Knowing the Terrain
BDS in the Wake of the Gaza Onslaught
In a cartoon by Brazillian artist Carlos Latuff an Israeli Apache helicopter fires a rocket directly at a Palestinian child. Wearing a kaffaiyah and holding a teddy bear, the child stands alone, the word “Gaza” narrowing at his bare feet. A concrete wall with watchtowers marks the horizon, and the Israeli attack chopper dominates a blood red sky. Used to promote this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week, Latuff’s cartoon captures the political and humanitarian realities of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” the most destructive and violent act of military aggression Israel has carried out against Palestinians since the Second Intifada.
The 22-day onslaught in Gaza raised the international profile of the plight of the Palestinian people and inspired a massive outburst of global solidarity. Millions of people around the world expressed their outrage through mass demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, writing campaigns, media statements, and various other actions.1 In many places, the size and composition of the demonstrations helped to place the 61-year Palestinian struggle for self-determination at the forefront of broader anti-war mobilizations.
Renewed attention to the conflict compelled a growing number of individuals and groups to join the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, a campaign launched in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organizations.2 Many of these newly activated individuals and groups specifically cited the Gaza massacre as their motivation for joining the campaign and openly condemned the operation for what it was: a war crime. With this unprecedented global response to the massacres in Gaza, solidarity activists must consider how to respond to situations in which massacres halfway around the world become the focus of political and social attention “at home.”
There’s no doubt that the horror of the Gaza onslaught created new openings for organizing. Prominent individuals and groups were compelled to affirm their support for the Palestinian struggle, and movement newcomers were able to plug into an existing solidarity movement that has been working closely with Palestinian civil society organizations and community representatives. However, the BDS movement cannot simply be satisfied with increasing its global support base. The movement must maintain its focus on dismantling Zionism by making it difficult and costly for complicit governments and institutions at home to support Israel’s apartheid system.
As part of this focus, solidarity activists must clarify what constitutes effective political support for the Palestinian cause. Developments at home, however significant for the BDS movement, do not necessarily translate into a transformation of the conditions imposed on Palestinians under Israel’s oppressive military system. Solidarity groups should embrace the current global growth in the BDS movement with a sober awareness of the continuing political realities facing Palestinians. Real success means lasting political and social transformation on the ground for Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, inside Israel, and in the refugee camps of the region. Political changes at home that have allowed for the growth of the BDS movement must be nurtured and expanded, but they should not be mistaken for real success.
A “New” Political Reality?
The Gaza war of 2009 marks a bloody new chapter in Palestinian and regional history. In this way, its political and moral effects are comparable to those of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, when the ultra-nationalist Lebanese Phalangist militia slaughtered over 3,000 Palestinian men, women, and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which for three horrifying nights were lit up by flares fired by the surrounding Israeli army.
Prior to the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, the Lebanese people had been fighting a devastating civil war involving many local and global political players and funders. With the Israeli ground and air forces’ invasion, however, Lebanon suffered more death and devastation in three months than it had during the preceding seven years. The Sabra and Shatila massacres that took place under the watchful eye of the Israeli military were a dramatic and terrible reminder of the intersection of internal Lebanese political problems with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This devastating legacy irrevocably exposed the historical and contemporary crisis of Palestinian refugees. Victims of Zionist ethnic cleansing campaigns in 1948, of dehumanizing domestic policies in Lebanon, and of Israel’s military aggression, the plight of Palestinian refugees came to the fore of discourse around the conflict. The larger context of Palestinian expulsion and dispossession was permanently inscribed on the platform of solidarity movements around the world.
Similar to Sabra and Shatila, the latest Gaza onslaught is the product of an intersection of the inter-Palestinian power struggle, the failure of Arab unity, geopolitical conflict with Iran, internal Israeli politics, and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The war has given its devastated survivors a new role and identity on the world stage as engaged actors rather than passive victims on the receiving end of perpetual Israeli aggression. Their narratives, testimonies and documentation of the appalling and illegal conduct of the Israeli army during Operation Cast Lead have shaped new public understanding and discourses about the conflict. As in Latuff’s cartoon, the world’s attention has focused again at the feet of the Palestinian men, women and children trapped in the besieged Strip, showered with missiles and white phosphorous.
