Palestinian Agency And New Campaigns In The Arab World: An Interview With Zaid Shuaibi On The Fourth Annual BDS Conference
On 7 June 2013, the Boycott National Committee (BNC) convened the Fourth National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Conference at Bethlehem University. Comprised of three panels and one set of concurrent workshops, the daylong event targeted local Palestinian communities. While the organizers anticipated four to five hundred participants, seven hundred people showed up. In addition to evidencing its popular character, the Conference’s overflow capacity indicates increasing ownership among Palestinians over the international movement that an overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society launched in 2005. The panels, conducted in Arabic with simultaneous translation, highlighted new and growing campaigns in the West Bank, within Israel Proper, in Gaza, throughout the Arab world, and beyond in North America and Europe.
Initial media coverage of the conference missed much of these organizing strides, focusing on the controversial exit of Jawad Naji, the Palestinian Authority Minister of the National Economy, instead. Conference participants arose in a thunderous call for Naji to leave after he told a provocative participant to“stop barking.” When the conference was over, several Palestinian Authority security personnel assaulted the provocateur as he was getting into his car leaving him with bruises on his head and legs.
In this interview conducted in Ramallah a few days following the Conference, Zaid Shuaibi, a youth activist and the Networking and Outreach Officer of the BNC in Palestine and the Arab world, discusses the Fourth National BDS Conference as well as the state of the global BDS movement.
Noura Erakat (NE): This is the Fourth National BDS Conference held in the Occupied West Bank. What was the purpose of the Conference and what distinguishes it from previous conferences?
Zaid Shuaibi (ZS): This conference aimed to increase the adoption of boycott strategies among local actors, to increase awareness of the movement’s significance locally, and to work against normalization especially in light of its most recent acceleration.
The major difference between this conference and the ones we have held in the past is that we conducted workshops amongst activists for two months leading up to the conference so that we could produce actual campaign action plans at the conference, not mere recommendations. For example, we increased local support among civil society organizations prisoners’ rights leaders, like Sheikh Khader Adnan, to support the G4S campaign. We empowered representatives of the Palestinian agricultural sector to adopt the campaign targeting Israeli agricultural export companies’ trade with Europe. We also invited several other Palestinian trade unions to adopt concrete campaigns aimed at ending normalization projects with Israeli government entities. We did all this leading up to the Conference so that the Conference itself would be a site of achieving more synthesis among participants.
NE: G4S is a British-Danish private security company that provides security for Israeli prisons and settlements, among other institutions that uphold Israel’s settler-colonial regime. As you mentioned, prisoners’ rights organizations have adopted it as a target to protest its involvement in Israeli torture, the detention of nearly five thousand Palestinian political prisoners, as well as the practice of administrative detention. The G4S campaign unique for being among the first boycott targets within the Arab world. Can you discuss this at greater length?
ZS: G4S is located across sixteen Arab countries where it grosses a profit that is six times as large as its profit in Israel. It is therefore costly for G4S to maintain its contracts with Israel if it is faced with serious boycott and divestment campaigns in these Arab countries. The call to target G4S came from the BNC and leading Palestinian civil society groups, including Addameer, the Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, on 17 April 2012, Palestinian Political Prisoners’ Day. Exactly one year later, groups in Jordan and Morocco launched their campaigns targeting the security company. In Jordan, the BDS group has already successfully convinced several companies to end their contracts with G4S, but these companies prefer not to go public. The campaign in Jordan is likely to become more intense as attention on the Jordanian political prisoners held in Israeli jails increases.
This is the first BDS campaign coordinated in this way among a broad coalition spanning the Arab world from Lebanon to Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait. Soon we will add partners in Egypt, Qatar, and possibly the United Arab Emirates. It is the first BDS campaign that targets the Arab world, and we worked on it well before the conference itself. We have identified certain short-term goals. For example, we aim to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its scandalous contract with G4S to provide security for the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
In Kuwait, the Public Institution for Social Security, which is a publicly owned fund that belongs to the Kuwaiti people, owns 1.1 percent of G4S stock. The campaign in Kuwait plans to target this fund specifically. The BNC will support our Kuwaiti partners by sending letters to members of parliament as well as the president of the fund and others urging them to divest Kuwait’s holdings from G4S.
As part of our efforts, we are communicating with the G4S labor unions themselves. We reassure them that we aren’t here to hurt their jobs, we tell them: “You have a direct interest in helping us pressure G4S to end its complicity with Israel’s occupation and human rights violations. If it maintains its collusion, we shall target it with boycott campaigns everywhere, costing it precious contracts, as we have done to Veolia. Then your jobs would be at risk.” In Morocco, the workers’ union is already part of the campaign.
In Palestine, one of the accomplishments of the BDS conference is that several organizations and individuals joined forces to create a team that aims to provide help for G4S campaigns globally. This will include providing letters from prisoners, including Sheikh Khader Adnan who was among the first hunger strikers, and collecting supportive testimonials. Political prisoners’ families will also be a part of the campaign so that they can directly speak to shareholders.
