On May 15th 2018, Nakba Day, Omar Barghouti delivered a talk in London to an audience at SOAS. The transcript of his talk, ‘Britain, Palestine & BDS: Accountability, Responsibility, and Effective Solidarity’, is below.
Today, Palestinians are not just commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. We are living it.
The latest Israeli massacre in Gaza yesterday takes brutality to a new low. Not only did Israeli snipers implement a premeditated shoot-to-kill-or-maim policy, slaughtering dozens of peaceful Palestinian protestors and injuring more than 2,000, including 200 children, many by explosive bullets. It is a televised massacre, which indicates that Israel’s criminal impunity is at an all-time high.
In parallel to the bloodbath in Gaza, US Administration representatives and fanatic Christian Zionist leaders were gleefully celebrating with Israeli war criminals the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, defying the international consensus that does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the city. This unprecedented level of official US partnership in Israel’s crimes against indigenous people of Palestine will go down in history as an act of mega arson in an already combustible region.
Israel’s 11-year-old siege, which includes counting the per-capita calories that are allowed in to keep Palestinians on the brink of starvation, has reduced Gaza into not just a “prison camp,” as David Cameron once described it, but into a slow-death camp as well, an unlivable territory by 2020, according to the UN.
Israel’s apartheid regime, or what even the US Department of State once characterized as Israel’s “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination” system against its Palestinian citizens, is being enforced by more than sixty five racist laws. Since 2016, Israeli armed forces have been gradually demolishing the Bedouin Palestinian village of Umm al-Hiran in the Naqab (Negev) to build on its ruins a new, Jewish-only settlement, eerily called “Hiran.”
Israel also continues to deny the internationally-recognized rights of Palestinians in exile, predominantly refugees, who account for 50 percent of all Palestinians.
Israel’s land-grabbing construction of illegal settlements and gradual ethnic cleansing, especially in occupied Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley, is accelerating.
Israel’s increasing home demolitions, arrest and torture of children, apartheid walls and watch towers, among other mechanisms of colonial oppression, are designed to make our lives “so bitter” that we would “transfer” ourselves, as one honest Israeli minister has once admitted.
This is what the ongoing Nakba looks like in 2018.
Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid is intent on finishing the job that David Ben Gurion and Zionist militias had started in 1947: the full ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Israel may not get away today with bombing and systematically destroying hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns, as it did seven decades ago, or to commit cold-blooded massacres of the gravity of Deir Yassin and Kafr Qassem. So, to get rid of as many indigenous Palestinians as possible and entrench itself as an exclusionary settler-colony, it perpetrates these crimes incrementally.
With the unparalleled loyalty to its fanatic policies by the Trump White House and US Congress and the shameful complicity of the EU, Israel has become so drunk with power that it is dropping its thin, worn-out mask of democracy, shedding the veneer of accepting even a Palestinian bantustan and cheering Trump’s rise to power as a rare opportunity to bury the Palestinian right to self-determination.
In 1948, when Zionist paramilitaries forced at gunpoint the family of my late grandmother, Rasmiyyah, out of their spacious home in the picturesque city of Safad, the Nakba became personal to my family. Its enduring repercussions have shaped my identity and the identity of millions of other Palestinian descendants of refugees.
The survivors of this Nakba are calling on the UK, the EU and the world at large to uphold their profound moral and legal responsibility to do no harm to us, at the very least.
By continuing their lucrative arms trade with Israel, trading with its illegal settlements and supporting companies that are involved in its settlement enterprise, as defined by the UN, the UK and the EU are violating their legal obligations of non-recognition of and non-assistance to Israel’s grave violations of international law.
The EU and the UK, maintain a web of military relations, weapons research, banking transactions and settlement trade with Israeli companies, banks and institutions that are deeply implicated in human rights violations.
The EU imports goods from Israeli settlements at an estimated annual value of $300 million. Merely labeling some of these illegal products instead of fulfilling the responsibility to ban them is a dereliction of duty.
Beyond responsibility, we are asking for solidarity, not charity. Solidarity is not just a means to level the playing fields with the colonizers; it is an essential source of hope.
Suppressing our hope and colonizing our minds with despair and defeatism, after all, have always been part of the Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine. In 1923, Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote:
“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. […] Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”
A key part of this “iron wall” is searing into our consciousness, the indigenous population, through hegemonic and sustained power, the imperative of submission to Israel’s injustices as fate and the futility of hope in resisting its regime of oppression.
But hope that emanates from effective popular resistance, as we are seeing in Gaza today, is resilient and contagious. Despite decades of dispossession, Palestinians have not given up; we continue to resist oppression and to assert our quest for equal rights to all humans.
