Israel’s large Palestinian minority held its first-ever conference on BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – this past weekend in spite of anti-boycott legislation introduced five years ago that exposes activists in Israel to harsh financial penalties.
One participant called it a sign that the Palestinian minority was slowly emerging from the law’s “reign of terror”.
The dangers of promoting BDS inside Israel were highlighted by the difficulties of finding a venue. A private cinema in Nazareth agreed to host the event after several public venues in Haifa backed out, apparently fearful that they risked being punished by the Israeli government.
The question of how feasible it is for Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens to promote BDS was high on the conference agenda, with speakers addressing issues of legality and strategy.
In a sign of a tentative shift towards political support for BDS by the Palestinian leadership in Israel, the opening statement was made by Mohammed Barakeh, head of the High Follow-Up Committee, an umbrella body representing all the political factions.
Barakeh said BDS was “an important form of solidarity with Palestinians” and was causing increasing panic among the Israeli leadership.
He said there was a link between “support for BDS and our survival in the current conditions” of rising Israeli racism, the killing of Palestinians by security forces, the expansion of the settlements and entrenchment of the occupation.
He noted arguments, echoing those of apartheid’s supporters in South Africa, that BDS would chiefly hurt Palestinian workers. “The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa had a simple retort: ‘Apartheid hurts us more’.”
Barakeh admitted BDS posed unique problems for Palestinians in Israel. “We cannot boycott everything. We need schools, passports, social security. We have the right to be citizens and live in our homeland.”
The conference – titled “BDS and ‘48 Palestinians: Between International Influences and Local Contexts” – had been a long time in the making.
In 2009 Israel’s Palestinian political factions set up a working group called the Boycott Committee ’48 – in reference to the Palestinians who managed to remain on their lands in 1948 and eventually became Israel citizens – to examine the issue of support for BDS.
The law exposed anyone inside Israel calling for a boycott, even of the settlements, to potential bankruptcy in Israel’s civil courts. Companies, Israeli citizens and settlers were entitled to claim unlimited damages.
The conference had been made possible now, organisers conceded, because last year the supreme court, while rejecting an appeal against the law, placed limits on how vigorously it could be applied.
The event was sponsored by three groups: the Boycott Committee ’48; Mitharkeen, a direct-action movement comprising Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; and Hirak Haifa, a youth group based in the northern Israeli city of Haifa.
Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer from Adalah, a legal center for Palestinians in Israel, detailed the implications for Israeli citizens of promoting BDS and how to avoid law suits.
The 2011 law, she pointed out, prevented anyone advocating BDS from getting government contracts or state budgets.
Few Palestinian citizens were eligible for the former. But bodies such as cultural associations, political parties, schools and libraries that received state funds could be targeted, making it difficult for Palestinian institutions in Israel to show solidarity.
Last year’s supreme court ruling, however, had softened the impact on activism by civil society, creating some leeway.
The judges said a claimant for damages would need to prove that a call for BDS had resulted in quantifiable damage and there was a direct connection between the activism and the damage suffered.
Expressing general support for BDS or calling for a boycott of the settlements would not be covered by the law, she concluded, but targeting specific firms would be.
Raja Zaatry, representing the Boycott Committee 48, said a BDS struggle in Israel had to be carefully tailored to local realities.
The aim of the 2011 law had been to “terrorise Israeli society” and the biggest challenge facing the BDS campaign was to gain a place in the mainstream among Palestinians in Israel.
The first priority, he suggested, should be to stop the Palestinian minority from being implicated in Zionist propaganda against BDS.
He and other conference participants attacked Palestinians in Israel who helped to launder Israel’s image abroad. The singer Mira Awad was singled out for her appearances representing Israel in counties such as Spain and India.
In another illustration, Zaatry noted that Ariel University, located deep in the West Bank in a settlement of the same name, exploited the fact that 300 Palestinian citizens studied there to suggest it promoted coexistence.
He argued that the Palestinian minority should start by launching campaigns against Ariel University and settlement products.
Palestinians in Israel could also help bolster the international BDS movement by exposing not just the brutalities of the occupation but also the systematic racism and discrimination they faced inside Israel.
He also highlighted complexities, “We need to be careful. Many Israeli Jews already boycott Palestinian communities in Israel like Nazareth. We do not want to fuel that kind of racism with our own forms of boycott against their towns.”
This solidarity video from South Africa as shown at the conference.
The BDS campaign faced its toughest challenges in the political arena in Israel.
The committee had avoided divisive proposals, Zaatry said, especially the most contentious issue facing the Palestinian minority: whether to boycott the Israeli parliament.
The Joint List, which combines four political factions, is currently the third largest party in the Knesset. Two other parties, the secular Abnaa al-Balad and the recently outlawed northern Islamic Movement, both reject participation in national elections.
