Putting Palestine Back on the Map: Boycott as Civil Resistance
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For too long, nonviolence has had a bad name among Palestinians, for two main reasons: First, most of those advocating it support a minimal set of Palestinian rights, usually excluding or diluting the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to repatriation and compensation. 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, particularly as concerns the right of return. This entrenched association between nonviolence and a minimalist political program made nonviolence an object of suspicion and antipathy among most Palestinians, particularly since armed resistance has been largely linked to a maximalist political program.

I, for one, 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 support a unitary state based on justice and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To my mind, in a struggle for equal humanity and emancipation from oppression, the correlation between means and ends, and the decisive effect of the former on the outcome and durability of the latter, are indisputable. If Israel is a settler-colonial state, then its replacement must be a secular, democratic state, offering unequivocal equality in citizenship, 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 as colonial masters—in the land of Palestine.

From Oslo to Durban: The Stirrings of BDS

Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the premature end of the first Palestinian intifada—through the launching of the Madrid-Oslo “peace process”—the question of Palestine has been progressively marginalized, if not relegated to a mere nuisance factor, by the powers that be in the new unipolar world. The UN General Assembly’s 1991 repeal, under U.S. pressure, of its 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution removed a major obstacle to Zionist and Israeli rehabilitation in the international community. This was followed by formal recognition of Israel by the PLO under the Oslo accords, which furthered the transformation of Israel’s image from that of a colonial and inherently exclusivist state into a normal state engaged in a territorial dispute. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, primarily to relieve Israel’s colonial burdens in the West Bank and Gaza, 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 Congress passed through Tel Aviv, wooing it politically. Meanwhile, the election of George W. Bush as president of the United States and the rise of his neoconservative associates (erstwhile advisors 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 in September 2000, after years of a “quiet” Israeli 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 International and other human rights organizations as amounting to war crimes, reopened—at least in intellectual circles—long forgotten questions about whether a just peace can indeed be achieved with an exclusivist, ethnocentric, and expansionist Zionist state. It was against this background that the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 revived the 1975 debate on Zionism. Although, as expected, the official assembly failed to adopt a specific resolution on Zionism due to direct threats from the United States, the NGO Forum condemned it as a form of racism and apartheid, expressing 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 across American campuses. The impromptu nature of these early efforts soon gave way to greater coordination at a national level, culminating in the establishment of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. Across the Atlantic, particularly in the United Kingdom, calls for various forms of boycott against Israel started to be heard among intellectuals and trade unionists. These efforts intensified with the massive Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian cities in spring 2002, with all the destruction and 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 of Israel, similar in nature to those applied to South Africa during apartheid rule. The most significant development at that stage was the precedent-setting July 2004 decision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which called, in a resolution adopted by a 431 to 62 vote, for “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 lacking potential economic consequences. Indeed, it inspired other Christian denominations 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 ICJ at The Hague on 9 July 2004, condemning as illegal both Israel’s wall and the colonies built on occupied Palestinian land. Ironically, the PLO scored this momentous 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.

About the time of the ICJ ruling, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), formed in April 2004, issued a statement of principles endorsed by some sixty unions, organizations, and associations in the occupied territories urging the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a “contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization, and system of apartheid.” [1] This call was 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 a 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 call was issued by representatives of the three segments of the Palestinian people—the refugees, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and those under 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.

In an example that illustrates both the possibilities of such campaigns and the challenges they face, pro-justice British academics, in coordination with PACBI, won a decision by their Association of University Teachers (AUT) in April 2005 to boycott two Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in perpetuating Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. In just over a month, however, after intense pressures—amounting to naked bullying at times—were brought to bear by Israel and the Zionist lobbies in the United Kingdom and the United States, the motion was rescinded. Despite the sobering setback, the AUT boycott remains a remarkable achievement: shattering the taboo of Israel’s invincibility by proving that it can indeed be boycotted. At the same time, the rapid suppression of the AUT boycott shows what pro-boycott activists can expect in terms of intimidation, character assassination, misinformation, and the like. And while the virulence of the Zionist response to the AUT motion shows the vulnerability of Israel and the Zionist movement to the claims of justice and equal humanity embodied in the BDS form of resistance, it also shows the Zionist determination to suppress debate at all costs and to crush any effort, however modest. Nonetheless, the movement continues undaunted, and several more mainstream churches in the United States and the United Kingdom have followed the Presbyterian example in putting selective divestment on their agendas, representing an encouraging breach in the metaphoric wall, so to speak, of relatively uncontested Zionist political sway in the West.

