Against normalizing the abnormal: BDS and the struggle for Palestinian rights World leaders are still fusing and confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to discredit pro-Palestinian activism

It has been 100 years since British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote his notorious letter to Walter Rothschild, declaring that Britain would support the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. On the anniversary of this declaration, which also promised “nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” world leaders are still fusing and confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to discredit pro-Palestinian activism targeting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and systematic oppression of Palestinian rights.

Despite this, there is still some global solidarity with Palestinians and a history of organizing in support of boycotts and sanctions against the state of Israel. When Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev delivered a speech on “Changing political paradigms in the Middle East” to a small audience at the University of Manchester earlier this year, his visit was shrouded in secrecy. Up until he entered the conference room, all the public knew was that the guest would be “a senior Middle East diplomat”— although one officer’s Hebrew-accented English between the third and fourth layer of security checks was a bit of a giveaway. Such secrecy isn’t hard to explain. When news emerged that Regev would give a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London a couple of months later, 40 student societies and 100 SOAS academics signed an open letter in protest and, on the day of the event, hundreds of students came out to demonstrate.

While the principle of free speech is often invoked in the case of Palestine/Israel to allow perspectives from both sides to be heard, it has become increasingly difficult for Israel to spin the reality of its brutal occupation of Palestine — which turned 50 in June. In March this year, for the first time, a United Nations report concluded unequivocally that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. [The] available evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

That the report was quickly disavowed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says more about the impunity Israel enjoys in international circles than about the veracity of its findings. But if governments around the world would rather forget about the Palestinian cause, many people are still mobilizing behind it. At the forefront of this mobilization stands the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was launched in 2005 following a call by Palestinian civil society to:

…International civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. [These] non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.

Anti-normalization and the Arab World

One of the key principles underpinning BDS is anti-normalization, or the rejection of business as usual when dealing with Israel, so long as the status quo is maintained. In other words, anti-normalization opposes normalizing the abnormal reality of occupation, colonization and apartheid in Palestine/Israel.

As is so often the case, Israel’s apologists have deliberately conflated BDS with anti-Semitism. For instance, British MP and chair of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) Joan Ryan declared at the LFI’s 2016 annual event, “We must campaign flat out against the BDS movement and all those who seek to demonize the state of Israel. [To] single out uniquely the world’s only Jewish state and call for it to be boycotted, that is anti-Semitic, and we should say so loudly and clearly.” But BDS has been unequivocal in rejecting accusations of anti-Semitism, as anti-normalization is “entirely based on political, rather than racial, considerations. [As] such, it is categorically unrelated to or conditioned upon the identity of the oppressor.”

In the Arab World, anti-normalization has a long, if chequered, history that goes back to the March 1950 Arab League resolution to expel any member that pursues a separate peace agreement with Israel. This was reiterated at the League’s Khartoum Summit, following the Arab armies’ defeat in the June 1967 War, with the issuing of the Three Nos – no peace, no negotiation and no recognition without full and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Arab and Palestinian lands occupied by force.

At least officially, Arab League members have maintained a boycott of Israeli companies and goods since the country’s founding in 1948, but, according to a 2015 US Congressional Research Service report, this is only “sporadically applied and ambiguously enforced,” so that “its impact [is] difficult to measure.” Moreover, as the “effect of the primary boycott appears limited since intra-regional trade and investment are small, [the] boycott may not currently have an extensive effect on the Israeli economy.”

This is unsurprising, given the growing chasm between the League’s official position and the reality of crumbling Arab unity, epitomized by Egypt’s and Jordan’s separate peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

Beyond the rhetoric, relations between many Arab countries and Israel have warmed over the years, despite the general support for Palestine on the Arab street. In Manchester, Ambassador Regev waxed lyrical about the many “Arab governments across the Gulf and North Africa that are now speaking to Israel due to a convergence of interests.” Although this has been an open secret in the region for years, “these alliances have not only become explicit, but celebrated,” says historian Sherene Seikaly.

In this context, the task of showing solidarity with Palestinians and opposing normalization with Israel has fallen on civil society groups and organizations, with BDS playing an important role. According to a founding member of BDS Egypt, Céline Lebrun, the movement started “at a time when Oslo had obviously failed, and so had the Second Intifada. In the general disarray, and in the midst of Palestinian divisions following Arafat’s death, BDS has come to represent the rebirth of active solidarity with the Palestinian cause, giving activists a way to be on the offensive against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, rather than simply reacting to Israel’s massacres.”

But rather than being perceived as an independent movement, BDS should be seen as a strategy and placed within a history of anti-imperial and leftist politics from the 1950s onwards, stresses Seikaly. “Many Arabs understand their experience with imperialism as a ‘small Palestine’ (Palestine itself) and a ‘large Palestine’ (the broader Arab World). This formula, while at times powerful, has also led to problems. Dismissing this long tradition of organizing and failing to historicize it is a deep mistake,” she says.

In Egypt’s current political climate, BDS is facing difficulties. BDS Egypt co-founder Ramy Shaath explains that, while Palestinian flags, poems and songs were a fixture in Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution, following the 2013 military takeover, the Egyptian government “restored close links to Israel, and the state media started a smear campaign against Palestinians in order to drive a wedge between the Egyptian public and the Palestinian cause.” This has at least partially worked, particularly amid a moment of activism fatigue and heavy repression in the wake of years of upheaval, and a general discourse that paints anyone who departs from the status quo as unpatriotic. “The hopes of the 2011 revolution have been crushed,” says Shaath.“The people are depressed and activists are disengaging.”

