Palestine’s Gandhi: Omar Barghouti, BDS and international law

My following article is published today in Overland journal and was co-written with John Docker and Ned Curthoys:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Israel is creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in world Jewry. In the outside world, the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial, pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself defending a society in which mixed marriages cannot be legalized, in which non-Jews have a lesser status than Jews, and in which the ideal is racist and exclusivist.
– IF Stone

On 14 December 2010, the Marrickville Council in inner-west Sydney, led by its Greens mayor Fiona Byrne, expressed its support for, in her words, ”˜the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, to exert peaceful pressure on the government of Israel to honour its human rights obligations to the Palestinians’ (Fiona Byrne, ”˜Rates, roads – and justice in Gaza’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2011). As is well known, the council’s now failed proposal (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2011) to support BDS was controversial and widely ridiculed, and not only in the feral newspaper The Australian. In conversation, friends and acquaintances who live in the Marrickville municipal area made it clear to us that while they are sympathetic to the Palestinians, they feel such an action is rather absurd and silly for a local council so far from the Middle East. They also thought the Council hadn’t provided its constituents with necessary information. They have a point in terms of the council’s failure to communicate the rationale of a BDS. But was the Marrickville Council support for BDS really so ridiculous? In this essay we try to provide information about BDS that can help stimulate discussion and debate. We contend that supporting BDS is not only necessary in order to help save the Palestinian people from an ongoing catastrophe, but vitally important for the self-respect of the international community.

As anti-Zionist Jews, we support the BDS, and agree with Sonja Karkar of Australians for Palestine (”˜Report on BDS Vote in Marrickville’, 21 April 2011) that the Marrickville Council action spectacularly succeeded in bringing nation-wide attention to the existence of the international boycott-Israel movement.

We have our own ideas about what is absurd, and what is allegedly ”˜extreme’ on issues to do with Israel/Palestine. It’s clear that not much is known about BDS in Australia, which is not surprising, given the crippled state of the print media in this country and its near-blanket censorship – what other name is there for it? – of views critical of Israel, especially the views of Palestinian, Arab, and anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals. On this issue the media in Australia make a mockery of democracy, media diversity, and intelligent and empirically informed journalism (Antony Loewenstein). Compared to the UK – think the Guardian and Independent – the print media in Australia is second-rate, and, given the near monopoly of the Murdoch press, getting worse. It’s stunning that so many Australian ”˜journalists’ can accept money from the Israeli government, or from Zionist organizations in Australia dedicated to providing active support for the Israeli state, to visit Israel. It’s clear that upon their return they act as advocates and agents of influence for Israel, uncritically enunciating the policy concerns and worldview of an ethnocentric state with a racist immigration policy, a state that supports and subsidizes the ongoing colonisation of Palestine, illegal under international law; a state that is opposed to Australia’s own values as a secular, non-racial, pluralistic society. Aren’t journalists supposed to be independent of the state – any state? Isn’t this situation absurd?

There are, however, and thankfully, alternative sources of information. Here we focus on Omar Barghouti, whose 2011 book BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights draws attention to the epigraphs we’ve used above from Gandhi and I.F. Stone (pp.1, 78). Barghouti is in the great tradition of Palestinian intellectuals, historians and poets like Edward W. Said, Walid Khalidi, and Mahmoud Darwish, maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the Jewish diaspora and the Israeli people while advocating Palestinian rights in the most eloquent terms possible. With postgraduate degrees in electrical engineering from Columbia University and in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, he works in Palestine as a dance choreographer. Barghouti is a founding member of both PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which made its first call for boycott in April 2004, and the general Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which made its call a year later, in 2005.

Importantly, Barghouti points out in BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions that the ”˜BDS movement as such does not adopt any specific political formula’, for example, it steers away from the ”˜one-state-versus-two-states debate, focusing instead on universal rights and international law’ (pp.51-52). He does, however, offer his own personal vision. He tells us that on ”˜a personal level, not as a representative of the BDS movement’, he has for over twenty-five years consistently supported the one-state solution, ”˜a secular, democratic state: one person, one vote – regardless of ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, and so on’. Such a state can ”˜reconcile our inalienable rights as indigenous Palestinians with the acquired rights of Israeli Jews as colonial settlers, once they’ve shed their colonial character and privileges and accepted justice and international law’ (p.178).

