Why does Israel fear the BDS movement so much?
The growing boycott, divest, and sanction effort around the world continues to resist international pressure from Israel.
New York City – Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seemed to confirm a long-held suspicion among many long-time observers: The United States is not interested in a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli impasse that adheres to international law, instead supporting Israeli demands to annex more Palestinian land and create an ethnonationalist state with as few Palestinians as possible.
Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to be forcibly removed from their homes in East Jerusalem to create “facts on the ground” that serve as Israeli talking points for why Jerusalem is already Israel’s de facto capital.
With both Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley displaying just how far they are willing to bully other nations into falling in line, ordinary activists are left to contemplate how they can force Israel’s hand to abide by international law.
Here is where the BDS movement comes in. It was launched in 2005 by more than 250 Palestinian civil society organisations calling for the international community to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. The movement’s founders closely studied the Boycott Apartheid South Africa movement that was launched in the 1950s and gained traction in the ’80s.
While that movement grew for 30 years before reaching global prominence, BDS for Palestine has significantly affected the global conversation on Israel’s occupation in just 12 years.
Its success is partly due to a focus on tactics rather than a clear-cut “solution”, giving ordinary citizens of any country the ability to participate without trapping themselves within the parameters of the media’s controlled discourse of “the peace process”.
This is not to suggest the BDS movement does not have broad goals. Its three demands are an end to the occupation of Palestine, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees to their homes.
In contrast to the endless, abstract debates of one-state versus two-state solutions, the BDS movement highlights the most pressing reality of the conflict: the suffering of a population at the hands of a government intent on denying them rights on the basis of their ethnicity.
This emphasis on Palestinian human rights has allowed the movement to build alliances with local movements across the world.
There are prominent examples, such as the alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, but also many others worldwide.
In Rio de Janeiro, I saw local BDS activists team up with a movement from Brazil‘s favelas to protest the use of the caveirao, an armoured military vehicle that Brazilian police special forces use when entering impoverished neighbourhoods.
Dozens of young children, residents of the favelas, were killed by these vehicles, which are imported from Israel. In fact, these elite security forces, which have been linked to civilian deaths among Brazil’s lower class in the favelas, are often trained in Israel.
Activists have pointed out that police forces in several other countries, such as the US and Argentina, accused of using excessive force, have also trained in Israel.
They have also exposed records of Israeli arms sales to Myanmar, a country accused of crimes amounting to genocide, as well as South Sudan, India, and other states accused of atrocities against their populations.
These connections have convinced local activists of the connectedness of their struggle with the Palestinians. This has, in turn, had the effect of making Palestine a mainstream, progressive issue – at least in Western countries.
However, the ascendancy of Palestine as a prominent issue has come as the result of years of small victories and some lost battles.
In 2017, the popular UK band Radiohead insisted on performing in Tel Aviv despite calls for a boycott. The performance was labelled by the media to be “controversial”, not only because of the expected protest among pro-Palestine activists, but also because of the outcry among other communities of progressive artists – showing that support for Palestinian rights is no longer the fringe position it once seemed to be.
To be sure, there remain tremendous battles along the way for this movement, particularly when it comes to the Israel lobby in the US, which has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting BDS on college campuses, while trying to outlaw it both nationally and on a local level.
In 2017, the lobby was even able to make relief efforts for some victims of Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas, conditional upon an agreement that they do not support BDS.
However, these efforts empowered the local movement, offering it even more publicity. Whereas the chances of a city in Texas hearing about BDS would have been minimal before, the move brought national media attention and controversy, forcing Dickinson to remove the requirement for hurricane relief aid.
The challenges along the way for the growing BDS movement are many. Although some consider its decentralisation a strength, the movement lacks charismatic leadership, proper funding, and organisation required to mount a significant challenge to the powerful Israeli economy.
As right-wing ideologies and neoliberal policies ascendant in many countries push them into further military and economic alliances with Israel, the future of the BDS movement is at once full of formidable challenges and unparalleled opportunity.