This is precisely why Israel is desperately trying to suppress the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a key part of Palestinian popular resistane and the most effective form of international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality. BDS, after all, has not only insisted on the rights of all Palestinians; it has also rekindled Palestinian aspirations for emancipation, justice and peace through its effectiveness in showing a nonviolent yet realistic path to achieving them.
BDS: Nonviolent, Rights-based Approach
Begun in 2005 by the broadest coalition in Palestinian civil society, BDS calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ending its institutionalized system of racial discrimination, which meets the UN definition of apartheid, and upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were uprooted and dispossessed since 1948.
These three basic rights correspond to the three main components of the Palestinian people: those in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (38 percent of the Palestinian people, according to 2014 statistics); Palestinian citizens of Israel (12%), and those in exile (50%). More than two thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.
Most recently, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, despite all its serious problems, has reiterated its support for BDS.
Though launched in 2005, the movement is deeply rooted in decades of Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance to settler-colonialism. It is inspired and strongly influenced by the South African anti-apartheid movement and the US Civil Rights movement.
South Africa’s Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, has recently stated, “Apartheid in South Africa was a picnic compared to what we have seen in the occupied [Palestinian] territories.”
Anchored in the universal principles of human rights, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated BDS movement has consistently and categorically opposed all forms of racism and discrimination, including anti-Black racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. One’s identity, the movement upholds, should never diminish or restrict one’s entitlement to rights. Our movement targets complicity, not identity.
BDS is an inclusive movement that enjoys growing support among diverse communities, including a growing number of anti-colonial Jewish-Israeli BDS supporters, who play a significant role in exposing Israel’s regime of oppression and advocating for isolating it.
Since June 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recognized the strategic impact of the BDS movement, assigning the overall responsibility for fighting it to the newly formed Ministry of Strategic affairs.
Former Israeli Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit admits that BDS has become a “critical” challenge to Israel’s system of injustice, while the former prime minister Ehud Barak admits it is reaching a “tipping point.”
A 2015 Rand study predicted that BDS may cost Israel in the following 10 years up to 2% of its GDP – that is about $60 billion.
Leading global investment funds in Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere have withdrawn their investments from Israeli banks or international corporations because of involvement with Israel’s occupation.
The municipality of Barcelona announced in 2017 measures to end complicity in Israel’s occupation and settlements regime and defended the right to pursue Palestinian rights through BDS tactics. This followed dozens of local councils across the Spanish state that have recently declared themselves “Israeli Apartheid Free Zones.”
City councils in the UK, France, Norway and Northern Ireland have also adopted BDS-related measures, and a few weeks ago, Dublin became the first European capital to fully adopt BDS for Palestinian rights.
In September 2015, Veolia, the French corporate giant, became the first international company to end all its involvement in illegal Israeli operations, following an extensive 7-year BDS campaign that cost it tenders around the world worth over $20 billion. This has triggered a domino effect, with companies like Orange and CRH also pulling out of Israel’s economy in 2016.
Hewlett Packard is facing a snowballing global BDS campaign, with many US churches, Unison and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the UK, among others, announcing themselves HP-free.
Bowing to BDS pressure after suffering what the Financial Times called, “reputational damage,” G4S, the world’s largest private security company, decided to end most of its involvement in illegal Israeli business. G4S had lost contracts in Jordan, Norway, Lebanon, the European Parliament, South Africa, Colombia, among others. G4S remains on top of our target list of corporate criminals, though, for its deep involvement still in training Israeli police, who are notorious for their crimes against Palestinians.
Major international trade union federations, like the Norwegian LO, joined the BDS movement in 2017.
In the first week of 2016, the $20-billion Pension and Health Benefits Fund of the United Methodist Church declared the five largest Israeli banks off limits for investment and divested from the two that it held in its portfolios. Other mainline protestant churches in the US, like the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ, have divested from US and other companies involved in Israel’s occupation.
The second largest Dutch pension management fund, PGGM, had divested in 2014 from the largest five Israeli banks as well, as did in 2017 a Danish state pension fund.
These and many other BDS developments in the economic field could not have transpired without years of academic and cultural boycott initiatives that have revealed Israel’s brand to the world as one of brutal and illegal prolonged occupation and colonial rule and held to account complicit Israel universities and cultural institutions.
Last year, an Israeli daily flashed the title: “And the Oscar Goes To… BDS,” referring to the fact that in 2016, none of the 26 Oscar nominees accepted Israeli propaganda trips, worth $55,000 a piece, after an exceptionally well-publicized BDS campaign.