It Started in Gaza
A close look at the history of the Palestinian national self-determination movement reveals that the fate of Gaza mirrors the conflict as a whole. The creation of the state of Israel in May 1948 and the subsequent partition of Palestine radically increased the population of Gaza from just below 100,000 to nearly 300,000 people, due to the influx of refugees, most of whom were fleeing Zionist forces that had invaded the Jaffa area and the Negev.3 After 1948, Gaza came under Egyptian rule and Jordan controlled the West Bank, thus marking the beginning of Palestine’s division into two separate territorial entities.
This remained the case until Israel, with French and British cooperation, reoccupied the Strip in the October 1956 Suez War, after which pressure from the United States and the international community soon forced a withdrawal. Gaza was returned to Egypt in 1957, only to be occupied again by Israel in 1967. The bilateral peace agreement brokered between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978 returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. This agreement caused ripples throughout the Middle East, setting a despicable precedent for peace-packages offered to other Arab states: normalize relations with Israel in exchange for the return of occupied or annexed land while sacrificing a just solution for Palestinians.
Although United Nations Resolution 242 called for negotiations leading to Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 war, the resolution has yet to provide tangible results. For 38 years, the military occupation remained unchanged and the Israeli government undertook various measures to strengthen its presence in Gaza, the most disastrous of which was the confiscation of large amounts of land on which to build Jewish-only settlements. The effects of the Israeli occupation – a debilitated economy and a large poverty-stricken refugee population – soon made the Strip a centre of Palestinian political unrest and activism. Gaza was the site of numerous demonstrations, widespread riots, and violent confrontations between the Israeli army and Palestinian resisters. Beginning in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza on December 9, 1987, and quickly spreading to Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian territories, these actions developed into the first Intifada, a historic turning point in the conflict that effectively put the Palestinian struggle on the global political map.
The first Intifada led to the 1993 Oslo Accords and the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Oslo I (which was expanded in 1995 with Oslo II to include additional towns and cities) provided for limited Palestinian self-rule in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Gaza was designated a testing ground for Palestinian self-rule. Despite the presence of PA forces, however, Israel has maintained control over Gaza to this day. Even after implementing its unilateral Disengagement Plan in September 2005, Israel controls air space, entry and exit points for goods and people, territorial waters, maritime access, the population registry, and the tax system.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first announced the unilateral Disengagement Plan in his address to the Fourth Herzliya conference in December 2003, promoting the notion that “separation from the Palestinians was the only solution to preserve a Jewish and democratic Israeli state.” In proposing the unilateral withdrawal and evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza, Sharon stressed that Israel would never cede Jerusalem and the West Bank. Rather than a complete withdrawal from all occupied Palestinian lands, the measure allotted paltry powers to the PA. Praised by the governments of Canada, the US, Europe, and the United Nations, the so-called disengagement allowed Israel to disavow legal and political responsibility for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza, while continuing to exercise exclusive control over the population. In Gaza, the Israeli leadership experimented with continuously expanding and consolidating control, all the while ridding themselves of responsibilities under the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and Hague Regulations concerning occupied territories. Such experimentation will likely be the model for any future “withdrawal” from the Bantustans of the West Bank, as Israel continues to devise means by which to ensure its demographic aims of having a Jewish majority occupy as much Palestinian land as possible.
January 2006 elections confirmed the strength of the Hamas movement in Gaza (where it emerged in 1988), although it also made significant strides in the West Bank. When Israel and Western powers demanded that the newly elected Hamas government renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state, and promise to abide by past peace agreements, its leaders only went as far as withdrawing its call for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, agitating instead for the establishment of “an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem.” The imposition of international sanctions against the Strip followed, along with a suspension of foreign aid to the PA and the transfer of Palestinian taxes, causing unprecedented stagnation within the Palestinian economy, particularly in Gaza. Leaders in Fatah and Hamas turned on each other, and, as attempts at a national unity government stalled, the 2007 “battle of Gaza” ensued. The success of Hamas in securing control of the Strip demonstrates its strength and likely its long-term presence on the political scene. Indeed, March 2008 polls indicated the continued popularity of Hamas with “more respondents naming the administration of Ismail Haniyeh as the legitimate government than that of Fatah’s Salam Fayyad.”4
We cannot underestimate the importance of the Gaza Strip for understanding this conflict. Gaza is the historic site of major political and social turns in the Palestinian national movement, all of which provide observers with insights into the tactics the State of Israel uses to pursue its ideological, territorial, and political interests in the region. A close inspection of the latest onslaught in Gaza provides important insights into recent regional and geopolitical developments.