He opposes violence: ”˜Even when it is in reaction to colonial violence, an indiscriminate attack on the civilian community of the oppressors is morally unjustifiable, in my opinion’; international law ”˜never condones deliberate or criminally negligent attacks against civilians. I fully endorse that’ (p.130). So do we. Barghouti sees BDS as part of the tradition of non-violence whose most famous representatives are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, though the majority of Palestinians have always engaged in ”˜non-violent resistance even before the inspiration of Gandhi, King, and Mandela’ (p.174). Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, he reminds us, liken Israeli occupation practices to apartheid South Africa. The present BDS campaign itself is ”˜largely inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa’, though he does not suggest that the two situations are identical. The analogy is worthwhile, however, since ”˜Israel’s system of bestowing rights and privileges according to ethnic and religious identity’, including allowing Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories to vote in Israeli elections and creating infrastructure, including modern highway systems, designed for the near exclusive use of those settlers, fits both the UN definition of apartheid in its Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid of 1973 and the International Criminal Court’s Rome statute of 2002.

Barghouti describes Zionism and the Israeli state – and such a description should make all Australians think of our own history of colonization of Indigenous peoples and lands – as one of ”˜settler colonialism’ (p.4). He regards Zionism as a form of racism, and refers to the Israeli state as ”˜ethnocentric, racist, and exclusivist’. Drawing on Ilan Pappé’s 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, he recalls that Israel’s creation in 1948 involved ”˜massive ethnic cleansing, massacres, rape, wanton destruction of hundreds of villages’ by Zionist militias and later the Israeli army. Such brutality was ”˜premeditated’ and ”˜meticulously planned’ by Zionist leaders, including David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister). Over 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed and uprooted and more than four hundred villages were ”˜methodically destroyed to prevent the return of the refugees’. Now refugees and internally displaced persons, the majority of the population of Gaza (something ignored by the pro-Israeli media who are deliberately ahistorical about these issues), make up two-thirds of the Palestinian population.

Barghouti believes that the BDS movement, appealing to people of conscience everywhere, is necessary ”˜to avert genocide’, by which he means Israel’s ongoing assault on the Palestinians as a people, enacted through the annexation of Palestinian land, alienation of Palestinian farmers from their arable lands, restrictions on Palestinian housing and construction permits, attacks on Palestinian olive crops, attacks on Palestinian rights of assembly, cultural expression and schooling, the mass imprisonment of young Palestinian men and boys, removal of Palestinian populations from East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank, onerous military curfews, attacks on Palestinian freedom of movement, and a crippling undermining of the Palestinian economy.

In Gaza, Barghouti writes, the situation is desperate. He quotes the international law expert Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, who argued in 2007 that what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians in Gaza reveals a ”˜deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty’. Falk urges the governments of the world and international public opinion to ”˜act urgently to prevent these genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy’. Barghouti also quotes the Goldstone Report (more on the unfortunate Richard Goldstone in a moment) on the December 2008-January 2009 war on Gaza saying that the Israeli assault was a ”˜deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population’. Both Falk and the Goldstone Report emphasise that the Israeli mistreatment of the people of Gaza, which has included the destruction of their schools, wells, electricity generators, crops, and factories, reveals deliberate intention and systematic policy (pp.36-37, 46).

We can only lament Goldstone’s recent ”˜turn’ here. While the meticulous research and legal judgements of the Report still stand, Goldstone’s reputation is irreparably damaged (Richard Falk, ”˜What Future for the Goldstone Report? Beyond the Name’, 20 April 2011). In our view, Goldstone’s stumbling retreat from the Report reveals the acute dilemma facing many progressive Jews with a residual sympathy for Israel: the choice between supporting international humanitarian law, or a repugnant Israeli state dedicated to stonewalling and undermining the principles of international humanitarian law. The latter is a trait of the Israeli state at least since the late 1940s when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as required by international law (UN General Assembly resolution 194, 1948). Goldstone chose to support the Israeli state, thereby betraying the Palestinian people, his colleagues in international law, and the traditions of Jewish humanism and universalism that inspired him to investigate the events in Gaza in the first place. Despite Goldstone’s reversal, those traditions are now re-asserting themselves across the world, exampled by the inspiring support given to the BDS movement by leading Jewish intellectuals and activists such as Judith Butler and Naomi Klein. Richard Falk himself, who is Jewish, deserves very honourable mention in this respect as well.

Barghouti argues that the Palestinian call for BDS demands Israel observe the fundamental human right to full equality, ending its ”˜system of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens’. He sees recognition of the Palestinian right of return as ”˜the litmus test of morality for anyone suggesting a just and enduring solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict’. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands captured in the 1967 war, including the West Bank of which East Jerusalem is a part, is illegal in international law. All Israeli settlements established in the occupied territories are a violation of article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which Barghouti quotes: ”˜The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’. An example in the academic sphere is the Hebrew University, which has moved Israeli staff and students into illegally confiscated land in East Jerusalem. On 9 July 2004, The International Court of Justice in The Hague declared that Israel’s construction of the infamous apartheid wall is illegal because it annexes Palestinian land and separates Palestinians from their lands, as it was surely designed to do.

BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions dismisses any accusation that the boycott campaign is anti-Semitic (pp.82-83). For one thing, as part of the struggle for ”˜universal rights’, BDS is opposed to ”˜all forms of racism and racist ideologies, including anti-Semitism’. For another, as we have suggested, there is growing support for the Palestinian-led BDS from Jews inside and outside Israel. In Israel, on 27 June 2010, following the Palestinian Queers for BDS initiative, ”˜an Israeli LGBT’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) call endorsed BDS. Israeli groups of Palestinians and Jews that have endorsed the BDS call include the Alternative Information Centre, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, and Who Profits from the Occupation? which is a project of the Coalition of Women for Peace. Who Profits? keeps a database of Israeli and international corporations involved in the occupation. There is also the ”˜courageous Israeli BDS group Boycott from Within’.

Outside Israel, there is accelerating Jewish support for the BDS campaign, beginning with the famous letter from Steven Rose and Hilary Rose to the Guardian on 6 April 2002 calling for a moratorium on EU funding of research collaboration with Israel, funding which is meant to be predicated on respect for human rights. In September 2010, more than 150 US and British theatre, film, and TV artists issued a statement initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), supporting the boycott movement. In October 2010 Israeli-British architect, Abe Hayreem, founder of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, described how Israeli architecture and planning are instruments of the occupation. Jewish intellectuals mentioned by Barghouti who have been prominent worldwide in supporting BDS include Judith Butler, Mike Leigh, Richard Falk, Naomi Klein, Ilan Pappé, and Ronnie Kasrils. In the United States, issues like the BDS movement and Israel’s increasing distance from an American self-image of an inclusive liberal democracy based on human rights, are beginning to seriously fracture the Jewish community.

And what of local authorities in various countries? The implication of the ridicule of the Marrickville Council proposal appears to be that this small local government was the only one in the world silly enough to think globally and support the BDS. On the contrary. In June 2010 the South African Municipal Workers Union, we read in BDS: Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions, initiated a campaign ”˜to rid all municipalities in South Africa of Israeli products’ in order to make them apartheid-Israel free zones, a campaign that has ”˜started firing the imagination of BDS activists elsewhere’. There has been local council support for the Palestinian and international campaign against the Jerusalem Light Rail, the Israeli project whereby two giant French firms, Veolia and Alstom, build a tram route serving Israel’s illegal colonies in and surrounding occupied East Jerusalem, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In the West Midlands, UK, the Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council decided not to consider further Veolia’s bid for the Waste Improvement Plan contract; Barghouti says that while the decision was presented as commercial, he is confident it was the result of BDS pressure. Furthermore, several local campaigns, from Hampshire County to Liverpool to Camden to South Yorkshire, have ”˜sprouted to derail Veolia’ from large public works contracts. Barghouti welcomes BDS actions wherever they occur, however small or directed to one object: ”˜As I’ve jokingly said in my talks’, even if a group ”˜decides to launch a campaign targeting Israeli tomatoes only’, the Palestinians would be glad. He admires CodePink who have ”˜chosen to focus their creative energies on boycotting AHAVA, the Israeli cosmetics company’ that manufactures in occupied Palestinian territory. Many campaigns in Europe, he adds, ”˜have a narrow focus in their BDS targets, and that’s perfectly fine’.

We believe that support for BDS is crucial for the future of the international community if it is serious about upholding the principles of international law, which include non-aggression towards civilians, the illegality of occupying and annexing foreign territories, and the refusal to legitimise racist and apartheid systems of governance. The Western powers, including Australia, attempt to lead the world by relentlessly suggesting they alone act on behalf of universal principles of justice, human rights, and international law. Yet their cynicism in ignoring universal rights whenever it is convenient to do so in their own interests (think of Western intervention in Libya, yet no support for democracy in Bahrain) is glaringly revealed in the history of Israel/Palestine since 1948. Those powers blatantly protect the state of Israel, ignoring universal rights and international law, despite the fact that Israel’s self-conception, as I.F. Stone observed, is ”˜racist and exclusivist’ (”˜Holy War’, New York Review of Books, 3 August 1967); Israel is, according to its own preferred self-definition, a state that serves the prerogatives and interests of Jewish nationals rather than the entirety of its citizens. Consequently, while the Palestinians face a very bleak future that includes diminution of land and water rights and continuing exposure to military violence, the West generates anger and contempt for its egregious hypocrisy. We submit that BDS is indeed a litmus test for humanity, because it asks the world’s citizens to act to uphold universal human rights. If BDS fails, we are all diminished.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common