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For human rights advocates, boycotting Israel is a no-brainer

29 July 2011 | The Daily Star, Nadia Hijab

Making the Palestinian case has never been a problem. It is a powerful story grounded in universal principles of human rights and in international law. The question has always been how to shift the balance between one of the strongest military powers in the world and a people struggling with occupation, inequality and exile.

That question began to be answered not long ago. The International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion in 2004, affirming the illegality of Israel’s separation wall and settlements, the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the applicability of international law. The opinion reinforced a Palestinian civil society movement not seen since the Madrid and Oslo processes defused the first intifada.

The 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) marked the first anniversary of the ICJ opinion, becoming another strand in Palestinian nonviolent resistance that included the popular struggle against Israel’s wall in the Palestinian villages directly impacted by its route.

International solidarity activists flocked to both the popular struggle and BDS. However, while it takes time and money to travel to Palestine, anyone can join a boycott or divestment campaign, or lobby for state sanctions wherever they live. This is a strength of the global BDS campaign. Others include the fact that the campaign is Palestinian-led, and those whose rights have been violated are now gradually imposing their agenda on a sterile, U.S.-Israeli led process.

The call spells out Palestinian goals – self-determination, freedom from occupation, justice for Palestinian refugees and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is important because the peace process had reduced Palestinian rights to haggling over land percentages.

The campaign sidesteps the divisive issue of whether the solution to the conflict should be through one state or two. It is rights- rather than solution-based. The call cannot be dismissed as failing to recognize Israel. Indeed, it “invites conscientious Israelis to support this call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.”

All Palestinian factions and representatives of main organizations have joined the BDS National Committee, providing an effective forum for intra-Palestinian coordination when political reconciliation is frozen.

The campaign’s main weakness is that, in their enthusiasm, human rights advocates have tended to make BDS a goal, forgetting that it is a strategy (albeit one of the most effective Palestinian nonviolent strategies). Palestinian BDS coordinators are addressing this issue by better communicating what BDS is for: freedom, justice and equality.

Ironically, Israel has itself been the major driver of BDS. After every Israeli military action – the 2006 and 2008-2009 assaults on Lebanon and Gaza respectively, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara – tens of thousands of people have taken up BDS.

Many of those doing so are Jews. The nationwide U.S. group Jewish Voice for Peace is now leading a campaign calling on TIAA-CREF, one of the largest financial services groups in the United States, to divest from companies supporting Israel’s occupation, such as Veolia, Elbit and Caterpillar. TIAA-CREF moved its July 19 shareholder meeting from New York City to Charlotte to avoid demonstrations. But hundreds of activists followed, pulling media in their wake; others held support actions all over the country.

Through such context-specific actions, BDS is putting a financial price tag on Israel’s occupation. An earlier European-based campaign cost Veolia an estimated $10 billion, forcing it to pull out of Israel’s illegal light rail project. However, the greatest BDS impact is on discourse, helping to expose Israel as an apartheid state that must be held to account. This is particularly important in the U.S., where the discourse had been changing at a glacial pace, and given vast American military and diplomatic support for Israel.

Israel is spending millions to brand itself a progressive oasis of democracy and accuses its opponents of anti-Semitism – a critique countered by the many Jews visibly working for Palestinian rights.

Almost every Israeli action produces the opposite result. The new Knesset law that makes advocacy of boycott a punishable offense has pushed many mainstream Israelis, including Peace Now, into a public though limited call to boycott settlements. U.S. groups that normally defend Israel unreservedly – such as the Anti-Defamation League – have spoken against the bill. Even The New York Times criticized the bill’s assault on democracy and spoke sympathetically of the Palestinian search for ways to “keep their dreams alive.”

At present, Israel wields great power over Palestinian land and lives. By doing so, it is on a fast track to the pariah status last enjoyed by apartheid South Africa. Having almost killed off the two-state solution, Israel has left no option other than the South African model of a secular, democratic state in which all citizens are equal under the law.

Nadia Hijab is director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and a public speaker, writer and commentator. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 29, 2011, on page 7.