Operation Cast Lead, launched in Gaza at 11:30 a.m. on December 27, 2008, resulted in massive civilian casualties. The Israeli army used extreme force, shelling densely populated civilian neighborhoods, buildings, media centres, mosques, schools, and UN relief convoys. The casualties reached immense proportions: more than 1,400 people were killed and more than 5,000 were injured in just three weeks. Arabic media operating inside Gaza released sickening images of mass suffering, dismembered bodies, and widespread destruction. Stories rapidly surfaced of entire families buried under the rubble of their bombed houses. Starving children were found sitting next to their dead parents. One-and-a-half million Gazans were held hostage to what John Ging, the head of the United Nation’s Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip, called “a full blown humanitarian crisis.”5 Against the backdrop of a UN-sponsored school in Jabaliya refugee camp that was reduced to flaming rubble, the surrounding streets stained by the blood of at least 42 Palestinians, most of them children, Ging stated: “There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized.”
The global community quickly understood what voices on the ground asserted on the first day of the attacks: there can be no such thing as “surgical operations” in Gaza. In such a congested and densely populated area, civilians are indistinguishable from so-called military targets. Indeed, Hamas’ entire record of damage to Israel is minor when measured against what Israel managed to inflict in the first few minutes of the Gaza blitzkrieg. Millions of outraged people around the world staged actions, issued public statements, launched letter writing campaigns, and signed petitions. They took their disgust with the brutal onslaught to the streets, demanding that their governments exert political pressure on Israel.
International organizations and prominent human rights figures also launched scathing criticisms. During the onslaught, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, accused Israel of violating international law, telling an emergency session of the UN General Assembly in New York that “Gaza is ablaze. It has been turned into a burning hell.”6 Based on preliminary evidence collected after the military invasion, Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian territories, concluded that Israel’s actions “seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law.”7 Most recently, in an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the UN Security Council, leading human rights figures – including Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Goldstone, a former chief prosecutor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda – called for the UN to launch a war crimes inquiry.8
As part of a growing movement, prominent Jewish figures and human rights groups issued profound condemnations. Senior member of the British Parliament’s Labour Party, Gerald Kaufman, and Holocaust survivor and senior academic, Hajo Meyer, compared some Israeli actions to those of the Nazis.9 The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network echoed this comparison on this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. In a letter to The Guardian, renowned Jewish British intellectuals and professionals compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, demanding that their government “withdraw the British ambassador to Israel and, as with apartheid South Africa, embark on a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions.”10
Exposing the Mirage
Deep political and ideological rifts within the Arab world surfaced during the Gaza onslaught. Observers of the incursion witnessed a “battle of summits” between the Qatari-Syrian and Saudi-Egyptian camps, often referred to as an “Arab cold war”. By annoucing their willingness to cut diplomatic and economic relations, the Qatari-Syrian group adopted a stronger ideological stance against the Israeli occupation and recognized the need to address final status issues and include Hamas in political process. In contrast, seeking to secure its own leadership in the Arab world, the Saudi-Egyptian camp opted to micromanage the occupation, neglecting broader political questions and instead focus on rebuilding Gaza on Israeli and American terms. The platform of this so-called moderate Arab camp is well-suited to American and Israeli interests: it seeks to impose limited pressure on Israel while ensuring that Hamas will come to depend on Egypt’s goodwill, thereby distancing Hamas from its Iranian backers. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stated, “whoever wants to contribute and also see the fruits of his contribution will have to pass through Cairo or through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.”
At the same time, Middle Eastern governments of all stripes have banned demonstrations against Israeli actions in Gaza and their security forces have beaten and arrested demonstrators. It is generally acknowledged that the rights to peaceful assembly, dissent, and free expression are severely curtailed in the region: Human Rights Watch reports that Egypt has been under an emergency law for 27 years that allows authorities to prohibit demonstrations; Saudi Arabia has no law regulating assembly and any political demonstrations can be banned by executive orders; while Jordan routinely denies permission for demonstrations that involve criticism of the country’s domestic or foreign policy.11 What is less recognized is that these prohibitions apply even when dissent is directed against Israeli war crimes.
Human Rights Watch reports that on December 30, 2008, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior denied permission to a group of Saudi activists seeking to organize a demonstration against Israel’s attacks. Two days later in Riyadh, authorities arrested two human rights activists who had arrived despite the ban. In the Eastern Province, another Saudi group organized demonstrations against the Gaza blockade on December 19 and against the military operation on December 29. At both actions, Saudi security forces arrested at least 23 people, and continue to detain and torture one of the demonstrators, Kamil al-Ahmad, who refused to sign a pledge not to demonstrate again.12
A similar pattern emerged in Jordan and Egypt. Just over a week into the Gaza onslaught, demonstrators in Jordan (including Al Jazeera Arabic satellite television bureau chief Yasir Abu Hilala) gathered in front of the Israeli embassy and were greeted by riot police, beaten, and arrested. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood reported arrests of almost 900 of its members in connection with demonstrations protesting Israeli actions in Gaza.13 The 15,000 participants in a January 16 demonstration north of Cairo faced police brutality and numerous arrests. Dissenters in Egypt have even been denied the right to criticize Israel online. Egypt has arrested bloggers and activists for expressions of organized solidarity with the people of Gaza. As Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch notes, “Apparently it’s not enough for the Egyptian government to imprison its own critics; it is now intent on silencing Egyptians who criticize Israel as well.”14
Contrary to popular assumptions, similarly repressive tactics have been employed against independent criticism of Israel in the Iranian Republic. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denunciation of Arab passivity in the face of a “rare genocide” echoed on the Arab street, as did demands for economic and diplomatic pressure on Israel as a minimum recourse. Ahmadinejad’s sharp criticisms of the Zionist attacks in Gaza provoked a surge in the popularity of the Iranian leader throughout the Arab world. Indeed, it is pro-Iranian sentiment that has prompted the Arab alliance of so-called “moderates” – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the PA – to toe the line against Hamas. But while the Iranian regime is capable of staunch verbal condemnations of Israeli war crimes, it only tolerates official government-sponsored expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people. For instance, on January 11, Iranian plain-clothes security agents violently dispersed a gathering convened in front of the Palestinian embassy in Tehran. Although the protest, organized by an independent Iranian group called Mothers for Peace, was held to oppose the violence in the Gaza Strip, Iranian security forces beat and arrested numerous demonstrators, imposing restrictions on non-governmental forms of dissent against Israel.15
This pattern of repression reveals that regional governments use criticism of Israel and solidarity with the people of Gaza as political tools to bolster their domestic authority. Existing regimes exploit Gazan suffering to reinforce their own political rule. As a result, only official government-sanctioned demonstrations are tolerated, while the rights of political opponents – even those mirroring the states’ political positions – are brutally denied. Indeed, as Whitson notes, “Middle Eastern regimes are throwing one symbolic shoe at Israel while using the other shoe to strike at domestic dissent.”
Not even the West Bank is immune to this pattern. The Palestinian Authority and Israeli forces collaborated to impose serious restrictions on organized dissent in the West Bank. According to Al Jazeera Arabic, the PA banned pro-Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank shortly after Israel started its attacks on Gaza. PA officials arrested demonstrators in Ramallah for waving Hamas flags, clashed with student protesters at Bir Zeit University, and fired tear gas to disperse large crowds. Meanwhile, the Israeli military in the West Bank injured protesters in violent clashes after banning peaceful demonstrations.16 This repression, part and parcel of the firming up of Israeli support for the Palestinian Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas, successfully delegitimized the Fatah party on the Palestinian street and has turned Abbas into a political corpse. As a result, Fatah’s fate has diverged from that of Hamas; it is no longer the case that Hamas’ loss will necessarily be Fatah’s gain.
Unrelenting American support for Israel is nothing new, and it should come as no surprise that then president-elect Barak Obama was aware and supportive of the Israeli onslaught. In an interview with the French Al-Ahram daily newspaper in late February, US intellectual Noam Chomsky outlined the “premeditated plan” behind the brutal military invasion. Chomsky notes that the plan was to “deliver the maximum blow to Gaza before the new US president took office, so that he could put these matters behind him.” Operation Cast Lead was intended to ease Obama’s pledge to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating a “new security reality” in Gaza, significantly damaging Hamas’ standing army and giving its leadership a clear sense of the threat to their rule. Obama attempted to justify his silence about Israel’s incursion with the claim that “there is only one president at a time,” but, as Chomsky points out, Obama issued statements after the Mumbai bombings and made various moves in the economic sphere while still president-elect. Further, Obama’s repeated assertion that “defending Israel is a US priority” indicates that existing US policy on the Palestinian question will continue.
