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Omar Barghouti on ‘Why BDS?’

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Omar Barghouti has finally been issued a visa to travel to the US for his speaking tour in support of his new book. We’ve included the tour dates and locations after the post below. Haymarket Books has been generous enough to allow us to post a chapter from the book, here’s “Why BDS?”:

BDS book final
The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Call, launched in July 2005, was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society unions, political parties, and organizations everywhere. Rooted in a long tradition of nonviolent popular resistance in Palestine against Zionist settler-colonialism1and largely inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, it adopts a rights-based approach that is anchored in universal human rights, just as the US civil rights movement did. It resolutely rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

BDS unambiguously defines the three basic Palestinian rights that constitute the minimal requirements of a just peace and calls for ending Israel’s corresponding injustices against all three main segments of the Palestinian people. Specifically, BDS calls for ending Israel’s 1967 military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and other Arab territories in Lebanon and Syria; ending  its system of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens; and ending its persistent denial of the UN-sanctioned rights of Palestine refugees, particularly their right to return to their homes and to receive reparations.

Calling Israel an apartheid state does not imply that its system of discrimination is identical to apartheid South Africa’s. It simply states that Israel’s laws and policies against the Palestinians largely fit the UN definition of apartheid, which was adopted in 1973 and went into effect in 1976.

For decades efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinian people have categorically failed, further entrenching Israeli colonial hegemony and Palestinian dispossession. The main culprit is the insistence of Israel and successive US governments on exploiting the current massive power imbalance to impose a peace devoid of justice and human rights on the Palestinians, an unjust “solution” that fails to address our basic rights under international law and undermines our inalienable right to self-determination.

In parallel, official Western collusion manifested in unconditional diplomatic, economic, academic, and political support of Israel has further fed Israel’s already incomparable impunity in violating human rights and spurred civil society worldwide to support boycotts against Israel as an effective, nonviolent form of struggle in the pursuit of peace based on justice and precepts of international law.

For too long, while nonviolence has been the mainstay of Palestinian resistance to settler-colonial conquest for decades, the term nonviolence has been associated among Palestinians with appeasement of Israel or submission to some of its unjust demands. There are two main reasons for this negative connotation. First, many of those who advocated “nonviolence” in the past, and who received lavish Western media attention as a result, categorically vilified and denounced armed resistance, presented nonviolence as a substitute for it, and advocated only a minimal set of Palestinian rights, usually excluding or diluting the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation and compensation, as well as ignoring the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. They therefore stood isolated from the Palestinian grass roots and virtually all respected civil society organizations. Second, Palestinian nonviolent campaigns were often funded, if not directed, by Western organizations, governmental or otherwise, with their own political agendas that conflicted with the publicly espoused Palestinian national agenda as expressed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This entrenched association between nonviolence and a minimalist and seemingly “imported” political program made the term nonviolence subject to suspicion and antipathy among most Palestinians, particularly since armed resistance has been largely linked to a maximalist political program.

I beg to differ with this general characterization. While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict. To my mind, in a struggle for equal humanity and emancipation from oppression, a correlation between means and ends, and the
decisive effect of the former on the outcome and durability of the latter, is indisputable. If Israel is an exclusivist, ethnocentric, settler-colonial state, then its ethical, just, and sustainable alternative must be a secular, democratic state, ending injustice and offering unequivocal equality in citizenship and individual and communal rights both to Palestinians (refugees included) and to Israeli Jews. Only such a state can ethically reconcile the ostensibly irreconcilable: the inalienable, UN-sanctioned rights of the indigenous people of Palestine to self-determination,
repatriation, and equality in accordance with international law and the acquired and internationally recognized rights of Israeli Jews to coexist—as equals, not colonial masters—in the land of Palestine.

While individual BDS activists and advocates may support diverse political solutions, the BDS movement as such does not adopt any specific political formula and steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate, focusing instead on universal rights and international law, which constitute the solid foundation of the Palestinian consensus around the campaign. Incidentally, most networks, unions, and political parties in the BNC still advocate a two-state solution outside the realm of the BDS movement.

Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the premature end of the first Palestinian intifada (1987–1991), through the launching of the Madrid-Oslo“peace process” and until a decade ago, the question of Palestine had been progressively marginalized, if not relegated to a mere nuisance factor, by the powers that be in the new unipolar world. Edward Said reflected on the “peace process” thus:

What of this vaunted peace process? What has it achieved and why, if indeed it was a peace process, has the miserable condition of the Palestinians and the loss of life become so much worse than before the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993? And why is it, as the New York Times noted on 5 November, that “the Palestinian landscape is now decorated with the ruins of projects that were predicated on peaceful integration”? And what does it mean to speak of peace if Israeli troops
and settlements are still present in such large numbers? Again, according to RISOT, 110,000 Jews lived in illegal settlements in Gaza and the West Bank before Oslo; the number has since increased to 195,000, a figure that doesn’t include those Jews—more than 150,000—who have taken up residence in Arab East Jerusalem. Has the world been deluded or has the rhetoric of “peace” been in essence a gigantic fraud?

In quite a revealing turn of history, among the very first substantial  consequences of this “new world order” was the UN General Assembly’s 1991 repeal, under intense US pressure, of its 1975 “Zionism Is Racism” resolution,6thus removing a major obstacle on the course of Zionist and Israeli rehabilitation in the international community. This was followed by the PLO’s formal recognition of Israel under the Oslo accords, which furthered the transformation of Israel’s image from that of a colonial and inherently exclusivist state into a normal member of the international community of nations, one that is merely engaged in a territorial  dispute. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority(PA), primarily, from Israel’s perspective, to relieve Israel’s colonial burdens in the West Bank and Gaza and to cover up its ongoing theft of Palestinian land to build Jewish-only settlements, Israel embarked on an ambitious public relations campaign in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, establishing diplomatic ties and opening new markets for its growing industries. Former sworn enemies suddenly warmed up to Israel, importing from it billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware and other goods, and, convinced that the road to the US Congress passed through Tel Aviv, wooing it politically. As a result, Israel multiplied the number of states with which it holds diplomatic relations from a few dozen before Oslo to more than 160 at present.

Meanwhile, the election of George W. Bushin 2000 as the president of the United States and the rise of his neoconservative associates (erstwhile advisers to the far-right Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu) brought Zionist influence in the White House to unprecedented heights, finally matching its decades-old, almost unparalleled influence on Capitol Hill.

But shortly before the US presidential elections, in September 2000, after years of a sham “peace process” that served to disguise Israel’s ongoing occupation and the enormous growth of its colonies in the occupied territories, the second Palestinian intifada broke out. As the uprising intensified, Israel’s brutal attempts to crush it, through means described by Amnesty Internationaland other human rights organiza-
tions as amounting to war crimes,8 reopened—at least in intellectual circles—long-forgotten questions about whether a just peace can indeed be achieved with a colonial, ethnocentric, and expansionist Zionist state. It was against this background that the UN World Conference against Racism in Durbanin 2001 revived the 1975 debate on Zionism. Although, as expected, the official assembly failed to adopt a specific resolution on Israel’s multitiered oppression of the Palestinian people due to direct threats from the United States and, to a lesser extent, powerful European states, the NGO Forum condemned Zionism as a form of racism and apartheid. This was an expression of the views of thousands of civil society representatives from across the globe whose struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, is mostly informed by humanist and democratic principles. Despite the official West’s unwillingness to hold Israel to account, Durban confirmed that grassroots support, even in the West, for the justness of the Palestinian cause was still robust, if not yet channeled into effective forms of solidarity.

With the new intifada, boycott and sanctions were in the air. Campaigns calling for divestment from companies supporting Israel’s occupation, for instance, spread to many US campuses, initially causing panic among the ranks of the Israel lobby and its student arm. Archbishop Desmond Tutuof South Africa was among the earliest internationally renowned figures to support divestment from Israel. The impromptu nature of these early, largely abortive efforts soon gave way to a higher degree of coordination and sharing of experience at a national level in the United States, culminating in the establishment of the Palestine Solidarity Movementand later the US Campaign to End the  Israeli Occupation, a broad coalition of over three hundred groups working to change US foreign policy in favor of a just peace. Across the Atlantic, particularly in the United Kingdom, calls for various forms of boycott against Israel started to be heard among intellectuals, academics, and trade unionists. These efforts intensified with the massive Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian cities in spring 2002, with all the destruction and civilian casualties it left behind.

