Boycott movement has empowered Palestinians, says co-founder
The Palestinian boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has recently generated unprecedented international attention — and opposition — including from US, European and Israeli officials. How much do you know about its origins?
I interviewed Adnan via Skype to get his views on how this movement has developed, almost nine years later.
He also speaks about the history of BDS, underscoring an important and often overlooked point: the movement was conceived and founded by Palestinians, in Palestine.
Now, he says, it is bringing results far beyond early expectations.
Adri Nieuwhof: What were the main reasons you helped design and launch the BDS call?
Adnan Ramadan: We met when you were organizing a workshop for the Occupied Palestine and Golan Heights Advocacy Initiative (OPGAI) where we discussed the call for BDS.
At that time I coordinated this network and I was the manager of the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the YMCA and YWCA. Based on this, I am a co-founder of the BDS campaign and I served in the secretariat of the campaign for several years.
There was a lot of discussion among Palestinian civil society organizations and others in Palestinian society about how we can give the solidarity movement a solid tool with a clear vision based on a deep analysis of the conflict between Palestine and the Israelis. We found the experience of South Africa very inspiring.
So there was the opinion of following that experience of the people of South Africa. Especially because the governments at that time were far away from putting any kind of pressure on Israel.
We decided to address civil society organizations all over the world with a unified call and a strategy. We asked an international donor organization to support a workshop with people from South Africa and the international solidarity movement with South Africa. So we invited you and Bangani Ngeleza from South Africa to come to Beit Sahour.
The outcome of our workshop was to send out the call for BDS. We coordinated with Palestinian networks to send the call together with the Palestine Non-Governmental Organizations Network, Ittijah — the umbrella of Palestinian civil society organizations in historic Palestine, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, OPGAI and Stop the Wall.
The call was signed later by different organizations, mainly Palestinian grassroots organizations in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza, and many parts of the Palestinian community.
AN: What were your expectations? Were they fulfilled?
AR: Our expectation was that at least there would be a unified call from the Palestinian community. Many of our friends and people who sympathized with us or were convinced of our rights were confused by the many calls that came from different parts of our community.
By unifying our expectations as Palestinians we gave the international solidarity movement something clear. Some people said that the call was very extreme because many groups would refuse to describe Israel as racist or as a discriminatory system, or to compare it with South Africa — while the facts on the ground in Palestine go beyond this.
So we decided to go on, and we found a lot of support — more than 170 Palestinian organizations signed the call. The BDS movement is now the biggest network in Palestine.
The success of the call on the international level was beyond our expectations, especially after the war on Gaza in 2008-2009. It is a tool for people to participate in many ways. It gives the opportunity to explain and reveal the truth about what is going on.
In 2005, there was a lot of confusion made by us, the Palestinians, in the way we were representing our cause to the international community. By sending a call based on international law, UN resolutions, on an analysis of the situation, it was a way to return to the roots of the conflict.
The BDS campaign could open opportunities for political change, not just a way of expressing solidarity and exerting pressure on political decision makers. It opened opportunities for change in the power relation between Palestine and Israel, and also at the internal level.
AN: Can you explain how this worked?
AR: The official political process and approach was mainly through negotiations. Israel used the negotiations to say there is a Palestinian state, a Palestinian political system and economy.
Everything is there and it is their problem if they fail to develop the system. At the same time they were marketing that the Palestinian people are a threat to Israeli society, to the state. The reason for all their measures was “security.” The negotiations were a kind of umbrella to legitimize the marketing of these kinds of ideas.
The other voice was not listened to, the voice of the Palestinian people who are living in this complicated situation, who are suffering and losing every day. The BDS call was sending this alternative voice with an alternative analysis and showed Israel as it is. Not as a democratic state, like they are saying.
The BDS call created a new political discourse because it was not part of the national political system or political factions.
The civil society organizations involved in the call worked in many areas, they had partners and friends all over the world. There was more credibility for such a call because it came from grassroots organizations who know their partners.
The call for BDS also opened a new way of thinking inside the Palestinian community. It showed that there are new nonviolent tools to struggle that could have a serious impact.
Violence was one of the most important issues discussed at an international level, because Israel succeeded in marketing the Palestinian struggle as a violent struggle. The BDS call could show a different image of the Palestinians.
AN: Would you say that the BDS call empowered the Palestinians?
AR: Sure. When I talked with international friends and partners about the situation, they asked “what exactly do you want from us?” They told me that they received contradicting calls and requests from Palestinians. In general it strengthened us to have this solid and clearly defined call.
Secondly, as Palestinians who are involved in BDS, it gives us the opportunity to think, to act in a different way among ourselves. The experience of BDS work was positive by creating the secretariat and having communications on a daily basis, not by being physically near but through other means, by the group leadership.
There was a lot of sensitivity on how would we lead this; would we fall back on individual influences, or the political agendas of different groups?
The BDS work gave a new model of group decision-making, of dealing with issues with an open mind, giving opportunities for creative ideas. BDS offered Palestinians for the first time to present their leaders. Before that there were only the political parties.
AN: Some people say the BDS campaign should focus on settlements? What is your response?
AR: Talking about the boycott of settlements is returning back to confusion. For us, the Palestinians, Israel is one state. It is not a state for settlers and a state for others. The political system is one, the security system is one, the economic system is one.
All is linked, representing the same policy and mentality. Let’s return to the main source of conflict: the Zionist movement wants to show that this is a land without a people for a people without land, denying the existence of the Palestinian people and their rights.
They bring in people from all over the world if they are Jewish and settle them here.
When we talk of boycotting Israel, we talk of boycotting a system of ruling, a way of thinking and behaving, that denies the existence of the Palestinian people and their rights.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority (PA) — based on their agreements and their mentality — has called for a boycott only of settlement products.
This can create some small problems for some small industries here and there. It does not give opportunities for real political solutions and change inside the Israeli community.
The PA tried in this way to contain the whole BDS campaign and take the successes. Their approach created a lot of obstacles in different countries. There have been a lot of confrontations between BDS activists and people who represent the official policy of the PA.
For me the call from Palestinian civil society is clearly about boycotting Israel and calling for sanctions against Israel. But everybody can decide — based on his analysis, circumstances and sometimes the laws — how to respond to the call.
For example the people in the Netherlands may want to focus on a boycott of settlement products. The important thing is that they are responding to our call.
AN: When is the BDS movement no longer needed? When is our job done?
AR: There is no longer a need for BDS when we have achieved our demands, which are ending the occupation, the return of the Palestinian refugees to their lands and equality for the people who are living in Israel and Palestine.
BDS is important because the walls are closed for other approaches. The change that is taking place inside the Israeli community is very serious and dangerous, reflecting a racist and discriminatory mentality: to take lands from the Palestinians or to kill them or to send them to other countries.
It comes on a daily basis from the political leadership and government in Israel. The facts on the ground are that we see how circles of settlements surround the inhabited areas of Palestine, we see the political and economic pressure on the Palestinian people to leave this land, to make them desperate, to make them very weak.
Israel seeks to take their resources, not just the land but also the water and other resources, and to control every element of their lives.
It is part of a comprehensive program and the negotiations are part of it. The necessity of the call for BDS is becoming more and more important. With BDS we see results. We need more results. It will give us more encouragement.