The Palestinian Civil Society Campaign for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Marks 5 Years

September 15, 2010
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In meeting rooms and conference halls, on high streets and university campuses, the Palestine solidarity movement is changing. In the dozen years following the signing of the Oslo Accords, few doubted the determination and resolve of solidarity campaigns, but there were fears that they were beginning to lose direction.

In meeting rooms and conference halls, on high streets and university campuses, the Palestine solidarity movement is changing. In the dozen years following the signing of the Oslo Accords, few doubted the determination and resolve of solidarity campaigns, but there were fears that they were beginning to lose direction. Today, as we mark the fifth anniversary of the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law, a truly global movement is rapidly emerging whose concrete forms of solidarity is not only changing the discourse surrounding the Palestinian struggle, but are also achieving concrete results towards the isolation of the Israeli regime.

The BDS movement is deeply rooted in the rich history of Palestinian civil resistance against Zionist colonization – especially anti-normalization campaigns that rejected acceptance of apartheid Israel as a normal state – and begun to take form with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. But it was the rights-based approach of the Palestinian Civil Society Call on 9 July 2005, a year after the historic advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that ruled Israel’s wall – as well as colonies -- in Occupied Palestinian Territory to be illegal, which set into motion a new form of Palestinian resistance and international solidarity. Based on international law and established principles of human rights, the BDS call identifies the inalienable rights of each of the three parts of the Palestinian people, namely those living inside land occupied in 1967, Palestinian citizens of Israel and the approximately seven million Palestinian refugees. The Call urges for various forms of boycott until Israel complies with international law by:

Ending its occupation of lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
Recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return in accordance with UN Resolution 194.

The call was endorsed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, mass organizations, trade unions and other civil society movements and organizations, and provides a clear expression of the will of the Palestinian people. In adopting a rights-based approach, the call activates the universality of international law and human rights within the Palestinian context and unifies Palestinians as well as internationals regardless of their visions of a solution to the colonial conflict, allowing them to resist or provide solidarity alongside each other to achieve the implementation of the indisputable rights of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), established in April 2008, has emerged as the principal anchor of the global BDS movement. A wide civil society coalition representing major sectors of Palestinian society, the BNC has played the leading role in initiating international action, giving advice to BDS activists around the world, and participating in national and international BDS-related forums. The BNC has partnered with solidarity groups in implementing BDS campaigns that are gradual, sustainable and appropriate to the local political context. These organizational principles, the rights-based approach of BDS, the near-consensus in Palestinian civil society in support of the 2005 BDS Call and the still-fresh memory of the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa have all combined in such a way that have allowed trade unions, faith groups, cultural workers, NGOs, solidarity groups and people of conscience of diverse political and ideological backgrounds to respond to the BDS Call with visible, creative and effective, but substantially varied, action.

The effectiveness and diversity of the campaign is evident in the victories it has achieved thus far, especially in response to the Gaza Massacre and, more recently and even more profoundly, Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla. An examination of the BDS responses to the attack on the Flotilla provides insight into the strength of our movement.

Just days after the flotilla attack, the Swedish Dockworkers Union announced that they would heed the Palestinian civil society appeal – endorsed by the entire Palestinian trade union movement -- by implementing a blockade of Israeli ships and cargo that would eventually block the movement of 500 tones of cargo. Dockworkers in Oakland, California, refused to cross the picket line of community protestors, thus delaying unloading an Israeli cargo ship for twenty-four hours, and Indian as well as Turkish dockworkers unions also announced similar blockades. Elsewhere in the trade union movement, the Belgian trade union federation (FGTB) and a coalition of Basque trade unions adopted strong BDS positions, the British union UNISON reiterated its support for the boycott and suspended relations with the Histadrut, and the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) decided to launch a campaign to make every municipality in South Africa an “Apartheid Israel free zone.” Just days before the flotilla attack, the British University and College Union (UCU) advanced the boycott campaign substantially by voting to begin a process to boycott the colony-college of Ariel, located in the OPT and to sever links with the Histadrut.

There was an unprecedented advance made in the realm of cultural boycott also. Hollywood superstars Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman cancelled their attendance at the 2010 Jerusalem Film Festival following the Flotilla Attack. Platinum selling band The Pixies, The Gorillaz Sound System and The Klaxons all cancelled scheduled concerts. A series of bestselling authors, of the weight of Henning Mankell, Alice Walker and Iain Banks, also joined the call for boycotting Israel. These developments added to the previous waves of cultural and arts figures cancelling performances in Israel, such as Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron, or endorsing BDS, like John Berger, Naomi Klein, Ken Loach, Judith Butler and John Greyson.

Also in the wake of the flotilla attack, Swansea City Council in Wales became the latest in a long line of western European cities to exclude Veolia from future public services contracts over its role in building the Jerusalem Light rail that will link west Jerusalem to East Jerusalem, cementing Israel’s hold over the illegal colonial settlements there. These extraordinary efforts by grassroots BDS campaigners were considerably amplified by the decision of the state operated Norwegian Pension Fund, several Swedish pension funds and a number of private banks including Deutsche Bank, one of the largest in the world, to divest from Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, due to its complicity in Israeli violations of international law.

