Civil society takes the lead on Palestinian rights

The US and Europe are increasingly taking a backseat in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is growing [Reuters]

As the war in Syria rages on and as the security situation in Iraq deteriorates, threatening ever-widening conflict, many might look at the Israeli-Palestinian issue and see an island of relative calm amid a neighbourhood rife with war. But the notion that Israeli-Palestinian dynamics are static could not be further from the truth. In fact, we are witnessing the writing of a very important and transitional chapter in the history of the Palestinian struggle that will be a major departure from recent history and will ultimately shape the future of the people in the land and how others relate to them.

Specifically, there are two important shifts taking place around this issue at the same time. Both, not coincidentally, overlap and support each other. The first is a shift between which actors are taking the global lead in addressing the matter.

This shift is one from states to civil society. For decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and specifically the Palestinian struggle, has been addressed by states or multi-state actors. Either the United States, the Arab states, the United Nations or some combination of those actors has taken the lead directly impacted the issue. Today, states are taking a step back.

The US has long since assumed the role of “mediator” between Israel and Palestine. After 20 plus years of US-led negotiations, most recently culminating in a nine-month intensive effort led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the US has all but given up. Even if it has not officially thrown in the towel, the US has declared to all watching, through its actions (or lack thereof), the limits of its ability to press Israel into changing its destructive behaviour toward Palestinians.

Focus on humanitarian rights 

In the process, civil society has steadily increased its role as the efforts of state actors to create change have come up empty year after year. It is as part of this process that the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, came to be and continues to grow today. Most recently, 17 human rights advocacy organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, wrote to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urging him to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) to bring charges against Israel.

The list of civil society actions to bring pressure to bear on Israel is long and growing; from divestment votes at universities and churches, to grassroot campaigns targeting companies that profit from the human rights abuses of Palestinians. 

The second shift is in the way desired goals are understood. As civil society pushes forward and as states recede, so too does the statist approach focused on partition. Civil society actors are far more inclined to focus on people and their rights rather than borders and the brokering of political power between factions or states.

This shift, from a partition focus to a rights-based focus, is changing the global discussion on Palestine and forcing it to question the reasons why Palestinian rights are denied. For Israel, the main culprit in Palestinian human rights abuse, this is a far more uncomfortable global conversation to hear.

As these shifts continue, one thing remains: the entrenchment of Israeli apartheid through settlement expansion and a wide range of laws that deny Palestinian rights. In the short term, it is unlikely that state-led efforts will restart in earnest. The Obama administration is bogged down and apathetic, and the US will soon enter its hyper-partisan election craze to determine a 2016 successor who, as history has shown, will likely be too timid to address this issue with any seriousness in their first term. Europe, taking its cues from the US, will largely sit on the sidelines. This means it will likely be at least six years before any renewed concerted state-level effort to address the issue takes place.

In the meantime, civil society will continue to fill the gap. Palestinian rights will continue to take centre stage in the discourse. Israel will grow further isolated, as both Israeli settlements and BDS victories pile up.

One way or another, the states will be back. They will have to be either compelled by events spiralling out of control or because the bottom-up activism of civil society has become impossible to ignore.

Whenever that moment comes, the conversation about what a just peace will look like on a map will be very different from where it was when the states receded. That is a very good thing, especially if it has human rights at the centre of it.

Until then, those looking to take action for justice in Palestine need not look to an address on Pennsylvania Avenue; rather, look in the mirror and ask how you and any institutions you are involved in can boycott, divest from, or sanction Israeli apartheid.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational programme, The Palestine Center. Prior to joining the Palestine Center, he served as a Policy Analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest Arab American membership organisation.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefMunayyer