10 years of BDS

July 9, 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of the call by Palestinian civil society for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, until it complies with international law and human rights. A truly global movement has emerged in response to this call. Anticipating this 10th anniversary, Article 1 Collective’s Mieke Zagt interviews Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement.

Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement.

MZ:  How BDS got started?

Omar: When one goes back to the recorded archives of the boycott movement in Arabic, there were several moments that led to the ultimate birth of the BDS Call of 2005. The BDS call is rooted in decades of Palestinian non-violent popular resistance. We did not invent the wheel with BDS, but we culminated something which had been going on for years and we reached a qualitative stage in 2004, with the PACBI Call, and in 2005, with the more general BDS Call.

Boycotts have been used by Palestinians as a form of resistance to oppression throughout our history. It goes back to the first phase of Zionist settler colonialism under the British Mandate, and  boycott was heavily used during the first Intifada. It is one of the popular tactics of resistance among Palestinians. For example, Emily Jacir, a famous Palestinian artist, started with a few other artists a cultural boycott campaign in 2002, well before PACBI and BDS. Palestinian activists at the University of California, Berkeley led a divestment campaign around the same time. None of these initiatives were, or claimed to be, consensus oriented nor sustainable, however, as they were initiatives of individuals or small groups. But they paved the way for the BDS movement which is today a global movement led by the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society.

A very important stepping stone was the United Nations anti Racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The official UN forum refused to condemn Israel as an Apartheid state, but the NGO forum called Israel an Apartheid state and called for a boycott, as was done against South Africa under apartheid. In Durban, the first national forum of this size came together, in which Palestinians from 1948 and from the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinians from exile participated. The Palestinian delegation was united. Durban was an important trigger for BDS.

In 2003, Steven and Hilary Rose, from Britain, started a campaign to pressure the EU to impose a moratorium on academic collaboration with Israel because of the Jenin massacre. When they collected enough signatures, they published a statement in the Guardian. This was another stepping stone that triggered PACBI. After the British move, and in response to rising support for the boycott among Palestinians, Palestinian academics, artists and intellectuals came together and launched PACBI in 2004. Main civil society organizations supported the PACBI call.

PACBI became a cornerstone for the BDS movement, particularly its comprehensive rights-based approach, including the right to self-determination, which refers to all Palestinians including those in exile.

During that time, the Palestinian Non Governmental Organisations network organised a workshop with two anti-apartheid activists: one from South Africa and one from the Netherlands. I jumped to participate in this workshop of course. We needed to learn a lot from the South African experience, about organising and the nuance that is not necessarily in the literature. I participated and, until now, 10 years later, I still remember particular advice and challenges that was raised then.

For example, I remember what Adri Nieuwhof said. She said that one important thing she learned from South Africa is to celebrate victories, no matter how small, because they raise the morale and de-moralise the enemy. Celebration gives positive energy. She also said that Palestinians were often too serious, which is so true.

We were suffering from the Jenin massacre, the re-occupation of main cities and massive destruction by the occupation army of infrastructure. It was a horrible time. Many Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory were desperate and fell into victimness. They spoke like victims and acted like victims. They needed hope and needed to achieve real victories to celebrate them.

Bangani Ngeleza shed a lot of light on how the South African call for boycott could not have spread without a unified leadership. The South African United Democratic Front paid a lot of efforts to create a centralised leadership. Without this consensus oriented body that speaks to internationals with authority, there will be a thousand movements out there which will never have an impact.

They both said great things. I cannot remember everything, but these two points stayed with me.

MZ: How do you look at the future? Is BDS enough?

Omar: I am not good in prophecy. But no, BDS is not enough. BDS is just one part of the strategy of resisting Israel’s entrenched regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid. The rest of the strategy is missing, and we know BDS is not enough. The BDS movement, although it represents a majority of the Palestinians, is not the political representation of the Palestinians. Outside the human rights mandate of the call and the three basic rights that almost everyone supports, it does not unify the Palestinians on a political program.

The agricultural call for boycott was one of those important moments in which all Palestinian farmers’ unions and agricultural organisations got together and agreed on a unified campaign with clear goals but with enough tactical flexibility. We suggested a menu of tactics in this BDS campaign. Partners who cannot go as far as we do, may pick and choose from the BDS menu. Everybody can do as much they can, practically, while recognizing our basic rights under international law. Our rights under international law are not negotiable, but BDS tactics to achieve them must be nuanced and context sensitive. Mainstreaming BDS is key to its success. This means tactical alliances with groups that may not necessarily adopt our tactics, so long as they do not undermine our basic rights.

Another important element of the strategy, next to the military embargo, is isolating Israeli banks due to their deep involvement in Israel’s regime of oppression and human rights violations. Israeli banks finance the regime of colonisation and apartheid. In every major economy, banks play a fundamental role. Israeli banks are strong and extremely influential.

As we see from the excellent Who Profits report on the Israeli banks, the complicity is very deep.  BDS activism in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway led to divestment from the Israeli banks. Beginning 2014 the Luxembourg Pension fund withdrew from Israeli banks and several companies, and the Dutch pension fund PFZW divested from 5 Israeli banks. Then Danske Bank cut relations with Hapoalim. This is a tipping point, because these conservative institutions understand that investing in Israeli banks and companies that are complicit in human rights violations contradict their commitment to ethical and social responsibility.

Divesting from the banks looked like a dream. Without the research we could not have done it, but the report per se does not have legs: it is activism that has the legs. Some produce the accurate, well-referenced information that is used by others to convince the mass public of the complicity of these institutions and as a result mobilize mass pressure on them. So, this international partnership of BDS activists and supporters – Palestinians, Israelis, Dutch, Danish, Norwegians and so on – that created the victory. Some wondered how a victory as massive as the PFZW divestment from Israeli banks could happen “all of a sudden.” To us it was certainly not sudden. We built it slowly. It did not come out of nowhere. Well coordinated activism based upon good research plus a far right wing government in Israel makes support for Israel difficult. It is all about planting seeds and patiently nourishing them until they grow into trees and blossom. You cannot harvest if you do not start with planting seeds.

The settlements are just the manifestation of the crime of apartheid and colonisation. The banks and the companies which give assistance to the entire Israeli regime of oppression are just as criminal as the regime itself.