In the US, Middle East Study Committee of the General Assembly of the US Presbyterian Church has released a report recommending that the US Presbyterian Church endorses the Kairos Palestine document drawn up by leading Palestinian Christian figures calling upon churches all over the world, among other items, to endorse BDS as a theologically and morally principled non-violent reaction to Israeli oppression. The UK Methodist Church 2010 congress voted to endorse the Kairos Palestine document and implement a boycott of produce from illegal Israeli colonial settlements.

BDS victories like these, and there is space here only for a small sample, are only possible because of the long-term, determined campaigning at the grassroots level. This process of movement building itself generates additional benefits besides the victories themselves. BDS campaigns are themselves great educational and outreach tools, and one of their distinctive elements is their focus on the Apartheid analysis of Israeli oppression. This description, born not of convenience but out of its accuracy in reflecting the UN definition of the term, as stated in the International Convention for the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, places the BDS movement firmly in the rich tradition of international solidarity that contributed to equality in South Africa and helped achieve justice and equal rights in many other contexts..

As the BDS movement has developed, so too has its political and material apparatus of effective mobilization. Accurate research that informs BDS strategies takes place not only in Palestine but also in each of the countries that host solidarity movements. Broad coalitions, such as those against Dexia Bank (over its Israeli division) in Belgium and against Israeli state-owned exporters Agrexco in France and Italy, include dozens of organizations in such a way that is bringing solidarity with Palestine into the mainstream of civil society. The clear anti-racist, rights based foundations of the BDS movement has also empowered conscientious Israelis and progressive Jewish groups all over the world to become active partners in our movement. The 2005 BDS Call came from the majority of Palestinian civil society; as campaigns have grown, strong bonds of solidarity between specific sectors of Palestinian society, such as trade unionists, cultural workers and religious groups, and their counterparts in other parts of the world have developed, allowing people in the Global North and increasingly in the Global South as well to identify more clearly with the Palestinian struggle for self determination and freedom, further strengthening commitment and determination.

BDS has started to penetrate the Western mainstream enough to receive mainstream media coverage. CNN, a harbinger of pro-Zionist propaganda, recently carried a favorable interview with a founding member of the BDS movement. El Pais, the Financial Times, The Guardian and Associated Press all covered positively or at least fairly the growth of BDS in response to the flotilla attack. Online news sensation The Huffington Post recently published an editorial advocating BDS written by Stéphane Frédéric Hessel, a Holocaust survivor and former French diplomat who participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, to be followed by another pro-BDS article by Alice Walker Dr. Mustafa Barghouti even managed to advocate for BDS from the op-ed pages of the New York Times, setting a precedent. Naomi Kelin published several pieces in the Guardian and the Nation in the same vein.

But it is not only partners, friends or neutral observers of the BDS movement that recognize its rapid growth and potential. At the time of writing, the Israeli Knesset is debating proposed legislation that if passed would implement heavy fines against all citizens of Israel that advocate or assist BDS and would also bar international BDS activists from entering the country. Israeli think tank the REUT Institute is openly discussing the establishment of a ‘war room’ to counter BDS, and big lobby organizations such as AIPAC and its more “modern,” younger edition, J Street, are developing anti-BDS strategies. This is matched by repressive measures by pro-Zionist governments in countries such as Canada and France, where state-sanctioned political and judicial witch-hunts target BDS activists and activism.

Other challenges exist too. While the organizational principles of context sensitivity, gradualness and sustainability have allowed our movement to develop far beyond the most ambitious plans, a boycott of settlement goods alone can be morally and practically problematic if it is not part of a strategy to develop a full boycott of all Israeli products. There are signs that some campaigns may be heading this way. This problem stems mainly from a double standard that is alarming. Unlike any other state that commits similar violations of international law and human rights, Israel is treated with unwarranted exceptionalism. States are the entities that bear full responsibility under international law for their acts; it therefore makes no sense to punish the Israeli colonies, say, while letting off the hook the state that has built those colonies and kept them alive and thriving. In every other situation, there is no debate that the state should be subjected to punitive measures if it violates human rights and the law. Only Israel is treated differently. Another concern in this respect is the so far minor attempts some on the Zionist “left” to sideline the Palestinian leadership and reference for the global BDS campaign, by co-opting and distorting the strategies and discourse of the movement, as well as striving to hijack the crucial role of reference for the movement.

The spectacular momentum of the BDS movement means it has every potential to overcome these challenges, with enough awareness and principled action. The boycott of South African Apartheid took a decade to take off as a visible campaign in a small number of European countries and at least a further decade to have any noticeable impact in the Western mainstream. By comparison, activists in over 35 countries, including countries in Latin America and the Far East, took part a BNC-initiated global day of BDS action, and the Israeli state is responding to the movement as if it were an “existential threat.” Trade Unions, political parties, cultural superstars and global financial institutions are increasingly joining or indirectly supporting the BDS campaign. As a founding members of the BDS campaign has said, “our South Africa moment has arrived.” Let us continue to use BDS as an effective, creative and comprehensive platform to end Israeli injustice and achieve Palestinian freedom, justice and equality.


Michael Deas is the BDS National Committee (BNC) Coordinator in Europe. Hind Awwad is the BNC Coordinator in Palestine.

This article originally appeared in BADIL's quarterly magazine al-Majdal.

September 15, 2010
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