By 2004, academic associations, trade unions, and solidarity organizations in the United States and Europe calling for boycott had been joined by mainstream churches, which began to study divestment and other forms of boycott against Israel, similar in nature to those applied to South Africa during apartheid rule. The most significant development at that stage was the precedent-setting decision of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) in July 2004, in a resolution that was adopted by a resounding majority of 431 to 62, to start “a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.” Unlike similar declarations adopted by student and faculty groups, the Presbyterian move could not be dismissed as “symbolic” or economically ineffective. Although PCUSA in 2006 dropped the term divestment, opting for “investment in peace” due to threats and intimidation by Israel lobby groups,13its initiative managed to inspire many faith-based organizations, especially, in the West to consider halting their investments in Israel as well.

A development of signal importance for these efforts was the historic advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice(ICJ) at The Hague on July 9, 2004, condemning as illegal both Israel’s wall and the colonies built on occupied Palestinian land. Ironically, the PLO scored this momentous political, legal, and diplomatic victory at a time when it was least prepared to build on it. A similar advisory opinion by the ICJ in 1971, denouncing South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, had triggered what became the world’s largest and most concerted campaign of boycotts and sanctions directed against the apartheid regime, eventually contributing to its demise. Though the ICJ ruling on the wall did not prompt similar reaction, chiefly due to Palestinian structural and political powerlessness, it did fuel a revival of principled opposition to Israeli oppression around the world.

Days before the ICJ ruling, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), formed in April 2004, issued a call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel endorsed by some sixty unions, organizations, and associations in the Palestinian occupied territories urging the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutionsas a “contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization, and system of apartheid.”This call was greatly and qualitatively amplified on the first anniversary of the ICJ ruling, when more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the main political parties, issued the Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel “until it fully complies with international law.” After fifteen years of the so-called peace process, Palestinian civil society reclaimed the agenda, articulating Palestinian demands as part of the international struggle for justice long obscured by deceptive “negotiations.” In a noteworthy precedent, the BDS Callwas issued by representatives of the three segments of the Palestinian people—the refugees, the indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel, and those under the 1967 occupation. It also directly “invited” conscientious Israelis to support its demands. The Palestinian boycott movement succeeded in setting new parameters and clearer goals for the
growing international support network, sparking, or giving credence to, boycott and divestment campaigns in several countries.

A genuine concern raised by solidarity groups in the West regarding the calls for boycott has been the conspicuous absence of an official Palestinian body behind them. “Where is your ANC?” is a difficult and sometimes sincere question that faced Palestinian boycott activists everywhere. The PLO, in total disarray for years, has remained largely silent. The PA, with its circumscribed mandate and the constraints imposed upon it by the Oslo accords, is inherently incapable of supporting any effective resistance strategy, especially one that evokes injustices beyond the 1967 occupation. Indeed, with rare exceptions, the PA’s role has actually been detrimental to civil society efforts to isolate Israel. This started to change in 2009, when the Sixth
Conference of Fatah, the leading secular political party, adopted a political platform highlighting popular nonviolent struggle as the main form of resistance to the occupation. Much criticism has been leveled at Fatah for holding its conference under occupation, accommodating Israeli demands, and, more substantively, transforming the Palestinian cause from a struggle for self-determination and comprehensive rights to what is seen by many pundits as a hollowed-out process of coexisting with Israeli injustices and denial of some of those basic rights.Still, the enthusiasm for a strong commitment to nonviolent means of countering Israel’s occupation and sprawling colonization eventually led the Fatah-dominated PAto adopt a—belated—policy of boycotting and calling on other states to boycott products of Israeli colonial settlements. While many Palestinians saw this PAcall for a partial boycott of Israel as “too little, too late,” coming five full years after the
great majority of Palestinian civil society had called for comprehensive BDS measures, there was a sense of vindication nonetheless. “Even” the PA, BDS leaders can now argue, eventually understood the immense power of boycott and popular resistance. It also has helped underline the consensus among Palestinians in support of boycott as a form of struggle against Israel’s violations of international law.

