High Time for BDS
By OMAR BARGHOUTI
“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger,” said Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s closest advisor, a few years ago. Today, Israel is slowly choking occupied Gaza, indeed bringing its civilian population to the brink of starvation and a planned humanitarian catastrophe.
If the US government is an obvious accomplice in financing, justifying and covering up Israel’s occupation and other forms of oppression, the European Union, Israel’s largest trade partner in the world, is not any less complicit in perpetuating Israel’s colonial oppression and special form of apartheid. At a time when Israel is cruelly besieging Gaza, collectively punishing 1.5 million Palestinian civilians, condemning them to devastation, and visiting imminent death upon hundreds of patients, prematurely born babies, and others, the EU is extending an invitation to Israel to open negotiations to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), instead of ending the EU-Israel association agreement due to Israel’s grave violation of its human rights clause. The US and European governments are not only providing Israel with massive economic aid and open markets, they are supplying it with weapons, diplomatic immunity and unlimited political support, and upgrading their relations with it specifically at a time when it is committing acts of genocide.
By frequently freezing fuel and electric power supplies to Gaza for long periods, Israel, the occupying power, is essentially guaranteeing that “clean” water is not being pumped out and properly distributed to homes and institutions; hospitals are no longer able to function adequately, leading to the death of many, particularly the most vulnerable – already more than 180 patients, mainly children and senior citizens have died in Gaza as a direct result of the latest siege; whatever factories that are still working despite the blockade will soon be forced to close, pushing the already extremely high unemployment rate even higher; sewage treatment is grinding to a halt, further polluting Gaza’s precious little water supply; academic institutions and schools are largely unable to provide their usual services; and lives of all civilians is severely disrupted, if not irreversibly damaged.
In short, Israel is condemning a whole future generation of Palestinians in Gaza to chronic disease, abject poverty and long-lasting developmental limitations. UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, international law expert Prof. Richard Falk, considered Israel’s siege a “prelude to genocide,” even before this latest crime of altogether cutting off energy supplies. Now, Israel’s crimes in Gaza can accurately be categorized as acts of genocide, albeit slow.
In parallel, Israel is slowly transforming the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, into unlivable reservations that make the term Bantustan sound desirable, in comparison. Israel is systematically causing the slow disintegration of Palestinian society under occupation through its colonial Wall, its policy of fragmentation and ghettoization, its denial of the most basic Palestinian rights, and its obstruction of human development. Israel is slowly, steadily and systematically turning the lives of average Palestinian farmers, workers, students, academics, artists and professionals into a living hell, designed to force them to leave. The fundamental objective of the mainstream of political Zionism, to ethnically cleanse Palestine of its indigenous population to make room for Jewish settlers and them alone, has undergone only one significant change in more than a hundred years since the beginning of the Zionist settler-colonial conquest: it has simply grown slower.
Ever since the Nakba, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 through the ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their homeland and the ruin of Palestinian society, many “peace plans” have been put forth to resolve the “conflict.” Virtually all these plans have had one factor in common: they have sought to impose a settlement based on “facts on the ground,” or the existing vast asymmetry in power that leave one side — the Palestinians — humiliated, excluded and unequal. They have been unjust; hence they have failed.
The path to justice and peace must take into account the particularities of Israel’s colonial reality. At its core, Israel’s oppression of the people of Palestine encompasses three major dimensions: denial of Palestinian refugee rights, including their right to return to their homes; military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), with massive colonization of the latter; and a system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, partially resembling South African apartheid. A just peace would have to ethically and practically redress all three injustices as a minimal requirement of relative justice.
The latest political developments in Israel — particularly the last parliamentary elections, which brought to power a government with openly fascist tendencies and led to the criminal war on Lebanon and, most recently, the slow genocide against Gaza — have unequivocally exposed that an overwhelming majority in Israel stands fervently behind the state’s racist and colonial policies and its persistent breach of international law. A solid majority, for instance, supports the daily war crimes committed by the army in Gaza, including cutting off energy supplies; the illegal apartheid Wall; the extra-judicial executions of Palestinian activists; the denial of Palestinian refugee rights; the preservation of the apartheid system against the indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the control over large parts of the occupied West Bank, particularly around Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian water aquifers. If this is the peace that most Israelis want, it clearly falls short of the minimal requirements of international law and fundamental human rights.
As a result of the failure of the international community in holding Israel to account, many people of conscience around the world started considering Palestinian civil society’s call for nonviolent resistance against Israel until it ends its three-tiered oppression of the Palestinian people. From the prominent Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, to the Jewish minister in the South African government, Ronnie Kasrils, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an increasing number of influential international figures have drawn parallels between Israeli apartheid and its South African predecessor and, consequently, have advocated a South African-style treatment.
