BDS - Yes We Can
I have been struggling since I arrived in Palestine to find hope here, particularly in light of the recent Goldstone debacle. However, on October 9, 2009 something happened that set a process into motion whereby a spark of hope was reignited within me. As I made myself a cup of tea and opened up my laptop to read some news, I learned that U.S. President Barack Obama received a Nobel Peace Prize. Taken aback by this surprising development, I contemplated the meaning of the Nobel Committee awarding this prize to Obama.
The Committee said the decision was intended to build momentum behind many of Obama’s initiatives, not the least of which is pushing harder in efforts to help reach a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I thought about this from my veranda, I stared out at a Jewish settlement on the hilltop across the way from my apartment, feeling rather doubtful that the intention behind the prize would make any significant impact here.
The awarding of the prize to Obama has drawn sharp criticism from some because he has yet to produce any tangible result from his rhetoric of change here. Yet, others have spoken out in support of Obama’s selection for the prize, the most captivating of which to me is Obama’s personal friend, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu described Obama’s selection for the prize as “wonderful recognition” of Obama’s efforts to reach out to the [Muslim] Arab world.
I find Tutu’s support of Obama’s selection very generous, particularly because he was himself awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984, not for intentions but for a tangible contribution to the creation of a more peaceful and just world - the active and instrumental role he played in bringing Apartheid to an end in South Africa. This got me thinking about the movement in Palestine that is using similar tactics in trying to end Israeli abuses, which led me to some optimistic conclusions concerning the future for Palestine.
In 2005 a unified call to establish a Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, also known as BDS officially emerged from Palestine, and has been steadily gaining momentum. I have not previously given much attention to BDS, but in light of the stalling of peace talks and deferral of the Goldstone Report, I suddenly realized that those of us who care about justice in Palestine might be wise to give serious consideration to the applicability of the tactics used to end Apartheid in South Africa here. The potential of the Palestinian BDS movement has thus captured my full attention.
The main strategy of the campaign is forcing Israel to comply with International Law and uphold respect for the universal principles of human rights through boycott of, divestment from and sanctions against it. The boycott aspect of the campaign calls on consumers and governments not to purchase Israeli products or do business with Israel, which includes an academic and cultural boycott. The divestment component calls for an end to investments in Israel and companies engaged directly in supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including the construction of settlements and the Wall. The sanctions component calls on governments and institutions to break off or abstain from entering into agreements with Israel until it complies with International Law.
The movement has had many successes thus far, the most recent occurring in early September with Norway’s decision to withdraw investments in the Israeli company Elbit for its participation in construction and maintenance of the Wall. This is the first major action by a western government in response to the BDS campaign. The decision was made through the ethical council of the Norwegian Ministry of Finance, with the council citing sensitivity to human rights as the primary motivation behind the move.
Perhaps it is optimistic of me, but I see a lot of potential in the BDS movement, particularly when it seems there is little else capable of holding Israel accountable for its violations of International Law and Palestinian human rights. I also feel there is a lot of wisdom inherent in the movement. First, it appeals to the moral conscience and the ideals of justice, as evidenced by Norway’s decision to divest. I think this is important because mainstream Western views of Palestine are often so distorted, particularly in American media, that many people simply don’t realize what is going on here. The BDS campaign has the power to expose Israeli injustices to a wider audience, including to Israelis themselves.
Second, the BDS movement speaks in the universal language of economics. Companies will heed the call to divest if they lose their customer base, regardless of the moral imperative to divest. Until there is a heavy economic price for Israel to pay, they have no reason to change the course of their actions. As I looked out again at the settlement on the hilltop across from my apartment, I realized how true this is. What price is Israel really paying for maintaining and expanding the settlements? There is no price at this point, and until there is, I don’t see anything else that could persuade Israel to reconsider its settlement enterprise.
Lastly, the BDS campaign calls for justice first, framing the conflict in terms of colonization, oppression and denial of the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. It seeks peace as the outcome of a liberation struggle whereby injustices are rectified first, rather than seeking peace through a political settlement first. We should all know by now that the latter approach has been ineffective, and I don’t think that will change, despite Obama’s Nobel Prize. If there’s one thing I know for sure, there are no political saviors when it comes to Palestine. So next time I go grocery shopping in Ramallah, I will not purchase any Israeli-made products. It may be a small act, but at least it is a step forward.
Britain Eakin is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.