The stark pro-Israeli outlook of the Canadian government was similarly evident during the attack on Gaza. Hoping to stay silent, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not issue a statement until two-weeks into the launch of the Israeli air and ground attacks. Given the backlash he faced over his previous claim that Israel’s devastating military attack on Lebanon in 2006 was a “measured” response, Harper steered clear of details and merely called for a “durable” ceasefire by both parties. Peter Kent, Canada’s junior foreign affairs minister, was more honest about the government’s position when he placed the burden of responsibility squarely at Hamas’ feet, stating that “Canada has, since the election of this [Hamas] government, been quite clear in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.”17 Although shameful, this should not come as a surprise. Canada’s support of Israel is abundantly clear, particularly in the accelerated integration of Canadian and Israeli security, academic, military, industrial, and corporate establishments in the fields of public safety, riot control, emergency preparedness, homeland security, immigration, trade, aerospace and marine technology, and cyber-based privacy and communications technology.
Whatever integrity the United Nations and its associated institutions still had after the US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq dissolved with the Gaza blitzkrieg. UN General Assembly President Brockmann conveyed his disgust with Israel’s record of violations, noting:
It seems to me ironic that Israel, a State that, more than any other, owes its very existence to a General Assembly resolution, should be so disdainful of United Nations’ resolutions. Prime Minister Olmert’s recent statement disavowing the authority of Security Council Resolution 1860 clearly places Israel as a State in contempt of international law and the United Nations.18
Brockmann also pointed out the dysfunctionality of the United Nations, condemning international complicity in the plight of the Palestinian people:
But there is still another violation – one in which we, as the United Nations, are directly complicit. The blockade of Gaza, which has now been going on for 19 months, has been directly responsible for the widespread humanitarian crisis in Gaza even before the current Israeli assault began…. Yet the blockade has been endorsed, at least tacitly, by powerful parties grouped in the Quartet, placing this Organization in a dubious role and in violation of our obligations under the Charter and international law.
Israel ignored the Security Council’s resolution that called for an immediate, durable, and fully respected ceasefire, and the war on Gaza began as it ended: unilaterally. The high number of Palestinian deaths, vast destruction of infrastructure and residential areas, apparently indiscriminate attacks, and the use of experimental weapons provoked accusations regarding the legality of the military operation. Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has received over 200 appeals from Palestinian, Israeli, and international NGOs urging investigation into the attacks in Gaza.
Israel is now well aware of the legal challenges it faces. In addition to keeping its officers tight-lipped about the details of the onslaught, the Israeli Defense Ministry issued new regulations strengthening censorship rules to prevent more detailed reporting or the disclosure of the identities of officers. As Ha’aretz journalist Yotam Feldman reports, there was an unprecedented level of participation by Israeli experts in international humanitarian law during the Gaza onslaught. Feldman outlines the resolve of the International Law Division of the Israeli Military’s Advocate General’s Office to “adopt the most flexible interpretations of the law in order to justify IDF operations.”
The Gaza operation provoked a growing recognition of the pressing need for reconsideration of existing political approaches to dealing with the Palestinian leadership. The inclusion of Hamas in political and diplomatic venues is necessary for the establishment of parameters of engagement that might allow for a lasting and just solution. The continued isolation of the democratically elected government in Gaza is devastating to Palestinians: it limits efforts at national reconciliation; prevents a unity government between Fatah and Hamas; maintains the existing organized starvation and oppression of the besieged Palestinians; and grants Israel carte blanche in its military and political confrontations with the Hamas government, and by extension, the Gazan population as a whole.