As for “unofficial” Palestinian bodies, a tiny minority of them did not support the July 2005 BDS call. These were mostly smaller NGOs, ever attentive to donor sensitivities, that declined to endorse, some citing as “too radical” the clause on the right of refugee return (despite the fact that it is “stipulated in UN Resolution 194”). Some, bowing to pressure from their European “partners,” feared that the term boycott would invite charges of anti-Semitism. Also, initially the largest Palestinian
political factions, with their predominant decades-old focus on armed struggle, seemed unable to recognize the indispensable role of civil resistance, particularly in the unique—and certainly very different from South Africa’s—colonial conditions of siege that the Palestinians had to resist.18By either inertia or reluctance to critically evaluate their programs in light of a changed international situation, these forces became addicted to the armed model of resisting the occupation, ignoring the troubling moral and legal questions raised by certain indiscriminate forms of that resistance and its failure to date to achieve concrete and sustainable results in an international environment dominated by Israel’s main sponsor and enabler, the United States. Despite this initial reluctance, all major Palestinian political parties signed on to the BDS Call, widening the circle of consensus around it.

In order to realize Palestinian aspirations for self-determination, freedom, and equality and to pose a real challenge to Israel’s dual strategy of on the one hand fragmenting, ghettoizing, and dispossessing Palestinians and on the other hand projecting a reduced image of the colonial conflict as a symmetrical dispute over rival claims and a diminished set of Palestinian rights, the PLOmust be resuscitated and remodeled to embody the aspirations, creative energies, and national frameworks of the three main segments of the Palestinian people. The PLO’s grassroots organizations need to be rebuilt from the bottom up with mass participation, inclusive of all political forces, and must be ruled by unfettered democracy through proportional representation.

In parallel, the entire Palestinian conceptual framework and strategy of resistance must be thoroughly and critically reassessed and transformed into a progressive action program capable of connecting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and justice with the international social movement. The most effective and morally sound strategy for achieving these objectives is one based on gradual, diverse, context-sensitive, and sustainable campaigns of BDS—political, economic, professional, academic, cultural, athletic, and so on—and other forms of popular resistance, all aimed at bringing about Israel’s comprehensive and unequivocal compliance with international law and universal human rights.

BDS will unavoidably contribute to the global social movement’s challenge to neoliberal Western hegemony and the tyrannical rule of multi/transnational corporations. In that sense, the Palestinian boycott against Israel and its partners in crime becomes a small but critical part in an international struggle to counter injustice, racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and gender oppression, among other social and economic ills. Reflecting on this aspect of the BDS movement, and connecting it with the 2009 environmental international summit held in Denmark, John Pilger, the widely acclaimed journalist and writer, states:

The farce of the climate summit in Copenhagen affirmed a world war waged by the rich against most of humanity. It also illuminated a resistance growing perhaps as never before: an internationalism linking justice for the planet with universal human rights, and criminal justice for those who invade and dispossess with impunity. And the best news comes from Palestine.

. . . To Nelson Mandela, justice for the Palestinians is “the greatest moral issue of the age.” The Palestinian civil society call for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) was issued on 9 July 2005, in effect reconvening the great, non-violent movement that swept the world and brought the scaffolding of [South] African apartheid crashing down.”

In this context, it is important to emphasize that it is not just Israel’s military occupation and denial of refugee rights that must be challenged but the wider Zionist-Israeli system of racist exclusivism. Jewish groups that historically stood in the front lines of the struggle for civil rights, democracy, equality before the law, and separation between church and state in many countries should find Israel’s unabashedly ethnocentric and racist laws and its reduction of Palestinians to relative
humans, whether in the occupied territories, in exile, or within Israel itself, to be politically indefensible and ethically untenable. Ultimately, then, successful nonviolent resistance requires transcending the fatally ill-conceived focus on the occupation alone to a struggle for justice, equality, and comprehensive Palestinian rights.