NE: As it is drafted in 2005, the BDS Call is a call to international solidarity groups and actors. It asks them to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people by joining a civil society initiative aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law and human rights norms. What is the call and thrust of BDS to Palestinians themselves?
ZS: The BDS Call emerged from Palestinians and it represents the largest coalition of unions, political parties, representatives of civil society, and Palestinians from Jerusalem, Gaza, 1948 and the shatat, (diaspora); it represents almost all Palestinians and it calls for the three basic rights of the three main segments of the Palestinian people as the minimal conditions needed for our people as a whole to exercise our inalienable right to self determination. For this reason, the call focuses on global solidarity coupled with internal resistance to Israel’s occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid.
We have our own discourse within our communities to clarify that we are not in solidarity with ourselves but, instead, we are the owners of this movement. Once this was internalized by a critical mass of Palestinians, people became more comfortable with the idea of BDS.
Our mantra at this Conference was clear: "BDS is a key form of resistance. Don’t wait for the BNC to tell you what to do, and don't tell the BNC what you want to see done - take the initiative you want to see in order to achieve freedom, justice and equality." The main call from the BNC to Palestinians is to not buy Israeli products and not to engage in normalization in any field; otherwise, all Palestinians are empowered to start their own BDS initiatives. Although the BNC guides and leads the BDS movement, no one Palestinian group owns BDS; it is a collective form of effective resistance, and resistance does not require an invitation.
It is important to remember that the BNC and the entire BDS movement are based on volunteers, so you too can become a volunteer to do what you like and what you think is right, in line with the BDS Call, which is based on international law and universal human rights principles. This is what we are trying to get across. Don't wait. Act. Resist.
There is now a lot of unions and mass organizations in the BNC who are working more on BDS campaigns and making them part of their actual work plans. For example, the Women’s union has run seven workshops for BDS in the past two months. They are now planning to work on a concrete campaign. One immediate result of their work was the strong participation of women -- and their children -- from all over the West Bank in the conference.
Average people are excited about BDS and are eager to get involved. Buses came to the Conference from communities as far as Haifa, the Naqab (Negev), Lydd, Ramleh, Doura, Hebron, Jenin, Qalqilya, and Tulkarem. We received several phone calls complaining that we had not arranged for transportation from this or that city, and we had to explain how we have no budget for transportation and that local groups should collectively organize to raise funds for buses to take them to the conference. Despite that we received more than seven hundred people at the conference! Emails and phone calls from Palestinians who are inquiring about how to support and join BDS campaigns, and to identify more targets are increasing sharply. The Druze Palestinian community within ‘48 also came to the Conference and explained how they see their boycott of Israeli military service, which has partially aimed to set the Druze apart from the rest of the Palestinian people, as part of the broader BDS movement.
Lately, we are also finding that there is more debate about BDS all over Palestine. There is a lot of scrutiny and criticism as well, which I think is an indicator that BDS is growing because in 2011, we issued dozens of statements but there was little to no response. Now each statement is being scrutinized closely and triggers society-wide debates. And we are certainly seeing far greater support from the widest cross-section of Palestinian society, in ‘67, ’48, and in exile, for our statements and campaigns.
NE: There seems to be a divergence between the Palestinian street which is increasingly for cutting off ties with Israel all together and the diplomatic track which seeks to enhance economic cooperation in an effort to build peace. The latter is a form of economic normalization, which this year’s Conference addressed in very pointed ways. How does the BNC diverge from the Palestinian leadership on these counts and how does that reflect the concerns of the Palestinian street?
ZS: The BNC is a civil society coalition leading the BDS movement, and we represent the popular will, the grassroots. We differ greatly from the PA's project, which is confined within a particular framework that prohibits them from taking positions that represent what the Palestinian people want. We often condemn policies and positions taken by PA officials that, from our perspective, and that of a majority of Palestinians, undermine the struggle for self-determination and return of our refugees.
There are a number of controversies around PA-led agreements that are the basis for normalization, like the Paris Protocol, not to mention direct normalization done by the PA, like the so-called “security coordination,” and most recently, the “Breaking the Impasse” initiative, led by the most powerful Palestinian businessmen with full support from the PA leadership. What is great is that there is a popular conversation about what we should do about these projects. Most people now look to the BNC to articulate a position analyzing and condemning these projects, and what we try to do is to provide a set of principles to work from and mobilize pressure to end all normalization projects, all of which conflict with the struggle for Palestinian rights.
BDS necessitates the efforts of everyone, at least everyone who is not a collaborator or an Uncle Tom. Take for example "Breaking the Impasse," it included the Palestinian business persons, dozens of them who want to normalize economically with the Israelis, to accept the role of minor partners in the occupation’s economic hegemony. But in practice, nearly all the general unions, the political parties, many Palestinian businessmen who oppose normalization and several civil society organizations, rejected this discourse of economic normalization after the BNC condemned it and called for ending it. As a result of this massive mobilization against this terrible initiative that serves Israel’s interests first and foremost, the leading Palestinian businessmen who spent a year negotiating the project with their Israeli counterparts have now distanced themselves from it.
