Walt Disney Company donated $2 million to humanitarian organizations assisting victims, while Amazon CEO Andy Jassy called the violence “shocking and painful to watch” on Twitter. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla similarly denounced the civilian casualties on LinkedIn.

Criticism Over Ignoring Palestinian Suffering

But supporters of the Palestinian cause argued these sympathies for Israeli victims erased the suffering of Palestinians, which had gone relatively unnoticed or ignored compared to the atrocities of October 7th. Longstanding tensions have simmered between Israel and Palestine over disputed land and human rights issues. Advocacy groups contend Palestinians have faced severe oppression and injustice at the hands of the Israeli government and security forces. In addition, you can also read an article on- Hamas Frees Two US Civilians Among Hundreds Held Hostage in Gaza

Starbucks and McDonald’s soon became embroiled in the swirling corporate controversy. When Israel began retaliatory airstrikes and a potential ground offensive on Gaza, the fast-food chain McDonald’s announced it was supplying thousands of free meals to Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) personnel. While Israel stated its troops were undertaking essential operations to root out Hamas militants in Gaza, pro-Palestine groups claimed McDonald’s gesture showed tacit complicity in and support for Israel’s alleged ethnic cleansing and oppression of Palestinians.

As for coffee giant Starbucks, they stumbled into the complex debate after their United States worker’s union shared a social media post reading “Solidarity with Palestine!” In response to the post, Starbucks decided to take legal action and sue the union. This in turn provoked a tidal wave of anger from pro-Palestinian voices.

The Rapid Rise of Corporate Activism in the Social Media Era

Pre-social media, most companies and brands rarely weighed in or intervened on pressing moral issues of the day like abortion, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights or foreign policy crises. The concept of “corporate social responsibility” traditionally focused more on community philanthropy, sustainability and environmentalism rather than corporations making bold public statements on contentious social or human rights matters.

But with the meteoric rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the 2000s and 2010s, brands suddenly faced mounting public pressure to take stands and speak out against perceived social injustices, even issues that did not directly involve or implicate their business. In some cases, public moral posturing can be more of a win than a burden for companies, as was evident by the widespread corporate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Because the western world holds a general consensus on Russia being the clear aggressor and oppressor in Ukraine, brands can signal their ethical stance without too much reputational risk by tweeting Ukrainian flags or launching public solidarity campaigns. For example, Airbnb offered free housing for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict.

Yet when public opinion is more bitterly divided or polarized on a hot-button issue, corporate activism usually becomes a far more complicated tightrope walk. Additionally, you can also read about- Civilian Casualties Mount As Israel-Hamas Conflict Intensifies

The Court of Public Opinion: Exploring Views on the Conflict

Gauging how much popular support or opposition the Israeli military offensive in Gaza holds amongst ordinary citizens and the general public is an exceedingly challenging task rife with uncertainties. According to a poll published on October 27th in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, almost half of Israelis want to refrain from or delay a full-scale invasion of Gaza for now, although opinions remain fractured and fluid.

Looking beyond the region, an October IPSOS poll in the United Kingdom showed the British public tends to desire that the UK government play a neutral mediating role in the conflict (37%) or avoid getting directly involved at all (16%), rather than explicitly support Israel (13%) or the Palestinian cause (12%). Compared to a similar study conducted with American respondents, IPSOS analysts noted Brits appear notably less likely overall to back Israel’s bombing campaign and ground offensive, although the polls had some key variations in methodology and margins of error.

As the civilian death toll in Gaza continues to climb each day, the exact dates when opinion polls were conducted will also profoundly shape their conclusions. To a considerable extent, public reactions and divided sentiment can be seen amongst Western political leaders themselves on the Israel-Hamas hostilities.

US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have both refrained from outright condemnation and arguably labeled Israel’s actions as justified self-defense against Hamas terrorism. Meanwhile a number of other prominent figures, like UN Secretary-General António Guterres, have been openly critical of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and called for de-escalation. 

You May Find Interest: Hundreds Feared Dead in Gaza Hospital Explosion As Israel-Palestine Tensions Boil Over

Boycotts and Buycotts: The Controversy Over Economic Pressure

Given this divergence in political opinions and intense public debate, it becomes abundantly clear why crafting coherent corporate communications on the Israel-Hamas war presents a minefield of hazards for companies and brands. By choosing to issue a statement or otherwise speak out on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, organizations inevitably expose themselves to potential criticism and backlash from both sides of the polarized political spectrum.