The committee’s position was backed by Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement. In a later panel he said a decision to boycott the Knesset should wait until a wider consensus had formed on the issue.
Although the Joint List had not adopted the BDS guidelines, Zaatry noted that one of its factions, the Communist party, had passed a resolution last year supporting a boycott of the settlements. Members of another faction, Balad, had expressed support for the same policy.
But in a sign of the pressures on the political parties, Zaatry noted that two years ago Avigdor Lieberman, then foreign minister, had lobbied Haifa University to strip Yousef Jabareen, then a lecturer and now a Knesset member, of his position for participating in a BDS debate.
An important goal, said Zaatry, was to forge a common struggle with sympathetic Israeli Jews to counter Israeli propaganda that support for BDS was anti-Semitic.
Role of academia
Reinforcing that point was Anat Matar, a philosopher from Tel Aviv University.
She said Israeli academia was integral to the oppression of Palestinians, with strong ties between the universities and Israel’s various security industries. Israeli universities also worked hard to forge strong bonds with overseas academics.
Echoing Zaatry’s call for the BDS campaign in Israel to be pragmatic, she said sympathetic academics should refuse to organise international conferences in Israel.
However, she said she preferred to participate in conferences overseas. “I am freer to say what I really think of BDS when I am abroad.”
Omar Barghouti highlighted the successes of the BDS campaign since it was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005, and the importance of keeping the movement open to all, including Israeli Jews.
Barghouti said the 2011 law meant Israel’s Palestinian minority could not target specific companies, but he suggested that activists collect and publicise data about those that profit from the occupation. He urged activists to be as creative as possible.
Other activists tried to offer practical suggestions for ways Israel’s Palestinian citizens could assist the BDS movement.
Haneen Maikey, of Al-Qaws, an organisation that campaigns for sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society, argued that the LGBT community should work hard to counter “pinkwashing” – Israel’s efforts to brand itself as gay-friendly.
Such moves were designed “to distract attention from Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians”.
She said LGBT movements in Israel should try to persuade overseas gay activists not to come to Israel for events like the annual Gay Pride March in Tel Aviv.
They should also have a strong presence at LGBT conferences abroad to try to challenge the narratives Israel was actively promoting.
Profiting from occupation
Hadeel Badarneh, of Who Profits?, which exposes companies that profit from the occupation, said it was important to think beyond the security industries and settlements to what she called Israel’s “infrastructure of economic control”.
Israel’s Chinese-owned dairy producer Tnuva benefited from the fact that the West Bank population was dependent on its products, creating a monopoly worth $60 million in the West Bank alone.
Similarly, the Nesher company controlled 85 per cent of all construction in the area, including providing most of the cement used to rebuild Gaza after Israel’s repeated destructive attacks on the enclave.
She noted the growing trend towards “ethical investments”, and the behind-the-scenes role activists could play in pressuring companies to pull out of Israel.
Cultural questions also featured strongly.
Suha Arraf, who outraged Israeli officials in 2014 by identifying her Israeli-funded film Villa Touma as Palestinian, spoke of the difficulties for local Palestinian artists in finding ways to finance their work.
She said Arab states refused to finance projects, viewing it as normalisation, while the Palestinian Authority lacked funds to help. Foreign funds, meanwhile, would usually only agree to top up local funding.
She said the BDS movement needed to devise alternative funding sources if it was going to insist on artists rejecting Israeli assistance.
Also addressing cultural issues was Ali Muasi, a teacher who recently made headlines too.
Muasi was fired on Saturday by his school in the central Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiyya for showing to his pupils a Palestinian film, Omar, about Israel’s aggressive efforts to recruit collaborators as a way to weaken Palestinian society.
Even though he appears to have broken no rules, the education ministry has so far shown no interest in supporting him against his dismissal.
Muasi spoke on the conflicting requirements of boycott and the need among Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories to maintain political and cultural connections to the wider Arab world.
He rejected the current position of the BDS campaign that Arab artists could visit the occupied territories but not Palestinians in Israel.
He opposed visits to both. “We have to subject such visits to a test – do they aid us in our political project of national liberation?”
He argued that most visits offered little more than entertainment, while serving chiefly to confer legitimacy on Israel. With the internet, he added, it was easy for Palestinians to maintain cultural ties to the region without visits.
“We have to ask ourselves how much do these visits help to change our situation. It is the same question we need to ask about our participation in the Knesset.”
To members of the audience who disagreed, Muasi pointed out that, if Arab artists spoke out clearly against the occupation, they would be treated like the US intellectual Noam Chomsky, who was refused entry by Israel in 2010.
However, Muasi made an exception for visits by exiled Palestinians. He said they should come – even if they needed permission from the Israeli military – because it was a priority that they strengthen their ties to the Palestinian homeland.