The so-called peace process, as dictated by the United States and Israel, forces the PA to normalize and to compromise Palestinian rights, and this creates a contradiction between the leadership and the BDS movement. Freedom, justice, return of refugees, and self determination in general require a rejection of normalization and greater resistance against Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression which includes occupation, colonization, and apartheid. In contrast, Oslo and the peace process is a normalization project without resistance to an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing. In the past twenty years, the PA has given Israel everything it has asked for, most importantly a cover of “negotiations” for its ongoing ethnic cleansing. This has encouraged Israel to pursue its extremely fanatic, ideological, terror-based project to rid the land of its indigenous owners, settling it with colonial settlers instead. An absolute majority of Palestinians today is calling for abandoning this suicidal Oslo track.
NE: This year you invited PLO and PA representatives to the National BDS Conference? Is this a deliberate attempt to bring them on board the BDS Call? What did you think of their intervention and the Minister of National Economy’s exit?
ZS: In our capacity as the BNC, we think there should be an interrogation, a form of accountability of the PA for their position on BDS and their actions that undermine it. The PLO has to be held to account as well, as it has become increasingly a shadow of itself, failing to represent the entire Palestinian people, particularly in the shatat and ‘48. So we want the PA to be present to listen to the people and to respond to their concerns. The confrontation became provocative as the Palestinian audience became increasingly frustrated with the Minister's answers. We are completely opposed to any personal insults regardless of who the target is, and at the same time we are in total support of freedom of expression regardless of who the opinion belongs to. We also categorically condemn the use of violence by the PA or any of its organs against any Palestinian for voicing his/her views—young men associated with the PA jumped the individual who made these comments right after the conference and outside its venue. We simultaneously reject personal attacks —and insist that criticism should be constructive, as much as possible.
It was so obvious that there is a demand from the Palestinian people towards the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to do something. There is a major gap between the Palestinian street and the Palestinian leadership. For example while our call for BDS is broadening, the PLO has yet to endorse the movement as a national project. They are lagging on this issue and should at least be more supportive within their political limitations. Now, after the conference and its unprecedented success, we are seeing some really positive signs from some in the PLO.
For example, on the issue of settlement products, the PA was not successful in implementing its call for a boycott of settlement products because there was no political will among its members to support BDS in a serious way. There is a lot of talk and symbolic support for it only. They worked on it in the beginning but even their selective boycott call, in line with Oslo, was not adopted and implemented seriously. And Israelis take advantage of this- they tell other governments, “If the Palestinian leadership does not boycott us, then why should third-party states do so?” and they insist that the BNC does not represent the Palestinian people. Well, when it comes to boycott as a form of resistance, the BNC is certainly the largest, most inclusive representative of the Palestinian people.
Endorsement from the PLO would make a big difference- it would represent a broader consensus similar to the South African experience. Instead, in our case, the PLO placed themselves in a box of negotiations and they are not able to extricate themselves from it. Without rebuilding the PLO from the grassroots up, making it representative of all Palestinians, including ‘48 and the diaspora, it will remain chained by Oslo, standing on the sides as Palestinians struggle for our inalienable rights.
NE: One of the movement's greatest strengths is its decentralized model. That does not mean, however, that it lacks strategic thinking. Can you comment on the challenges facing the movement and the goals for it moving forward?
ZS: I think decentralization of the movement is one of its strengths because Israel cannot crush it. It cannot go and arrest four or five people and chill the movement; it is a collective movement based on volunteers everywhere and that has partners all over the world. There might be well-known figures but the leadership is not based on individuals. Decentralization empowers people everywhere to claim their rights and to help grow the movement globally.
There is a strategy, even though at this point it is not set in stone. There are several strategies under a single umbrella. For example the strategy to work with the Arab world is different from the strategy to work in Europe and in the US but they are all under a single umbrella. We are now at a stage where we need to clarify our strategy even further. Strategic goals are based on the sectors themselves.
One of the major challenges we have faced is that the organizations in the BNC did not use to consider BDS as a strategic matter integral to their organizational purposes and goals. But even that is shifting. Today you will hear unions articulating BDS as part of their goals and projects while in the past they endorsed it as a matter of fact like a political position.
The postal union, which is part of a federation of unions that is a member of the BNC, provides a very important example. The president of the postal union said we wanted to do a campaign to boycott the Israeli postal system, which infringes on Palestinian rights by dumping Palestinian mail in an illegal Israeli colony rather than delivering it like they do for Israelis. The President, on behalf of the Postal Union, approached the BNC, which sent letters to postal unions globally to urge that mail to Palestine not be sent through the postal office of Israel. We have now established relationships with unions in Canada and South Africa. This is the first campaign of its kind.
There is an important point: Whatever the BDS accomplishes - whenever it makes a leap, internally all sectors must be working on BDS. Once there is a critical mass of the Palestinian population working collectively on BDS there will be a shift that will have an impact greater than it is now- can you imagine even more than the present-day impact?