In preparing this article, Euronews reached out to advocacy groups on opposing sides who have called for boycotting or “buycotting” certain businesses due to their stance on the bloody conflict. By the time of this article’s publication, pro-Israel groups had not yet provided a statement, but the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement responded with their perspective.

Founded in 2005, BDS focuses economic boycotts predominantly on a select list of high-profile companies that the organization deems complicit in serious violations of Palestinian human rights. Multinational corporations targeted by BDS boycotters include technology firms HP and Siemens, French retailer Carrefour, insurance giant AXA, and athletic apparel brand Puma.

“All peaceful and nonviolent popular efforts, including consumer boycotts and divestment advocacy, to hold these complicit companies accountable for their material support of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are morally justified and urgently called for,” a BDS spokesperson stated to Euronews.

The BDS movement contends that “boycotts are effective and have already led major multinational companies such as Veolia, Orange, and General Mills to withdraw from illegal or unethical business activities in Israeli settlements.” They consider this a concrete victory.

Yet while BDS believes its aggressive actions are producing real results, the controversial group has nonetheless sparked heated debate and allegations of anti-Semitism by many of its critics over the years. In 2019, the German parliament passed a resolution accusing BDS itself of employing anti-Semitic methods and rhetoric to achieve its political goals. Similarly, leaders in France, the UK and several U.S. states have claimed BDS advances anti-Semitic hatred rather than justice.

Legislators in dozens of U.S. states have gone so far as to pass laws seeking to discourage or restrict citizen-led anti-Israel boycotts, arguing BDS undermines valuable economic partnerships. However, many of these anti-BDS initiatives have faced uphill legal challenges on the constitutional grounds of free speech protections. Boycotters maintain they should retain the right to nonviolently criticize the Israeli government through economic pressure, no matter how much others may disagree with their tactics or messaging.

Rising Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Stoke Tensions

Now with ethnic and religious hatreds inflamed worldwide alongside the rising death toll, it is abundantly clear that verbal threats and outright physical attacks targeting Jewish and Muslim civilians have been increasing at extremely alarming rates since the violence escalated in early October.

In Muslim-majority Russian republic of Dagestan, hundreds of angry protestors tried to storm an airport terminal in search of Israeli passengers to physically assault. And in cosmopolitan London, authorities recorded a shocking 1,353% spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in late October compared to the previous year. Both communities are feeling increasingly unsafe and uneasy as a result of the hostilities. In addition, you can also read an article on- Netanyahu Apologizes for Blaming Security Services in Wake of Hamas Attack

Companies Must Consider Values Alongside Business Interests

This wave of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism shines a spotlight on the innate difficulties of discussing the Israel-Hamas war in an open yet responsible manner. In some influential circles, there are coordinated efforts to silence Palestinian perspectives by reflexively branding nearly all criticism of the Israeli government or Netanyahu administration as so-called “anti-Israel” sentiment that encourages prejudice against Jewish people worldwide.

At the same time, some observers have wrongly equated those who condemn Israel’s bombing of Gaza as automatic supporters or apologists for Hamas’ terrorist rocket attacks on Israeli population centers. This charged climate makes it exceedingly hard for multinational corporations to react to the ongoing Mideast crisis in any substantive way without incurring reputational damage or backlash from one side.

Brand messaging experts like An-Sofie Claeys, an assistant professor of corporate communications at Ghent University in Belgium, argue there are rarely easy solutions for companies navigating tense political crises. She tells Euronews that brands must carefully weigh moral imperatives against business interests when speaking out on Israel-Hamas:

“I think there’s an important difference between what you should do morally, ethically and what you should do in terms of corporate strategy and reputation management. Companies must really delve deep and consider their organizational values – and then try to act and communicate in line with that ethos. However, those morally ideal actions may differ considerably from lower-risk public relations strategies.”

In the end, multinational corporations face a complex set of risks and realities in picking sides over the divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But calls for more ethical business practices show no signs of abating in our hyperconnected era.