Responses to BDS

The presence of BDS has prompted various responses from Israel and its supporters to quash it. A new Israel Anti-Boycott Act was proposed to the US House and Senate earlier this year, in a bid to expand the Export Administration Act of 1979. Drafted in response to the UN’s March 2016 call for a database of companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories, it aims to prohibit US citizens from boycotting “friendly countries,” threatening them with penalties of US$250,000 to $1 million and a possible 20 years in prison. It is highly unlikely it will be passed, as freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment, but the threat could scare some people into self-censorship, which is a far more effective process of normalization.

Capitalizing on the moment, an anonymous anti-boycott group recently published a blacklist of boycott supporters in New York. The website outlawBDS.com features photos, social media links and email addresses of journalists, academics and NGO workers who allegedly support the boycott of the state of Israel. This is not a new move, as 21 US states already have anti-boycott laws and there are a number of websites like this operating with the support of the Israeli government. But administrators of the website have been reportedly emailing individuals and threatening them and their businesses based on anti-boycott legislation that hasn’t been passed, in efforts   reminiscent of the US witch-hunt for communist sympathizers in the 1950s.

In Israel, alongside public denunciations of BDS as an existential threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in June 2015 the establishment of a task force within the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, with a US$25 million budget to coordinate the fight against it. In recent years, Israeli lobbyists have been pushing for legislation to stymie pro-Palestinian activism and counter the rise of BDS, while maintaining in public that it hasn’t achieved its objectives. When asked about it at the Manchester event, Ambassador Regev condemned BDS for adopting “a rejectionist, maximalist position,” while failing to make a dent in Israel’s economy: “Read The Economist, the Israeli economy is growing year on year, the BDS threat is not serious.”

A recent joint report by the Israel-based Reut Institute (RI) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leaked to the Electronic Intifada wonders, how “can it be that the collective investment of the Jewish community in dealing with this challenge [to Israel’s legitimacy] is estimated to be twenty-fold bigger over the past six years, yet results remain elusive?” The report clearly identifies BDS as “the chief effort and strategy of the delegitimization movement,” adding that “[n]otwithstanding the fact that its actual economic impact has been limited if not marginal, its main effect has mainly been in defining the discourse around Israel and mobilizing new supporters.”

If one looks exclusively at the Israeli economy, the figures appear to support Regev’s claims, at least for now. Even if projections from a RAND Corporation report that Israel could lose US$15 billion over a ten-year period due to BDS are correct, it is debatable whether or not this will significantly hurt the country’s economy, whose 2015 GDP narrowly missed the US$300 billion target. But the huge losses incurred by some corporations formerly investing in the Israeli market indicate that, apart from shifting the discourse around Israel as acknowledged in the RI-ADL report, BDS is making it increasingly costly for companies complicit in the violations of Palestinian rights to keep operating in the Israeli market.

Infrastructure giant Veolia suffered losses of close to US$24 billion between 2006 and 2014 due to BDS activism, and capitulated to pressure to divest from Israel after being excluded from contracts worth a further US$2.25 billion in Kuwait. Veolia finally sold its last stakes in an Israeli holding in the second half of 2015. Telecommunications operator Orange exited the Israeli market in 2016 to avoid financial disaster following a six-year combined campaign by BDS groups in France, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, which reached a climax when some of Orange’s 33 million subscribers in Egypt — the company’s largest market — threatened a boycott.

“BDS is expanding across the Arab world within the broader framework of anti-normalization, but with a more action- and target-oriented plan,” says BDS Arab World campaign coordinator Guman Mussa. “Historically, the region engaged in the direct boycott of Israel, whereas now we are targeting international companies investing in Israel due to their involvement in Israel’s violations. Egypt is an asset because of the scale of potential mass mobilization, as with the Orange campaign; the Gulf is important for the amount of foreign investments to target, as with Veolia.”

BDS as a strategy

Despite its achievements, many challenges lie ahead for BDS, as one of its co-founders and most recognizable figures, Omar Barghouti, acknowledged during a 2016 interview with Status Hour. The most obvious difference to the case of the boycott of apartheid South Africa, from which BDS takes inspiration, is the lack of success so far in forcing countries to impose sanctions on Israel.

Placed in historical perspective, however, decades passed before the African National Congress (ANC) could defeat apartheid, and “[i]t took almost 20 years of lobbying before strong punitive measures against South Africa were taken. Developing countries played a crucial role, being the first to impose sanctions against South Africa in the 1960s. The United States and the United Kingdom continued their friendly relations with South Africa for a long time, but ultimately also decided to participate in boycott measures.”

Perhaps the most significant difference is that, while the ANC “considered the boycott a key part of its strategy alongside armed and political struggle,” the Palestinian Authority has maintained at best an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis BDS, while continuing close political and security cooperation with Israel. The deep divisions marring the Palestinian leadership, with Fatah effectively controlling the West Bank and Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip, only compound the problem (many questions remains as to whether the latest reconciliation deal between the two parties will actually be successful).

As BDS expands, so do opportunities for international solidarity that draw a direct link between the Palestinian struggle and other struggles for justice and equality around the world. More than 1,100 black activists signed the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine, while in turn Palestinians expressed solidarity with Native Americans resisting the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, as well as giving advice to protesters in Ferguson on how to deal with the effects of teargas. Behind such statements lies the very real connection between these struggles as anti-colonial movements. Israel — which markets itself as an expert in the field of security and terrorism — has also been training police departments across the United States and in other countries, effectively exporting the lethal tactics used against Palestinians.

But in such international movements for solidarity we must be careful not to erase decades of political organizing on Palestine, says Seikaly. “A mistake activists have commonly made from the outset is to focus on the cause and the land. We need to also see the people.”

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Franco Galdini