The Logic of BDS

In Salon, Ali Abunimah affirms why boycott, divestment and sanctions of apartheid Israel is logical and effective.

Does this mean that Hamas and Israel could potentially do a deal over the broader issues? The answer is no, but not because of the conventional wisdom that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel, espouses violence, and refuses to accept signed agreements.

In fact, Hamas has said repeatedly — including in a New York Times interview with its leader Khaled Meshal — that the movement is willing to accept a Palestinian state in only the West Bank and Gaza Strip, provided all Israeli settlements are removed and the rights of Palestinian refugees are respected.

But while Hamas was strong in the specific context of negotiations over prisoners, the movement by itself or even in combination with other Palestinian factions is not strong enough to compel Israel to meet broader demands.

The power balance remains too lopsided against Palestinians for negotiations to be anything more than what they have been for two decades: a cover for Israel to continue colonization.

For this reason in 2005, Palestinian civil society, independently of all political factions, issued its unified call to supporters around the world for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel. It urges that these “punitive measures” be maintained until Israel recognizes the Palestinian people’s rights and respects international law in three ways: an end to the occupation and colonization of Arab lands conquered in 1967; recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return. These are goals that unify all Palestinians, whether they support the fast-fading two-state solution, or a single democratic state incorporating Israelis and Palestinians throughout historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip together).

Modeled on the successful campaign that helped isolate apartheid South Africa, the logic is straightforward: As long as Israel enjoys an overwhelming power advantage it will never respect Palestinian rights nor dismantle its racist, colonial and apartheid-like policies. Why should it when it pays no price for doing what it pleases?

The BDS campaign was prompted in part by the response — or rather the lack of it — to the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that Israel’s West Bank wall is illegal. When no governments took any measures to enforce the decision, Palestinians realized that global civil society would have to act.

Similarly, Israel remains in violation of countless U.N. resolutions, and has faced no accountability whatsoever for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over many years, but most recently in Gaza in 2009 and detailed in the U.N.-commissioned Goldstone report.

Could the BDS shift the balance of power such that Israel would be forced to concede Palestinian rights? The international movement’s rapid growth has convinced some influential Israelis that it can. Last year, the Reut Institute, a think tank with close ties to the Israeli government, called for an all-out campaign of “sabotage” and “attack” on “delegitimization” of Israel. It especially focused on BDS, and warned that the movement’s “ momentum is gaining.”

In response to the Reut report, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to “combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns.”

And in his May speech to the Israel lobby (AIPAC), President Obama vowed that the U.S. would help Israel fight “delegitimization.”
But he warned nonetheless that “the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.”

Israel’s isolation is growing not only because of BDS, but because of regional developments including the uprising that toppled Egypt’s pro-Israel Mubarak regime, and Turkey’s break with Israel over the Gaza siege and the attack on the Mavi Marmara.

While this might dismay Obama, those who yearn for negotiations leading to peace and justice should do all they can to hasten the erosion of Israel’s power advantage over the Palestinians. After all, as this week’s events demonstrate, Israel only negotiates seriously with the strong.

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The Israeli-public-opinion argument becomes much more problematic for me, however, when a Palestinian argues that Palestinians ought to calibrate their struggle to conform to “reality”. The argument is analogous to South Africans deliberating on the impossibility of their course because white public opinion was overwhelmingly in opposition.

No. The sensible thing for Palestinians to do is to doggedly pursue justice, irrespective of the opinion of the “average Israeli” – which is just what they are doing. Israeli opinion can be acted upon and aligned with global norms of proper conduct over time, but only through the pressure applied by Palestinian agency and struggle. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is one example of that agency today.

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This confirms the judgment of independent analysts like myself and Israeli bloggers like Idan Landau, that the Israeli government lied when it claimed the Popular Resistance Committees were behind the attack and when it launched a targeted killing campaign against the PRC. Israel’s post-Eilat Gaza assault was a bluff, an attempt to mollify Israeli public opinion because Israel couldn’t or wouldn’t attack the real originators of the attack whether they were in Sinai or Teheran.

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