A Palestinian “ANC”?

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 often sincere question that faced Palestinian boycott activists everywhere. The PLO, in total disarray for years, has remained 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.

As for “unofficial” Palestinian bodies, not all of them supported the July 2005 BDS call. A number of Palestinian NGOs, ever attentive to donor sensitivities, declined, some citing as “too radical” the clause on the right of refugee return (“as stipulated in UN Resolution 194”), while others, bowing to pressure by their European partners, feared that the term “boycott” would invite charges of anti-Semitism. At the same time, the largest Palestinian political factions, with their predominant focus on armed struggle, seem unable to recognize the indispensable role of civil resistance. Either by inertia or reluctance to evaluate critically their programs in light of a changed international situation, these forces became addicted to the military model of fighting the occupation, ignoring the troubling moral questions raised by certain indiscriminate forms of that resistance and its failure to achieve positive ends. The absence of “official” Palestinian support for BDS, coupled with the conflicting agendas and messages in the nonofficial Palestinian body politic, has not helped to advance the BDS movement.

In order to realize Palestinian aspirations for 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, reducing the conflict to a dispute over a partial set of Palestinian rights, the PLO must be resuscitated and remodeled to embody the claims, creative energies, and national frameworks of the three main segments of the Palestinian people. The PLO's grassroots organizations need to be built from the bottom up with mass participation, and they must be ruled by unfettered democracy and proportional representation.

Ironically, Hamas’s victory in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections could serve as a catalyst to the above described processes of structural democratization and political reform crucially needed to put mass Palestinian resistance and international support for it back on track. This will require intensive efforts by secular and progressive forces to help guide these processes to make them as inclusive as possible. It will also require a well-planned transfer of power from the PA back to a rejuvenated PLO. For various legal and practical reasons, the PA cannot be responsibly dismantled overnight, but a newly reconstituted, democratic PLO could gradually wean it from the ill-conceived pretense of representing “the Palestinians,” as well as from its proxy role in Israel’s occupation policies. Only thus can the Palestinian people as a whole recover its unity and collective will to resist, and—in Mahmud Darwish’s phrase—to “besiege its siege” in which the “peace process” has incarcerated it.

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 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—aimed at bringing about Israel’s comprehensive and unequivocal compliance with international law and universal human rights. In this latter regard, 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 system of racist exclusivism. Jews have 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, and it should be untenable for Israel’s unabashedly ethnocentric laws and its reduction of Palestinians to relative humans, whether in the occupied territories or within Israel itself, to be defended. Ultimately, then, successful nonviolent resistance requires transcending the choking and fatally ill-conceived two-state paradigm, and animating the struggle for equality and against Zionist racism wherever it is found.

I am aware that reducing Palestinian demands to ending the occupation 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 universal values that resonate with people the world over. On the one hand, 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 peace—in the United States, Europe, and even Israel have courageously supported various forms of boycott, and this helps shield the nascent boycott movement from the charges of anti-Semitism and the intellectual terror associated with them.

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 also 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. The movement should reach China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil, and Russia, among other states which 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.

Future Vision

If oppressors can afford a measure of what Henry Kissinger has called “constructive ambiguity,” the oppressed certainly cannot. Failure to spell out the end-game adversely affects our ability to sway international public opinion in our favor. For the Palestinian BDS movement to be most influential and capable of mobilizing international public opinion, as its South African predecessor was, it needs to define its ultimate objectives, its vision for a future of justice, peace, and reconciliation. To that end, the secular-democratic state solution offers a true chance for the ethical decolonization of Palestine, turning Palestinians not into oppressors of their current oppressors, but “restorers of the humanity of both,” to cite Paulo Freire. This new Palestine should primarily facilitate the return of and compensation for the Palestinian refugees, avoiding the infliction of any unnecessary or unjust suffering on the Jewish community in the country. It should also grant full, equal citizenship rights to Palestinian Arabs, refugees included, and Israeli Jews, recognizing, legitimizing, and even nourishing the respective cultural, religious, and ethnic particularities and traditions of each community as well as equal civil rights.

Putting Palestine back on the map thus offers the Jews in Palestine a real chance finally to enjoy normalcy, as equal humans in a truly promising land, not a false Promised Land.


Omar Barghouti is a researcher, commentator, and activist. Palestine.

1. PACBI’s 2004 Call for Boycott can be found at www.pacbi.org.

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