An urgent challenge for the BDS movement

Sherry Wolf, a longtime activist for Palestine freedom and former press officer for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in 2012, looks at the rise of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israeli apartheid--and the next steps for the struggle in the face of Israel's new onslaught on Gaza.

Solidarity activists hold a sit-in for justice in PalestineSolidarity activists hold a sit-in for justice in Palestine

FOR DECADES, supporters of Palestine around the globe were isolated from the mainstream and largely powerless, watching from the margins as Israel meted out its horrors against Palestinians. Activists organized small protests and educational and fundraising events to build solidarity, but Israel remained unscathed, swatting back criticisms with ease and smug contempt.

Those days are gone.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has put an end to the feelings of impotence among Palestine solidarity activists--and emerged as a strategic threat to Israel's once venerated standing in the world.

Since the start of Israel's Operation Protective Edge onslaught, Twitter and Facebook have provided Gazans with a more immediate and direct outlet to the world than in previous assaults.

But the tweets and posts wouldn't be amplified to the degree they have been without the efforts of a broad base of activists who cut their political teeth in the BDS movement. For the first time, tens of thousands of Palestine solidarity activists across the globe are exchanging on-the-ground reports and anecdotes via social media and collaborating on calls for international days of action and civil disobedience.

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IN ITS nine years of existence, the BDS movement has boldly redefined the battle for Palestine in the simple, straightforward terms of human rights. More than any other tactic of the Palestinian liberation movement, the BDS campaign has created a global outpouring of support for Palestinian rights--and put Israel's violations of those rights under international scrutiny like never before.

In the U.S., the issue of Palestinian rights has gone from a concern of the left and of isolated Arab and Muslim communities to a subject of mainstream discourse and debate. Even in the corporate media and academic institutions, the discussion of Israel-Palestine now references the three simple demands raised by the BDS movement--that Israel must:

-- End its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the apartheid wall;

-- Recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

-- Respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, as stipulated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.

Initiated in 2005 by 170 civil society groups across the Palestinian spectrum, the BDS campaign is also raising hopes among Palestinians themselves--their social media feeds and international phone calls are now filled with signs that they are no longer isolated, disdained and dismissed.

One U.S. caller to family in Gaza, Shehnaz Sheik Abdeljaber, recounted on her Facebook wall a typical sentiment circulating on social media, "We have HOPE, we KNOW that the world is standing with US. Your PHONE CALL means the WORLD to US. It reassures US that someone OUTSIDE of GAZA cares."

The solidarity with Palestinians is global: 3,000 people participated in Reykjavík's die-in, addressed by the city's mayor; the Palestinian flag is flying above the Preston Town Hall in Britain after 100,000 marched in London; huge protests are taking place from Senegal to Iran; mammoth pro-Gaza demonstrations throughout France flaunt their defiance of a ban on protests against Israel's war on Gaza.

In the U.S., many thousands have taken to the streets in large cities, as well as hundreds in smaller towns and locales--like Fort Worth, Texas, or Indianapolis--that previously never had much Palestine solidarity presence, if any.

The wave of sympathy for Gaza is surely driven by the horrifying images of children blown to bits--and the widely circulating photos of gleeful Israelis celebrating the slaughter over snacks and drinks on hilltops above Gaza.

But the protests have been initiated and organized largely by activists involved in BDS organizing for years: the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, Adalah-NY, Al-Awda, American Muslims for Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and too many more to list here.

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THE URGENCY of today's protests--felt by veteran activists as well as many thousands of people who are just now waking up to the violence and racism of Israel's occupation--must be harnessed over the coming months to deepen the roots of the BDS campaign and expand the movement's reach.

On July 10, the Palestinian BDS National Committee issued a call to intensify BDS efforts: "In particular, we urge people of conscience to intensify their pressure on governments to impose a military embargo on Israel and to suspend free trade and bilateral agreements with it until it fulfills its obligations under international law. Governments across the world must be held to account for their complicity with Israeli crimes."

Backing these demands with collective organized action will threaten Israel's ability to continue the bombardment and the siege of Gaza, a blockade of goods and people in and out of the Strip, now in its seventh year.

To have a lasting impact beyond this wave of slaughter, actions today must link the outrage to the demands of the BDS movement and call meetings to initiate new BDS chapters where there are none yet. The U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation is a key resource for activists seeking local groups to join off-campus; Students for Justice in Palestine is the ideal place to start for those on campuses.

Now is the time to join a BDS group and for existing organizations to escalate their activities and welcome new people into their ranks.

Some of the statements and petitions emerging in July show this development already in process.

For example, a petition launched by Jews for the Palestinians Right of Return demands an end to war on Gaza and asserts the basic BDS demands--it drew 2,000 signatories within two days. A Labor for Palestine statement calls on unions to divest from Israeli bonds--and emulate the actions of dockworkers in South Africa, India, Sweden, Norway, Turkey and the U.S. West Coast by refusing to handle military cargo headed to Israel.

As the invasion of Gaza reached its two-week mark, it became common for U.S. protests to include grim readings of the names of the dead, an assertion of Palestinian humanity in a nation that has historically denied it. Civil disobedience actions, such as the Jewish sit-in at the offices of Friends of the IDF in New York City, are on the rise.

These are important initiatives that must involve future organizing plans to make real gains beyond the moment when the severity of the massacre drives the urgency to protest.

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REPORTS OF the situation on the ground in Gaza are grim. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides crucial services in Gaza, from food and health care to education, questioned two years ago whether Gaza would be a "livable place" by 2020. That was before the current destruction--which by the end of July had demolished Gaza's only power plant, half of its 13 hospitals, several of schools, and its drinking water and sewage infrastructure.

After the first 17 days of bombing and invasion, the UNRWA reported nearly 163,000 internally displaced people and another 20,000 sheltering with relatives due to the destruction of homes. The agency estimates that among the 45,000 Gaza women who are pregnant, many are giving birth without proper maternity care. Lack of access to potable water is one of the most serious concerns, raising fears of epidemics of water-borne illnesses.

But Israel is feeling the brunt of an international backlash against its brutality like never before.

U.S. and European officials banned flights for a couple of days to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, causing Israeli officials to panic in the midst of Israel's most important tourist season. Brazil has recalled its ambassador to Israel and Chile has suspended trade talks with Israel. Six Nobel Peace laureates and dozens of celebrated women and men of arts and letters signed onto a call for a military embargo of Israel published in the Guardian.

Crucially, cracks in the U.S. media are apparent, as a result of protests that have forced newspapers and television news to show images and carry reports from journalists inside Gaza, including the views of the intrepid chronicler of Israel's crimes, Palestinian Mohammed Omer.

In response to public outrage when ABC's Diane Sawyer misidentified a photo from inside Gaza as taken in Israel, Sawyer was forced to publicly apologize. A week later, viewers rebelled and triumphed against NBC when journalist Ayman Moyheldin, who has provided graphic and informed reporting from occupied Palestine, was reassigned from Gaza--and then reinstated a few days later.

Ebony magazine, an influential African American publication read by many professional Blacks, ran an opinion piece in late May 2014 titled "Why Black people must stand with Palestine," and followed up in July with an article headlined "'This is indeed a massacre,' Palestinians in Gaza respond to siege." It's an obvious blow to the years-long efforts by U.S. Zionists to court Black Americans.

Though U.S. editorial boards incessantly repeat Israel's timeworn talking points blaming Hamas and even the dead for their own slaughter, the visible carnage and news from within Gaza is simply too compelling to stifle the truth. Israel is more politically isolated than ever.

Reflecting the rise of BDS globally, a year before the current onslaught, Israel's daily Ha'aretz reported that of the more than 26,000 people surveyed by the BBC in 25 countries around the world, just 21 percent of participants had a positive view of Israel, while 52 percent viewed the country unfavorably.

A U.S. Gallup poll taken in mid July shows Israel's growing pariah status among those under 30 and people of color, in particular. Just over half of Americans under 30 believe Israel's actions in Gaza are unjustifiable, along with 49 percent of people of color--an increase from the generally pro-Israel public opinion during past atrocities.

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AT SOME point, Israel will cease its daily bombardment of Gaza--though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to vow that the slaughter will go on indefinitely. But even if and when the bombing stops, the devastation of the siege of Gaza will continue.

Israel's blockade--imposed with U.S. support to punish the population of Gaza after Hamas won elections to lead the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006--allows in only a bare subsistence level of food and other necessities. Visitors to Gaza's hospitals--which, of course, are now overflowing with the casualties of Israel's onslaught--report shortages of everything from medicine and basic medical supplies to the construction materials necessary for maintenance of the buildings.

In short, even when it isn't enduring Israeli military strikes, Gaza suffers a slow-motion strangulation--which is why residents reject any ceasefire proposals that don't end the siege. For example, academics and public figures in Gaza issued a statement on July 22 titled "No ceasefire without justice for Gaza":

We share the broadly held public sentiment that it is unacceptable to merely return to the status quo--in which Israel strictly limits travel in and out of the Gaza Strip, controls the supplies that come in (including a ban on most construction materials), and prohibits virtually all exports, thus crippling the economy and triggering one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the Arab world. To do so would mean a return to a living death.

Gazans are making an appeal to us. They would rather die fighting back than continue the "living death" of the siege.

Among the many opportunities for BDS activists to amplify our demands among a wider layer of U.S. progressives will come in New York City, on September 19-23, when an unprecedented mobilization of environmental activists is expected to protest outside the UN's Climate Summit.

The Climate March and Climate Convergence, where educational sessions as well as actions are planned in late September, present ideal openings for a growing movement to insert itself into the global fight against climate change and win new adherents. After all, the latest pounding of Gaza has only exacerbated dire ecological conditions that threaten 1.8 million Palestinians' health and ability to survive under inhumane conditions.

The global BDS movement has created a new front in the struggle for Palestine. Activists have a responsibility to meet the challenge of Palestinian resistance and broaden our own front in the battle to end Israel's occupation once and for all.