Joining many prominent performers, Lorde before the end of 2017 cancelled a gig in Tel Aviv, becoming the most famous and courageous artist of her generation to respect the Palestinian cultural boycott picket line.
In response to an ugly smear campaign against her run by Israel lobby figures in the US, over one hundred artists, including Hollywood stars, signed a letter in the Guardian supporting her, thanks to an effort led by Artists for Palestine UK. A Washington Post report on the controversy concluded: “From now on, if it weren’t the case already, merely scheduling a concert date in Israel will be considered a political act.”
More than 1,200 cultural figures in the UK have signed a pledge in support of the cultural boycott of Israel, following similar initiatives in Montreal (Canada), Ireland, the US and South Africa.
In 2017, the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival faced a “wave” of cancellations by international speakers.
Student governments in major universities in the West have voted for various BDS measures, including divestment from companies involved in Israel’s occupation.
Academic associations in the US, including the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, have endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, as did thousands of academics in the Arab Gulf states, Brazil, South Africa, Ireland, the UK, Italy, the US and elsewhere.
In 2013, Stephen Hawking boycotted an Israeli conference, heeding Palestinian and other scientists’ appeals.
It is important to reiterate in this context that the academic and cultural boycott that Palestinians have called for is institutional. It does not target Israeli individuals, but institutions due to their proven complicity in Israel’s violations of international law. BDS, therefore, does not infringe on academic — or artistic — freedom.
Israel’s “most racist government” fuels BDS growth
BDS alone cannot take full credit for the growing academic, cultural and, increasingly, economic isolation of Israel’s regime of oppression, however. Israel’s behavior itself takes a lot of credit for this.
The 2015 election of Israel’s “most racist government” ever has inadvertently amplified support for Palestinian rights and for BDS tactics to attain them. Israel has become more openly associated with the rising far-right, including xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups in the United States and Europe.
Trump has frequently cited Israel’s policies as a model to counter domestic criticism of his racist wall with Mexico, which Netanyahu openly supported, his refugee and Muslim ban, and his support for ethnic profiling.
A leader of the “alt-right,” a major support base for Trump, has even defended the white supremacist movement’s racist nationalism as “a sort of white Zionism.” This unmistakable allusion to Israel’s exclusionary foundations, as a state that privileges Jewish settlers over the indigenous Palestinian population and that treats African asylum seekers as a “cancer,” further exposes the often-obscured contradiction between Zionism and liberal ideals.
As this contradiction becomes more visible, support for holding Israel to account is growing among Jewish American millennials and the broader public. A 2014 poll showed that 46 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish American men under forty support boycotting Israel to end its occupation.
The decision by the Israeli-American megastar Natalie Portman to boycott an Israeli ceremony honoring her protesting Israel’s atrocities in Gaza is a sign of a dramatic shift in younger Jewish-Americans’ views on Israel. Many of them can no longer reconcile their entrenched liberal values with the fanaticism, increasing fundamentalism, militarism and utter criminality of Israel’s regime of oppression today.
A 2016 survey by the Brookings Institution reveals that almost half of all Americans support imposing sanctions or taking tougher measures against Israel to stop its illegal settlements.
Other than passing racist laws in the Israeli parliament at an unprecedented rate and government ministers adopting unabashed far-right racism, Israel’s Chief Rabbi for the Sephardic community has recently called for the ethnic cleansing of “non-Jews” from “the land of Israel.”
Leading Israeli political and military figures are deeply concerned about Israel’s descent into an abyss. Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, said Israel has been “infected with the seeds of fascism,” while the current deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, has compared “revolting trends” in Israeli society to Germany in the 1930s. Lucky for Golan that he is not a member of the British Labour Party, otherwise he would have been thrown out!
As a result of all this, Israel’s popularity is the fourth lowest among many states, as a 2017 BBC poll shows, and it is alienating the liberal mainstream like never before. With 66% of the UK public viewing Israel negatively, how can the Tory government continue to ignore public opinion and maintain its deep complicity in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians?
Israel’s desperate resort to McCarthyism
Having lost most battles against BDS at the grassroots level and recognizing that the movement is giving Palestinians hope, Israel adopted in 2014 a new top-down strategy to replace its previous, unsuccessful strategy of fighting the movement through “branding” and extensive propaganda alone.
Evoking memories of McCarthyism, the new strategy employs legal warfare, espionage and
intensified propaganda to demonize, or even criminalize, BDS advocacy. As a sign of despair in its abortive attempts to quell the spread of BDS, an Israeli government minister has publicly threatened leading BDS human rights defenders with “targeted civil assassination,” while the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs has established what it termed a “tarnishing unit” to smear us.
