Just over a decade ago, there was no such thing as “BDS”. Many Palestinians and their allies have, of course, urged a boycott of Israel for decades. However, it is the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, launched 10 years ago today, that has proved to be a game-changer.
In the last few months alone, there have been a number of successes for BDS, and further indications of Israel’s deteriorating international image. In April, for example, French multinational Veolia completed the sale of its water, waste, and energy activities in Israel, following a global campaign against the company’s role in illegal Israeli settlements.
Cosmetics company Ahava is reportedly planning to relocate its factory from a settlement in the Occupied West Bank – last year, fellow BDS campaign-target SodaStream made the decision to move inside the pre-1967 lines. Meanwhile, for all of the public brouhaha and recriminations, Orange has confirmed it will cut ties with its Israeli brand licensee.
In the cultural arena, Lauryn Hill has cancelled a planned concert in Israel, Tom Morello indicated his backing of the boycott, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore confirmed that a previous gig cancellation was due to his support for BDS. In February, more than 600 artists and cultural workers announced their support for the boycott in a letter to The Guardian.
Then there was the UK National Union of Students’ vote to reaffirm its support for BDS, British trade union UNISON launching a campaign to lobby pension funds to divest from companies supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the United Church of Christ’s 508-124 vote to boycott and divest from companies profiting from Israeli occupation.
In Israel, this has prompted an unprecedented level of anxiety about BDS, including warnings by university heads’, condemnation by Netanyahu, and the decision to include an anti-BDS remit as part of Gilad Erdan‘s ministerial responsibilities. Abroad, Israel’s friends have also swung into action, through initiatives such as Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson’s fundraising anti-BDS “summit“.
Yet Israel’s political leaders are unable to deal with the boycott challenge. The Right hypes the threat of BDS and blames antisemitism, while centrists point to the lack of a political process but offer no viable alternative – certainly not one that grants Palestinians their most basic of rights.
Tens of millions of dollars have, and will be, spent on trying to 'rebrand' Israel, and undermine and attack Palestine solidarity activism.
BDS’s strengths are clear. It has provided a unifying focus for Palestinian activists, and their allies, in a time of division and cynicism at the level of national leadership and representation. This is not just a question of its merit as a tactic; it is also due to its emphasis on the rights of all Palestinians: those in the West Bank and Gaza, those with Israeli citizenship, and the refugee diaspora.
With its three-pronged call, BDS is also playing a significant role in shaping a more holistic discourse on the question of Palestine. Emerging, then gathering momentum, in the last gasps of the Oslo era, the politics of the BDS campaign is an important departure from the reduction of the Palestinian struggle to Bantustan border negotiations and illusory “state building”.
Its strategic sense is obvious: in a profoundly asymmetrical, anti-colonial struggle, the Palestinians need leverage, and a means of applying pressure.
Israel, for its part, is vulnerable both practically and psychologically to international isolation and censure. The emphasis on rights gives global activists a message which resonates with many, including opinion-formers amongst NGOs, trade unions, faith groups, students, and others.
The boycott is, ultimately, simply a tactic, not a political programme. In isolation, it cannot – and is not intended to – achieve the Palestinian people’s goals (though it can make a significant contribution towards realising them). BDS is a long-term campaign whose impact will grow along a trajectory of localised, as well as larger-scale, victories.
The reasons for BDS’ growth lie not just in its strengths as a grassroots, pro-active, and flexible campaign. Significant factors also include the lack of progress in the official “peace process”, the brutality and bloodshed of three Israeli assaults on Gaza over a six-year period, and an Israeli premier and ministers who have expanded West Bank settlements, advanced hyper-nationalist and discriminatory legislation, and often explicitly rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood.
One of the obstacles holding back the BDS campaign from further, even more substantial, gains is the US-led, international “peace process”. The possibility of a resumption of negotiations is one of the main brakes on the European Union and other state and non-state actors taking punitive measures of substance towards Israel. The final abandonment of this framework, which has only served to deepen occupation and thwart accountability, will boost the BDS campaign.
The second obstacle, partly related to the first, is the splits and stagnation plaguing Palestinian politics, and in particular, the strategies being pursued by Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel may furiously oppose Palestinian Authority (PA) efforts to “internationalise the conflict”, but in reality, the PA is pursuing contradictory initiatives at home and abroad that lack an overarching vision.
The third obstacle is the counter-boycott campaign led by the Israeli government and its friends and lobbyists internationally. Tens of millions of dollars have, and will be, spent on trying to “rebrand” Israel, and undermine and attack Palestine solidarity activism. It is likely, however, that in its desperation to stem the tide, the pro-Israel lobby will score a number of own goals.
BDS is about ending both Israel’s impunity and our complicity. As Haaretz journalist Roy Isacowitz put it recently, “for the occupation to end, Israel’s self-indulgent, apathetic and blinkered middle class needs a profound wake-up call – courtesy of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement”.
Much money, time and effort have been already spent by Israeli think tanks, academics, politicians and lobby groups seeking to thwart BDS. In fact, there is only one, guaranteed way of ending the boycott, as South Africa discovered: grant a colonised people the rights they demand and deserve.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.