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On the psychology of Arab crowds and the ethics of boycott

As someone who fully supports the Palestinian cause, it is challenging to write an article about boycotting Israel for fear of being dragged into the particulars of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In a world that is very much manipulated by biased media, it is hard to resist the urge to first rebut Israel’s nonsensical arguments and list its daily brutalities, beginning with its right to exist as a state. Zionism is, after all, a colonial movement, as per the affirmation of the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, himself.

The legitimacy of Palestinian resistance by all means, including armed struggle, is legally guaranteed by several United Nations Resolutions, but that is not the focus of this article. My arguments are directed at those who have no doubts that the Israeli occupation is illegal and immoral, but question whether the Arab popular boycott is useful for the Palestinian cause.

There are generally two ways to approach the issue of boycotting Israel: One is the method of being drawn into the much larger subject of the historic Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the other is to assess the situation in occupied Palestine exactly as it is today. For most Arabs, it is almost unavoidable to adhere to the first approach and regard the conflict in an inclusive way. This is usually aggravated by the fact that our attitudes in the Arab world toward Israel are usually associated with a political identity. And the problem with embedding our attitudes toward Israel in our political identities is that this is a complex process that can be painful, given that political identities are usually multifaceted.

In most Arab countries, opposition to Israel is still entrenched in the ideologies of the left, and this has been the case since the 1950s. Support for Palestine is mingled with ideologies like Pan-Arabism. The Muslim Brotherhood — and Islamists in general — generally view the liberation of Palestine as a religious duty at its core, and most do not differentiate between this and the ultimate aim of reviving a caliphate. Those who still support Egypt and Jordan’s peace treaties with Israel often consider a balanced approach to be more apt and generally blame both Palestinians and Israelis for the “continued violence,” while adhering to a “my-country-first” approach, along with an entrenched hatred for both Islamists and leftists.

For years, the relative stability of Arab states under various regimes has shielded these groups from one another, but when a vacuum of political power was created following the Arab uprisings, they inevitably clashed. Supporters of Palestine with leftist backgrounds found the Islamist position of claiming to support Palestine while attempting to revive a caliphate incompatible with their principles and had to unite with a larger secular camp, even if it included those who do not care about Palestine. Islamists largely considered the position of the left to be a betrayal of the 2011 revolutions and a step back into the arms of the secular dictatorships overthrown by it. The third group, originally the more lenient towards Israel, eventually thrived with the “my-country-first” approach.

Never failing to associate Hamas with the Islamist camp in general, the third group used the panic created by the rise of the Islamic State to echo the Israeli and Western rhetoric that Islamist insurgency, not Israel, is now the largest existential threat to the Arab world. Furthermore, they highlighted how the left, for some reason now represented by the Syrian government, which always boasted of its hostility towards Israel, has killed many more people in the Syrian Civil War than Israel has in decades, ending their argument by claiming that hostility towards Israel is inherited from leftist dictators who historically misused the Palestinian cause as a national rally to justify internal oppression. Within all this historical hostility between these various political identities, most people have forgotten that support for Palestine should emanate not from our political or sectarian identity, but from our humanity and ethics, and they have ceased to analyze the situation in occupied Palestine as it is today.

The situation today is that Israel is governed by one of the most extremist and militarized regimes in its history, and continues, unabated, in its illegal land grabs in Palestine. The situation today is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has vowed never to remove any “settlements,” and that the Israeli ruling party has voted to formally annex the West Bank. The situation today is that Israel continues to imprison more than two million people in Gaza, living in catastrophic conditions, with the United Nations recently noting that their situation is further deteriorating. The situation today is that Israel still massacres Palestinians when they protest unarmed with indisputable evidence that Israeli military snipers are intentionally targeting unarmed civilians and cheering after killing them. The situation today is that the Supreme Court of Israel has endorsed the criminal conduct of the Israeli military by unanimously refusing to declare as unlawful any regulations that allow Israeli soldiers to open fire at unarmed Palestinians. The situation today is that the death toll of Palestinians in the recent Great March of Return protests has surpassed one hundred, with over 12,000 wounded, most of them condemned to lifelong injuries, as opposed to one Israeli soldier, who was “slightly wounded. The situation today is that some people consider it to be wrong, or even damaging, to defend Palestine on a purely humanitarian or ethical basis and to fail to condemn the atrocities of Arab leftist regimes or Islamists. The situation today is that all humans with a conscience, regardless of their political or sectarian identity, should condemn Israel and exercise whatever is in their power to support Palestinians.

Now that this is established, let us move to the essential question of whether boycotting Israel is actually an effective tool to end, or at least restrain, Israeli aggression. It should be understood that it is in the nature of humans that they rarely tend to make compromises unless it is in their own interests, and that it is in the nature of states that they almost never make compromises without being forced. In 2005, following the Second Intifada, polls indicated that almost 60 percent of Israeli Jews were willing to support withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, while in 2017, only 36 percent were willing to do so. This is highly indicative of the fact that, with the end of large scale armed resistance, the Israeli public has lost its incentive to offer any land compromises and that the aggressive, uncompromising policies adopted by the current Israeli Cabinet are a representation of widespread public opinion in Israel. It is accordingly logical to assume that, without anything compelling Israelis to reconsider the situation, they will continue electing and supporting the right-wing governments that have improved their security, even at the cost of inhumanly treating Palestinians.

To consider the above within the context of examining the argument for popular boycott in the Arab world, it is important to note that recent polls in Israel indicate that normalization with the Arab world is the single incentive Israelis view as being most conducive to peace. As for the claims that it is almost hypocritical for Arab individuals to boycott Israel while their states are increasing normalization, it should be noted that Netanyahu recently stated that the greatest obstacle to “peace” with Palestinians today is not the leaders of Arab states, but “public opinion on the Arab street.” This proves that, even if Arab states are collaborating, popular boycott and public opinion in the Arab world matter, and, while they will not perhaps deter Israel from its crimes, they are at least acting as a restraining force against Israel’s final “peace,” which, according to various indicators, consists of leaving Palestinians with nothing.

Finally, while it is unrealistic to think that Arab popular boycott alone might end Israeli occupation, it is reasonable to hope that an international boycott could. In recent years, global public opinion has swayed in favor of Palestinians, leading to nearly three quarters of Israeli Jews feeling that the “whole world is against them.” The increasing successes of the international boycott movements, if coupled with a solid Arab popular boycott in the future, should definitely create more incentives for Israelis to pursue peace, and could compel them to elect a less extremist cabinet. It is therefore my belief that Arab individuals who choose to normalize with Israel are not only removing the last “most conducive” incentive for Israelis to seriously pursue peace, but should consider themselves as directly liable for the continued suffering of Palestinians.

Note: Image of protesters heading to the Israeli embassy in Cairo, 2011. Courtesy: Wiki Commons, Gigi Ibrahim.

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Mohamed Seif El Nasr