The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was founded by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. The intervening years have seen BDS develop and gain force in tandem with the emergence of two phenomena that will define the Palestinian fight for freedom for the foreseeable future.
First, the resolution of the conflict will be mediated through grassroots activism rather than through the diplomatic or governmental efforts of political elites. Second, the Palestinian struggle has been internationalised. In other words, the quest for a resolution to the problem of Zionism is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Americans and their client regimes in the Arab world.
Taken together, these structural developments, which both contribute to and are derived from BDS, represent the best chance for delivering freedom in Palestine.
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
Nearly ten years ago more than 170 organisations – representing political parties, trade unions, NGOs and youth and women’s groups – issued a near-unanimous call for boycotts and sanctions in response to deepening Israeli apartheid and occupation in Palestine. Their mobilisation occurred as a direct response to the apparent inability of Palestinian political elites to produce any positive national achievements on their behalf.
Specifically, the Palestinian architects of the BDS movement encouraged solidarity groups around the world to impose boycotts, divest from occupation profiteers and otherwise sanction Israel until the country fulfills and adheres to its responsibilities under international law. The call will remain in effect until Israel ends the occupation, recognises Palestinian-Israeli rights, and finally, enacts and protects the Palestinian right of return as enshrined in UN Resolution 194.
Today, the BDS movement is larger and more vibrant than it’s ever been. That’s particularly true in Western countries like England and Norway, where international law is regarded more highly than in other places. The failure of the “peace process” – whose ostensible objective was to liberate the Palestinians – has driven some of that growth. But so has the intensified savagery of the occupation regime, showcased most recently in Gaza.
Finally, the invigoration and reemergence of Palestinian civil society – which created BDS – has emerged as one of the movement’s main characteristics. The two derive strength and legitimacy from one another to sustain a kind of virtuous circle.
The Palestinian grassroots movement
Before the Oslo Process began in 1993, Palestinian labour unions, cultural organisations, women’s groups and student-led parties all interacted directly with different elements of society to produce a vibrant, genuinely grassroots response to Israeli occupation.
That began to change in 1994 when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created. Civil society was gutted and hollowed as the “interim” PA focused on building “state institutions” in preparation for statehood in 1999. Foreign NGOs flooded the Palestinian Territories and supplanted the local organisations that simply could not compete with the resources afforded by enormous European and US aid budgets.
Over time however, donor aid – both to NGOs and the Palestinian Authority – revealed its pernicious effects to the Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora. The reliance on Western governments meant that beneficiary institutions could not express genuine opposition to Israeli apartheid. Their political horizons were circumscribed by their donors, who simultaneously funded the maintenance of the Israeli regime.
Aid money was variously the cudgel or inducement used to cultivate obeisance among members of the occupied population. As security and humanitarian apparatuses, the PA institutions – which never really developed as independent organs of society – and foreign NGOs were reduced to staggering and lurching from one set of crises to the next. They lacked the tools and the political prerogative required for generating and enacting real theories of liberation and change.
In that context, Palestinian civil society worked to reclaim its role as the true expression of the collective Palestinian political voice. It began to succeed after the total collapse of the “peace process” in the early 2000s, and the BDS movement is one outcome of that effort.
Internationalisation of the fight for justice
The empowered members of the US political class have opposed Palestinian aspirations and the fulfillment of their rights for at least 70 years. Many in Palestine and the diaspora acknowledged that fact, and during the Cold War they sought unsuccessfully to balance US partiality to Zionism through appeals to the Soviet Union.
The period after 1991 was notable for the Americans’ emergence as the sole arbiter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, Washington never claimed any real measure of credibility among the Palestinians, a dynamic that was reinforced by the Americans’ extreme indulgence of Israeli apartheid. Yet the Palestinian counterparts to the Oslo process only learned of their entrapment when it was too late. They had arrived in Ramallah on the force of US guarantees; their deference had already been paid for.
The case was different among the Palestinian grassroots. By never having indulged at the trough of Western aid, Palestinian civil society insulated itself from the lack of recourse that afflicted the PA. The freedom to choose how to conduct the anti-apartheid struggle resulted in direct appeals to people of conscience and civil society in other countries, particularly those whose governments provide aid to Israel.
The direct appeal to citizens of other countries has come at a time when self-inflicted injuries and unforeseeable developments have undermined US influence in the Middle East. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran each have demonstrated the waning power of US force and diplomacy to shape the region. Tel Aviv too has asserted its independence from the White House, if not from Capitol Hill. Yet it would be wrong to claim that US’ diminished regional stature triggered the internationalisation of the conflict – it has only contributed to the strategy’s success.
Israel has attempted to undermine the development of a broad-based decentralised movement for justice in clumsy, heavy-handed ways. Officials began by claiming that the BDS movement was essentially anti-Semitic, a charge that failed to convince more than a few sympathetic Zionists.
Over time, networks of closely monitored and well-funded hasbara groups were also developed. Young people are now employed by the Israeli state to act as social media “activists“. Similar programmes provide fellowships to spokespeople for Israel on college campuses across the US. Other attempts, like tacky and sleazy marketing videos, have misfired entirely.
The Israeli government effort is a well-coordinated one, but it will not succeed. It is driven by top-down processes and an excessive reliance on monetary compensation as a means of motivating Zionist partisans. It is also a campaign that relies on a fundamental belief in the power of marketing and deception – two things that are difficult to produce in an instant-media environment.
The activities of a broad coalition of self-funded and self-directed activists from diverse societies are what drive BDS. The movement draws strength precisely through its diffuse organisational structure and its simultaneous adherence to universal values, which resonate from Barcelona to Oakland and Cape Town.
Countries whose diplomats have only contributed peripherally to the “peace process” have seen their grassroots activists take a leading role in the fight against apartheid. The conflict has been internationalised; US politicians are less and less capable of protecting Israel from the consequences of its actions. And the rest of the world is capable of extracting more.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books 2012) and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com.
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