A divestment movement for the 21st century

August 31, 2010

Sherry Wolf explains why Palestinians need an international campaign of solidarity--modeled on the movement against South African apartheid--in their struggle for justice.

IMPRISONED BEHIND hundreds of miles of border walls, subjected to indiscriminate killings, deprived of adequate food and water, prevented from earning a living, demonized as terrorists, and left to stew in a soup of filth and rubble, Palestinians are asking for our help.

Five years ago, 170 Palestinian civil society organizations put out a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its defiance of international law. Israel's continued building of barrier walls and checkpoints that prevent anything like normal life for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was the inspiration for the initiative. Since then, the urgency for an international BDS campaign has only grown.

For three weeks in the winter of 2008-09, Israel used one of the most deadly arsenals in the world on Gaza, leaving 1,400 or so Palestinians dead, and the surviving population of 1.5 million trapped behind walls of concrete and high-tech surveillance equipment. The Gaza massacre, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was followed by the reimposition of Israel's cruel war of immiseration that prevents the free flow of goods, services and human beings in and out of Gaza--a siege that never ends.

Students in New York take part in a global day of action for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid
Students in New York take part in a global day of action for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid

Three months ago, international outrage and protests against the killing of nine humanitarian aid activists by Israeli commandos who attacked a flotilla in international waters off Gaza compelled the Israeli state to slightly ease sanctions on some consumer goods entering Gaza. However, the continued ban on basic materials, including concrete, steel and piping, ensures that thousands of Gazans will remain homeless while much of the territory's infrastructure lies in ruins.

A United Nations report released in May concludes that 61 percent of Gaza's population is "food insecure" and 38.6 percent is formally unemployed. The Electronic Intifada Web site reports that the increase in truckloads of consumer goods allowed into Gaza in recent weeks a thimble-full in an ocean of need.

"Our position is that the blockade in terms of air, sea and land should be lifted, and this position has not changed," says Maxwell Gaylard, UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He explained, "As for housing, schools, sanitation and water, we are talking about tens and tens of thousands of truckloads."

Israel justifies its blockade by turning the blame on the democratically elected leadership of Gaza: Hamas, the Islamist party that international election observers agree legitimately swept to victory in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006.

The years-long attempt by Israel to impose a more pliable leadership on the territory through collective punishment of its civilian population amounts to a gross violation of international law--to say nothing of its affront to every humane moral code.

IT'S EVIDENT that Gazans are unlikely to get relief from their suffering without the participation of international solidarity activists in the BDS campaign. Denied jobs, sufficient food, water and medicine--among so much more--Palestinians cannot succeed without international solidarity activists educating and mobilizing others, and exposing Israel's crimes.

The BDS movement unapologetically takes its inspiration from the international campaign that helped Black South Africans in their struggle to end apartheid. The BDS call concludes:

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These nonviolent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The BDS campaign proposes a multi-pronged approach, including a boycott of many consumer goods and of Israeli academic and cultural institutions; divestment from apartheid Israel and those corporations, such as Caterpillar, that aid in the occupation; and economic sanctions that would render Israel a pariah state in global markets and technology and research sectors. More information about the campaign can be found at the Global BDS Movement Web site.

AS WITH the South African anti-apartheid movement, which was launched in the 1960s and exploded on campuses across the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, activists must seek to broaden the movement beyond the small core of current active participants.

Given the steady stream of corporate media- and Israeli state-sponsored lies about Palestine, the first task is to challenge the falsehoods and educate people about the conditions in Gaza and the decades-long assault on the Palestinian people.

Tragically, it was the flotilla attack in late May that seems to have opened many people's eyes to the Gaza tragedy and the injustice of Israel's occupation, leading to questions about U.S. support for Israel.

A poll this August by the Israel Project, which supports the apartheid state, shows that 51 percent of Americans believe the "U.S. needs to support Israel," down from 63 percent a year ago. Importantly--as the latest round of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians gets underway--only 46 percent of those polled think the Israeli state under arch-conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "committed to peace," down from 66 percent three years ago.

Defenders of the Israeli state have always attempted to drown any criticism of Zionism in the murky claim that a defense of Palestinian rights is anti-Semitic. But even this insulting smear--often directed at Jews who reject Israel's war crimes and ethnic cleansing--is losing its punch, as more and more Jews come to reject barbarism carried out in our names.

Peter Beinart's widely cited article in the New York Review of Books is spot-on: "For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism's door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."

The poll numbers and retreat from unquestioning support for Israel is reflected in a broadening movement.

Not only have musicians like Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron respected the cultural boycott, but labor unions from Sweden to the Port of Oakland are refusing to handle Israeli goods. Hundreds turned out in June to hear flotilla massacre survivors speak in New York and Chicago, and more than 400 packed onto a boat ride around Manhattan in early August to raise $50,000 to help fund a planned U.S. aid ship--named The Audacity of Hope--to Gaza.

Crucially, BDS groups have won divestment campaigns at Evergreen State College and Hampshire College, and a nationally publicized battle at the University of California at Berkeley lost by only one vote in the student senate, encouraging many to fight on.

We are still in the early stages of the BDS movement. Given the heavily financed propaganda campaigns by Israel and its defenders, activists must take seriously countering the myths surrounding Palestine, and not narrow our audience to only those who are fluent in the debates and history. BDS activists are more likely to succeed in mobilizing mass solidarity for Palestine if we patiently discuss questions and confusions, and allow for open dialogue about related debates.

BDS activists aren't the only ones noticing Israel's slipping popularity and the growing support for Palestine. Unflinching defenders of Israel will be out on campuses in force this fall.

J Street U, the student arm of a liberal pro-Zionist lobbying organization, has already launched its "Invest, Don't Divest" campaign, and Meretz USA, a progressive-sounding Zionist group, is trying to co-opt pro-Palestine arguments by saying that divestment would be "collective punishment."

Supporters of justice for Palestinians need to use the educational tools to us: the online edition of The Veritas Handbook, which includes a useful myth-fact section; articles from left media sources like Electronic Intifada and SocialistWorker.org; and longer analyses to be found in magazines like the International Socialist Review and books such as The Struggle for Palestine and Between the Lines.

On the issue of Israel and Palestine, decades of ideological hoo-ha have dominated the media and most educational institutions. Our brothers and sisters in Palestine need all the solidarity we can muster.

Further Reading

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