It is quite significant that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, Prof. John Dugard, while not endorsing boycott yet, have both accused Israel of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians. Given the time-honored U.N. resolutions designed to counter the crimes of apartheid, Dugard’s position should not be taken lightly. It may well be the first step — in a very long march — towards engaging the U.N. in identifying Israel as an apartheid state and adopting appropriate sanctions as a result.
As far back as 2001, in Durban, South Africa, despite the official West’s unwillingness to hold Israel to account, the NGO Forum of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism widely adopted the view that Israel’s special form of apartheid must be met with the same tools that brought down its South African predecessor. Many hope that “Durban 2” will build on this momentous achievement.
Soon after Durban, campaigns calling for divestment from companies supporting Israel’s occupation spread across American campuses. Across the Atlantic, particularly in the United Kingdom, calls for various forms of boycott against Israel started to be heard among intellectuals and trade unionists. These efforts intensified with the massive Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian cities in the spring of 2002, with all the destruction and casualties it left behind, particularly in the atrocities against the Jenin refugee camp.
In 2005, a year after the ICJ’s ruling against Israel’s colonies and apartheid Wall, Palestinian civil society issued its call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS. More than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the main political parties, endorsed this call to make Israel comply with international law. Twelve years after the dismal failure of the so-called “peace process” that was launched in 1993, Palestinian civil society started to reclaim the initiative, articulating Palestinian demands as part of the international struggle for justice long obscured by deceptive and entirely visionless “negotiations.” In a noteworthy precedent, the BDS call was issued by representatives of the three segments of the Palestinian people — the refugees, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and those under occupation. It also directly addressed conscientious Jewish-Israelis, inviting them to support its demands.
For more than a century, civil resistance has always been an authentic component of the Palestinian struggle against Zionism. Throughout modern Palestinian history, resistance to Zionist settler-colonialism mostly took nonviolent forms: mass demonstrations; grassroots mobilizations; labor strikes; boycotts of Zionist projects; and the often-ignored cultural resistance, in poetry, literature, music, theater and dance. The first Palestinian intifada (1987-1993) was a uniquely rich laboratory of civil resistance, whereby activists organized at the neighborhood level, promoting self-reliance and boycott, to various degrees, of Israeli goods as well as of the military authorities. In Beit Sahour, for instance, a famed tax revolt presented the Israeli occupation with one of its toughest challenges during the period. BDS must therefore be seen as rooted in a genuinely Palestinian culture of civil struggle, while its main inspiration today comes from the South African anti-apartheid struggle. It is this rich heritage that inspires the current pioneering grassroots resistance in Bil’in against the Wall.
In the last few years, many mainstream groups and institutions around the world have heeded Palestinian boycott calls and started to consider or actually apply diverse forms of effective pressure on Israel. These include the two largest British trade unions, UNISON and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU); the British University and College Union (UCU), which recently reaffirmed its pro-boycott stance; Aosdana, the Irish state-sponsored academy of artists; the Church of England; the Presbyterian Church USA; top British architects; the National Union of Journalists in the UK; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the World Council of Churches; the South African Council of Churches; the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario and, more recently, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers as well as ASSE, the largest student association in Quebec; and dozens of celebrated authors, artists and intellectuals led by John Berger, among many others. Many European academics and cultural figures are shunning events held in Israel, practicing a “silent boycott.” Most recently, Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic filmmaker, cancelled his planned participation in a film festival in Tel Aviv after Palestinians had appealed to him. Before him, Bjork, Bono, the remaining Beatles, the Rolling Stones, among others, all opted not to perform in Israel, effectively boycotting the “Israel at 60” celebrations.
In November 2007, hundreds of Palestinian boycott activists, trade unionists, representatives of all major political parties, women’s unions, farmers’ associations, student groups and almost every sector of Palestinian civil society convened at the first BDS conference in the occupied Palestinian territory. A direct result of this effort was the recent establishment of the BDS National Committee, or BNC, to raise awareness about the boycott and lead its local manifestations as well as act as a unified reference for international BDS campaigns.
For cynics who still consider the above too little progress for the given timeframe, I can only reiterate what a South African comrade once told us. “The ANC issued its academic boycott call in the 1950s; the international community started to heed it almost three decades later! So you guys are doing much better than us.”
Today, in the face of intensifying Israeli war crimes, impunity, and total disregard of international law, international civil society is called upon to initiate or support whatever BDS campaigns that are deemed appropriate in every particular context and specific political circumstances to support Palestinian civil resistance. This is the most effective, the most morally and politically sound, form of solidarity with the Palestinians. In these exceptional circumstances of slow genocide, exceptional, ethically coherent measures are called for. This is the most reliable path to freedom, justice, equality and peace in Palestine and the entire region.
Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian political and cultural analyst and a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). He presented this paper at the Bil’in Third International Conference on Grassroots Resistance, on 4 June 2008.