I am aware that reducing Palestinian demands to ending the occupation alone seems like the easiest and most pragmatic path to take, but I firmly believe that it is ethically and politically unwise to succumb to the temptation. The indisputable Palestinian claim to equal humanity should be the primary slogan raised, because it lays the proper moral and political foundation for effectively addressing the myriad injustices against all three segments of the Palestinian people. It is also based on
universalist values that resonate with people the world over. While coalescing with diverse political forces is necessary to make this direction prevail, caution should be exercised in alliances with “soft” Zionists lest they assume the leadership of the BDS movement in the West, lowering the ceiling of its demands beyond recognition. On the other hand, principled Jewish voices—whether organizations or intellectuals consistently supporting a just and comprehensive peace—in the United States,
Europe, and Israel have courageously supported various forms of boycott, and this helps shield the nascent boycott movement from charges of anti-Semitism and the intellectual terror associated with them.

Supporting the UN-sanctioned rights of all segments of the Palestinian people does not, however, entail adopting BDS tactics that necessarily target all Israeli institutions. Tactics and the choice of BDS targets at the local level must be governed by the context particularities, political conditions, and the readiness (in will and capacity) of the BDS activists. In the United States, for instance, two of the most active and creative BDS groups, Adalah-NY and Code Pink, endorse the 2005 BDS Call with its comprehensive rights-based approach and run effective campaigns that are very targeted and nuanced, focusing only on companies indisputably implicated in Israeli violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territory. The same can be said of the largest BDS- related coalition in France, Coalition against Agrexco-Carmel.

Besides the need to extend the struggle beyond ending the occupation, two other pertinent points in connection with BDS initiatives bear emphasizing. First, they should be guided by the principles of inclusion, diversity, gradualness, and sustainability. They must be flexibly designed to reflect realities in various contexts. Second, although the West, owing to its overwhelming political and economic power as well as its decisive role in perpetuating Israel’s colonial domination, remains the main battleground for this nonviolent resistance, the rest of the world should not be ignored. Aside from South Africa and some beginnings elsewhere, the BDS movement has yet to take root in China, India, Malaysia, Brazil, and Russia, among other states that seek to challenge the West’s monopoly on power. It is worth noting that Zionist influence in those states remains significantly weaker than in the West.

With the formation of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, BNC, in 2008,25it became the reference and guiding force for the global BDS movement, which was all along based on the Palestinian-initiated and -anchored BDS Call. The BNCis the coordinating body for the BDS campaign based on the Palestinian civil society BDS Call of 2005. Upholding civil and popular resistance to Israel’s occupation, colonization, and apartheid, the BNCis a broad coalition of the leading Palestinian political parties, unions, coalitions, and networks representing the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees; Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip; and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The BNC adopts a rights-based approach and calls for the international BDS campaign to be sustained until the entire Palestinian people can exercise its inalienable right to freedom and self-determination and Israel fully complies with its obligations under international law.

BDS is not only an idea. It is not merely a concept. It is not just a vision. It is not all about strategy. It is all those, for sure, but also much more. The Palestinian Civil Society Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel is above everything else a deeply rooted yet qualitatively new stage in the century-old Palestinian resistance to the Zionist settler-colonial conquest and, later, Israel’s regime of occupation, dispossession, and apartheid against the indigenous people
of Palestine.

The global BDS campaign’s rights-based discourse and approach decisively, almost irrefutably, exposes the double standard and exceptionalism with which the United States and most of the other Western states have to varying degrees treated Israel ever since its establishment through the carefully planned and brutally executed forcible displacement and dispossession of the majority of the Palestinian people in the 1948 Nakba. More crucially, the BDS movement has dragged Israel and its well-financed, bullying lobby groups into a confrontation on a battlefield where the moral superiority of the Palestinian quest for self-determination, justice, freedom, and equality neutralizes and outweighs Israel’s military power and financial prowess. It is the classic right-over-might paradigm, with the right being recognized by an international public that is increasingly fed up with Israel’s criminality and impunity and is realizing that Israel’s slow, gradual genocide places a heavy moral burden on all people of conscience to act, to act fast, and to act with unquestionable effectiveness, political suaveness, and nuance, and above all else with consistent, untarnished moral clarity. Thus BDS.

Omar Barghouti Speaking Tour (for more information see here)

Omar Barghouti
About Omar Barghouti

Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He is a co-recipient of the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award.

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