A history that is often forgotten is that not too long ago Palestinians had a thriving civil society where union reps had voting spots in the government, the PLO. It was democracy, not perfect and not attached to any state and stationed in exile, but there was a process for any Palestinian to be a part of the bigger picture. After the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the leadership who was negotiating with Israel overnight disenfranchised these pillars of support.
But civil society did not disband or go home. They joined a fledging nonviolent movement that was cascading across the West Bank countryside in villages that protested Israel’s wall and settlements. Eventually this rolled into the BDS movement, which is explored in depth in Nathan Thrall’s long read in the Guardian on the origins of the BDS movement. It’s sub-headlined: “Israel sees the international boycott campaign as an existential threat to the Jewish state. Palestinians regard it as their last resort.”
Thrall has the obligatory run down of the actors— who supports and who opposes, a web of grassroots campaigns with some degree of coordination with the powers that be—yet the piece is notable for how it doesn’t exaggerate the movement as a juggernaut. BDS supporters and detractors are still small in numbers. Even so Thrall captures how it is that they currently have more sway in the way people across the globe see Israel and the Palestinians than any other entity, including the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
The year the Palestinians first put out an organized call asking for activists abroad to cut ties with Israel, 2005, was also the year of the last Palestinian legislative elections, and was the end of the second Intifada where armed groups had failed to upend the occupation. This dovetailed with the increasingly popular view that the Oslo Peace Accord’s promise of the creation of a Palestinian state was doomed from the get-go.
Thrall writes, “The nonviolent activism of the second intifada was a prelude to what would become a worldwide boycott campaign.”
That set up leads into Thrall’s first BDS activist interviewee and instigator of the movement, Sami Awad, a nonviolent activist from Bethlehem who has a bookshelf filled with Gandhi and Mandela:
“Sami Awad was sent by his parents to Kansas in order to continue his studies. When he returned to Bethlehem in 1996, it had been transformed by the Oslo peace process. Tens of thousands of PLO officials and fighters had moved from exile in the Arab world to the West Bank and Gaza, and were now functionaries in the newly established Palestinian administration. A culture of resistance had been replaced by one of coexistence. A peace industry now flourished, as foreign funds flowed in to finance dialogue groups, NGOs and people-to-people initiatives. Awad, like most Palestinians, was optimistic that peace was on the horizon.
When the second intifada erupted, in September 2000, with Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli invasions and missile attacks, the dialogue and peacemaking activities of groups such as Holy Land Trust came to a halt. For Awad, the focus was now on nonviolent resistance, which was then neither popular nor simple. It was the bloodiest period of Israeli-Palestinian fighting since the 1948 war. More than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed. The militarisation of the intifada had made it dangerous to confront Israel in any manner, including peacefully.”
While the BDS movement has resulted in a few key large scale contracts between corporations and Israel coming to an end, as well as headliners refusing to play in Tel Aviv, there certainly is no looming recession or economic impact. Thrall notes Israeli foreign trade has actually grown since the BDS movement has been around.
What is concerning to Israel is how BDS has changed the parameters of Israel’s moral terms. This is the view of Yossi “Kuper” Kuperwasser, who was at the helm of Israel’s government anti-BDS agency during its formative years. Kuperwasser is a character that is not often represented in reporting in that he is against BDS but has a strong sense of its mechanics. One of his more impactful quotes explains that underneath the BDS campaign is a gambit by Palestinian campaigners:
“’The Palestinians are taking a very big risk,’ he said. ‘Because, in my mind, there is a good chance that the world will deny their conceptual framework. People will say: ‘This is what the Palestinians want?! We are totally against it … They are crazy; they want Israel to disappear.’ If that happens, he added, the Palestinians won’t even get a West Bank-Gaza state, which he believes the PLO still sees as merely the first stage toward liberating all of Palestine.”
The report couldn’t be more timely. Support for the two-state solution has reached a two decade low, dropping below 50 percent among Israelis and Palestinians, according to the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research (TSC) Tel Aviv University, and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah.