MintPress attended a recent panel discussion where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements was a major focus. As one panelist noted: “Such non-violent, humanitarian, human rights-based challenges are too difficult for Israel to combat.”
WASHINGTON — American support for Israel and its denial of Palestinians’ rights is at a tipping point. According to a new poll, 39 percent of Americans think the U.S. should impose sanctions on Israel for building settlements on Palestinian territory.
This radical shift in the discourse over Palestinian rights and Israeli impunity in the American consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for U.S. policy change, explained Phyllis Bennis, author of “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer,” while speaking on a recent panel in Washington, D.C.
“The political environment in which we do our work has changed dramatically,” she told an audience of about 200 people on a chilly Wednesday evening at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, located two blocks away from Congress.
The event, titled “Is the Tide Turning for Equal Rights in Israel/Palestine?,” was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization working toward peace and the recognition of the rights of all Israelis and Palestinians. It is committed to ending the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as a starting point for the peace process.
Bennis asked the audience: “How do we get from changing the discourse to changing policy in a country where our democratic processes are so flawed, so broken, so unaccountable to public opinion that it kind of doesn’t matter very much whether the discourse changes or not?”
The answer to her question lies in civil society and grassroots activism, particularly through support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which the panel was assembled to explain. Speakers included Richard Falk, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Palestine; Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement; Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of JVP; and Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Bennis asserted that because of the concept of American exceptionalism, the U.S. has a particularly important role in influencing worldwide opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Not because of American exceptionalism as those guys talk about it,” she said, “but American exceptionalism in a whole different way, which is the exceptional role U.S. money, our tax dollars, U.S. military, U.S. political, diplomatic, and every other means of support for Israel becomes the enabler of Israeli occupation and apartheid.”
BDS: What is it?
The BDS movement is a non-violent human rights movement aimed at crippling the state of Israel by economic means to force it to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians. It was launched in 2005 by a majority of Palestinian civil society, including Palestinian youth, academics, farmers, women’s unions, and others within Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, as well as those in exile. The concept was adopted from the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s, which culminated in billions of dollars of divestment and helped lead toward the eventual destruction of the Apartheid system.
The BDS movement has no dogma. It is not affiliated with any political party. It is not an ideology.
“It’s neither left, nor [an] intellectual ivory tower” movement, said Omar Barghouti, author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” “It’s as mainstream as it gets in Palestinian society. It’s really a consensus type of movement.”
The movement is undermining Israeli power and the idea of Zionism by hurting the country economically and demanding that Palestinians’ rights be respected through a number of actions, such as ending the 1967 occupation, including the colonies and the apartheid wall; stopping the system of racial discrimination within Israel, which the U.N. defines as an apartheid; and demanding the right of return for refugees and internally displaced peoples, which includes up to 68 percent of Palestinian peoples both at home and in the diaspora, according to Barghouti.
The right of return is one of the more controversial aspects of the movement.
Michael Jay Rosenberg, a vocal critic of the Israeli government, has expressed that he does not support BDS because it “is not targeting the occupation per se. Its goal is the end of the State of Israel itself.” He wrote in the Huffington Post that the movement “tries to obfuscate its support for Israel’s destruction” by demanding the right of return, noting that the BDS movement’s founding principles do not mention 1967 and that the movement sees all of Israel as a potential area for Palestinians to return to, including the cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Yet critics of Rosenberg have asserted that he believes in a two-state solution, and that BDS organizers and participants do not.
Lawrence Davidson, author of “Cultural Genocide,” which explores Israeli attacks on Palestinian culture, wrote in Mondoweiss, a news website that covers American foreign policy in the Middle East:
“Most of those who organize and participate in the movement to boycott Israel know that the two-state solution is dead in the water. Even if the present negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry produce some pale imitation of a Palestinian state, it is hard to see it amounting to anything but a Bantustan. The fact is, even now, there is only one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and that is Zionist Israel. Having realized this, the boycotters have two choices: to give up the cause or to pressure for the transformation of Zionist Israel into a democratic, religiously and ethnically egalitarian state – a new Israel. This is what Mr. Rosenberg calls ‘dismantling Israel.’”
Barghouti also disagrees with Rosenberg’s assertion: “The right of return is not an ideological value,” he explained. “It is practical.”
Barghouti further reasoned that a meaningful movement to demand rights for Palestinians could not be effective if it does not account for the majority of Palestinians that have been disenfranchised since the inception of the Israeli state — that includes Palestinians living within the occupied West Bank and Gaza, citizens of Israel, and those living in exile.
BDS: Zionism’s greatest threat
The Israeli government has become increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of the BDS movement in voicing its concerns to its supporters, and it is taking concrete strategic decisions to hobble its spread.
In a recent article in Haaretz, former Director General of Mossad Shabtai Shavit expressed concern about threats against Israel and “the future of the Zionist project.” In particular, the former leader of Israel’s intelligence agency wrote: “The global BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel, which works for Israel’s delegitimization, has grown, and quite a few Jews are members.” The former spy chief professes the belief that the movement threatens the foundations of the Israeli state.
This isn’t the only sign that the Israeli government is concerned about BDS, though. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2014 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he mentioned the movement 17 times. The Israeli government has also shifted the overall responsibility for fighting BDS from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs — the ministry which also tends to the nation-state’s most vital concerns, including the so-called “Iranian threat” and strategic relations with the U.S.
The state of Israel has increased espionage against groups that support BDS, and boosted funding to thwart these groups.
Meanwhile, attempts to create legislation in the U.S. that would authorize U.S. states and local governments to deny funding to companies that support the BDS movement have failed.
“Liberal America got up and said, ‘Enough is enough. We’re against BDS (we know that), but there is a limit. This is freedom of expression, freedom to act, freedom to boycott.’ That’s one of the 1st Amendment rights that Americans have,” Barghouti said while discussing the ways Israel has been attempting to limit the basic constitutional rights of Americans to push back against BDS.
“Despite its massive economic power … and its massive nuclear power, Israel is not designed to face such a challenge, like [the] BDS” movement, said Barghouti. “Such non-violent, humanitarian, human rights-based challenges are too difficult for Israel to combat.”
BDS: Israel’s Achilles’ heel
While BDS has claimed significant successes in areas around the world, including Europe, Canada, Japan, and South Africa, it has recently had remarkable impact in the U.S.
“The United States is the main battleground between the Palestinians and every person of conscience fighting for Palestinian rights and for justice, and everyone who supports a regime of occupation centered on colonialism and apartheid,” said Barghouti.
In June, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from Hewlett-Packard Co., Caterpillar Inc., and Motorola Solutions in protest of the companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
The Presbyterian overture read: “This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
While the decision was an overt act of divestment inspired by BDS, the church did not want to identify itself directly with the movement, which symbolizes the impact BDS is having around the world and the dangers of supporting it from anti-BDS entities.
Other important American developments include the University of California Los Angeles’ recent decision to divest from companies profiting from the occupation, and the municipality of Durham, North Carolina’s boycott of G4S, a security company that works with the Israeli prison system. Durham’s boycott cost the G4S $1 million.
“We’ve discovered it’s [Israel’s] Achilles’ heel. We know what hurts and we’re doing more of it,” Barghouti asserted.
BDS: Addressing the leadership vacuum
Over the summer, Israel launched a ferocious assault on Gaza, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians — including over 500 children — and 71 Israelis, according the United Nations. The attack was the continuation of a campaign of systemic violence directed against Palestinians since the inception of the Israeli state in 1948.
Following this summer’s attack, Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert, who first entered Gaza to work with the humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s 2008 assault, said, “Israeli impunity is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time.” His statement was brought up by Richard Falk during the panel to illustrate the hypocrisy of U.S. support for Israel and to highlight the role civil society can play in denouncing Israeli violence and supporting Palestinian rights — especially when political parties fail to do so.
Falk explained that BDS is the successor of the powerful anti-Apartheid campaign in South Africa several decades ago.
He told the audience that the BDS movement — a movement started in Palestine by Palestinians like Omar Barghouti — is a kind of “soft power diplomacy” with far-reaching implications that has the power to transform the idea of who leads the Palestinian struggle. It shifts power away from “the discredited leadership in Ramallah, and the very limited appeal of the Hamas leadership in Gaza,” Falk said.
He further explained that BDS represents something new in the political struggle for the rights of Palestinians.
“The real articulation of Palestinian aspirations comes not from these formal leaders but from those who can speak with legitimate authority on behalf of the people of Palestine,” he said.
One of the problems in the struggle for Palestinian rights, he said, is that there is a general sense of a lack of leadership. But that leadership vacuum is being addressed by civil society, including via the BDS movement. “If that culminates in a real change in the balance of forces, it will be seen as a new form of revolutionary politics,” he said.
Falk asserted that he sees this new phase of political activism and civil society leadership as a move toward “a global intifada.” It is without territory and participates on the level of human consciousness “at very deep levels, and that would be a very welcome development,” he concluded.