But Israel’s job is not easy. Drunk with impunity, Israel’s regime is arrogantly trying to delegitimize the boycott, a time-honored nonviolent tactic of resisting injustice, and thus to suppress free speech.
In a major setback for Israel’s legal war on BDS, the European Union, the governments of Sweden, Ireland and Netherlands as well as leading international human and civil rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the American Civil Liberties Union, have all defended the right to boycott Israel as a matter of freedom of speech.
The British government – which is, for some peculiar reason, the most enthusiastic of all western governments in actively fighting BDS — has tried to restrict local councils from observing their legal and ethical obligation to divest from companies involved in Israel’s human rights violations. Thanks to a legal challenge led by Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and its partners, the government’s repressive campaign was at least temporarily halted.
Anyone who has watched the Aljazeera’s four-part documentary, The Lobby, realizes how subversive, corrupting and bullying Israel’s lobbying machine in the UK has been and how it gets away with it. Imagine how the proud British government would react if a Russian intelligence officer in the UK were the one to threaten to “take down” one of its ministers, as a senior Israeli embassy officer in London has done!
According to a recent Israeli media report, Israel has secretly hired a large Chicago-based law firm to help it silence BDS activists in North America, Europe and beyond. Eitay Mack, the Israeli lawyer at the center of this revelation, told the paper that Israel may be crossing “criminal lines.”
Intersectional, cross-movement struggle
Equality is the key to rights, the BDS movement believes, and is therefore the sine qua non for a just and lasting peace. The most profound human right is the right to have equal rights irrespective of identity, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
BDS strengthens the organic intersectionality between the Palestinian struggle for justice and justice movements around the world. It draws a lot of inspiration from the growing bonds of mutual solidarity with movements defending the rights of refugees, immigrants, women, workers, Muslims, indigenous nations, the LGBTQI communities and Blacks.
In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives in the US adopted BDS in its platform, while a 2015 Black for Palestine solidarity statement, that was issued by one thousand Black figures and activists and endorsed BDS, highlighted the connections between the two struggles saying:
“We recognize the racism that characterizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is also directed against others in the region, including intolerance, police brutality, and violence against Israel’s African population. Israeli officials call asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea ‘infiltrators’ and detain them in the desert, while the state has sterilized Ethiopian Israelis without their knowledge or consent. These issues call for unified action against anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and Zionism.”
Our oppressors are more united than ever, and our oppressions are more intersectional than ever. It is high time for all of us to explore the intersectionality of our resistance. Divided, we fail; united, we prevail.
What the UK can/should do
Ending Balfour’s colonial legacy demands putting an end to the deep and ongoing British complicity in maintaining and entrenching Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid. Minimally, this entails pressuring the British government to stop military trade with Israel, as called for by Amnesty International, and ban the products of all companies that are complicit in Israel’s settlement enterprise and included in the about-to-be-published UN Human Rights Council list.
To end UK complicity, student and faculty pressure on universities is needed to end their links, especially their joint military and “security” research, with Israeli universities, and cultural activists are called upon to pressure cultural institutions, writers and artists to stop art-washing Israel’s occupation and apartheid.
Pressure is needed on city councils, churches, universities, etc., to adopt ethical procurement and investment guidelines that exclude the companies involved in serious human rights violations or grave misconduct. Can we hope to see the University of Oxford or SOAS HP-free soon?
All this demands growing our movement and multiplying its impact. To do that, we must defend it against the draconian and McCarthyite attempts by Israel and its unhinged lobby in the UK and elsewhere to criminalize it or chill support for it, while avoiding the trap of adopting a merely defensive mode. The best defense is to keep organizing and advancing our strategic BDS campaigns, in line with our anti-racist principles, to reach the mainstream, as was done in the movement against apartheid South Africa.
Despite its massive military power, including nuclear weapons, its unmatched influence in the US Congress and the EU, its second-to-none propaganda machine and its patent intimidation of everyone who criticizes its regime of oppression, Israel has failed to defeat or even slow down the impressive growth of BDS. No repression and no iron – or concrete – walls can extinguish the flames of well-founded hope.
I have promised my late grandmother to keep hope alive and to never give up my modest contribution to this noble liberation struggle no matter how cruel the repression gets. Her passion for justice and tenacity in resisting oppression have always inspired me profoundly. I shall not break that promise until Palestinians can live in dignity, justice, peace and equality. Your effective, strategic and practical solidarity can bring us closer to that moment.
Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. He is co-recipient of the 2017 Gandhi Peace Award.