The True Face of Israeli Democracy
The military incursion into Gaza was accompanied by violent crackdowns on Palestinian-Arab dissenters inside Israel. During the war in Gaza, Israeli police arrested 763 demonstrators inside Israel, most of whom were Arab, for what Israeli police spokesperson Mickey Rosenfield called “violent disturbances.” In addition, dozens of Arabs were rounded up to be “warned ahead of time not to cause trouble, and then released.” Recent protests by Arab citizens of Israel have been larger and more frequent, and are quickly and sometimes aggressively broken up.19
Political and legal repression has also intensified. An Israeli Parliamentary Elections Committee moved to disqualify two Arab-led political parties, the Balad Party and the United Arab List, from the national Israeli elections that were held in February. The motion – which was supported by Israeli parties across the political spectrum – sought to charge the two groups with “disloyalty” for their strong criticisms of the war on Gaza under a law passed in 2002 permitting the exclusion of political factions supporting “armed struggle by a terrorist organization or foreign country.”20
Calls for disqualification pointed to the Arab-led parties’ demands that Israel be a “state for all its citizens” rather than a legally inscribed “Jewish state.” The discourse of equal citizenship in a bi-national state is growing in popularity with the Arab community inside Israel. Their unique situation – as citizens of Israel and members of the Palestinian nation – has been largely unaddressed in previous negotiations. The organized sectors of this Palestinian community issued three major documents in 2007 outlining their vision of an equal and bi-national Israeli state: the Haifa Declaration, the Democratic Constitution, and the Future Vision.21 The three documents call for a bi-national Israel, a proposal that translates into an existential nightmare for the majority of the Israeli population. In fact, during her recent election campaign to become Israel’s prime minister, then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would provide “a national solution” that would allow the Israeli establishment to tell the Arab community within Israel that their “national aspirations lie elsewhere.”22
Overall, the war in Gaza remobilized the Arab population inside Israel to a degree not seen since the second Intifada. The political ramifications of the war for this community were so stark that, rather than approaching the Israeli government, groups in the Arab community inside Israel approached the Hamas government to free Palestinian prisoners who are citizens of Israel.23
As it stands, effective solidarity with the Palestinian people must go beyond demands for a temporary ceasefire or a truce between Israel and Hamas. Solidarity work needs to address Israeli war crimes and demand equal citizenship for Arabs in Israel, the right of return for refugees, a lift of the siege on Gaza, and an end to the illegal and brutal military occupation and exploitation of Palestinian lands and labour. Such action requires a determined, organized, and long-term push to put into action the 2005 call for BDS, which outlines Palestinian expectations of international solidarity groups. Palestinian solidarity activists must renew the drive towards the organized isolation of all Israeli institutions, corporations, and government representatives, all of whom are complicit in its apartheid system.
The recent successes of BDS work after the Gaza onslaught have not gone unnoticed by the Israeli government. In response to the growing Palestine solidarity movement, particularly in Canada, the Israeli foreign ministry has introduced its “Brand Israel” campaign, a 10-month-long $4-million initiative launched in Toronto, with political and financial support from established Canadian business and political leaders. The campaign seeks to direct public attention away from Israel’s brutal military occupation and towards its “medical and technological developments… cultural acts and scientific achievements… [and its] film, food and wine festivals featuring Israel-made products.”24 However, the massacres in Gaza during the latest 22-day onslaught make this next to impossible. Unfortunately for its apologists, images of Israel’s organized slaughter of an oppressed people have outraged and mobilized popular forces around the world, foregrounding the Palestinian cause.
The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip has given this movement a powerful motive to redouble its efforts. Dozens of existing BDS efforts have gained momentum and publicity while many new campaigns were set in motion during or immediately after the onslaught. The weak official positions and declarations of governments stood in stark contrast to the outbursts of rage in streets across the globe. However, this recent wave of protests has a particular characteristic differentiating it from past mobilizations: energy and outrage is being channelled into effective grassroots political action, mainly in the form of the ongoing BDS campaign. The tangible advances BDS activism made immediately after the attack on Gaza are a direct result of many years of underacknowledged organizing, networking, and mobilizing initiated after the 2005 call to action. The task for activists now is to channel popular outrage into coordinated, collective action.
Activists should move beyond hand-wringing about the efficacy of BDS and begin to organize and mobilize the growing numbers of individuals and groups who, while outraged and focused on the events in Gaza, have yet to connect with the BDS movement. The world’s explicit focus on the slaughter of people living in a tiny, devastated strip of land halfway across the world provides such an opportunity. In this context, effective solidarity requires that activists identify the connections between massacres overseas, local complicity, and possible opportunities for political change.
21 Haifa Declaration: www.mada-research.org/archive/haifaenglish.pdf, Democratic Constitution: www.adalah.org/eng/constitution.php, and Future Vision Document: www.mossawacenter.org/files/files/File/Reports/2006/future%20Vision%20(English).pdf