Violent crackdowns on peaceful protests are familiar to Palestinians – though recently, they’ve found themselves in an unusual position outside of the cross-hairs.
As protests against Israel’s far-right government consume the country for the 12th week, Palestinians will be feeling perplexed and vindicated in equal measure. While opposition parties refuse to participate in the Israeli parliament’s final vote on plans to overhaul the judiciary, at least $4bn has flowed out of Israeli banks. Meanwhile, hundreds of American financiers are threatening to withhold their investments. There has never been a clearer acknowledgement of the power of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) – a set of tactics most of its recent adopters would not long ago have called antisemitic.
Building on the strategy of the South African anti-apartheid movement, the aim of the Palestinian BDS civil society movement is to draw attention to Israel’s apartheid and through economic and diplomatic means, isolate it. Its three titular tactics are seen as the most effectual means to an end: full equality for Palestinians on both sides of the green line, the end of the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the upholding of Palestinians’ right of return under international law.
On the face of it, there is nothing contentious about the movement’s non-violent strategies to secure its political objectives – yet ever since it was launched, Israel has been unrelenting in its attempt to delegitimise and curb it. In 2011, the country passed an anti-boycott law, prohibiting the public promotion of academic, economic or cultural boycotts against Israeli institutions or illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Last year, the Israeli government allocated $31bn for an initiative aimed at strengthening the perception of Israel and undermining the perception of the BDS movement.
Israel’s enablers have blithely followed suit. To date, 35 US states have adopted laws, executive orders, or resolutions designed to discourage boycotts against Israel. The objectives are unambiguous too. As Noah Pollack, former executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, once boasted; “while you were doing your campus antics, the grown-ups were in the state legislatures passing laws that make your cause improbable.”
Meanwhile in the UK, a new bill is passing through the houses of parliament that aims to ban public bodies from boycotting or divesting from particular countries. Israel is not named, but clearly implied: speaking in favour of the bill, Michael Gove argued that tackling BDS is integral in standing up to the “evil of antisemitism”.
This is reflective of what has become the standard: delegitimising BDS by smearing it as antisemitic.
A 2010 report by the Tel-Aviv based Reut Institute concluded Israel’s ‘erosion’ of its international image was caused by the existence of a ‘delegitimisation network’ of organisations, like BDS, which possess the “ability to engage and mobilise others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics”, and thus needed to be nullified. In other words, cracking down on avenues that are effective in bringing into view Israel’s unceasing apartheid.
Despite attempts to muzzle the movement, BDS continued to win major support among state and non-state actors, from ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s which in 2021 decided to pull its products in illegal settlements, to the mayor of Barcelona who in February suspended a twinning agreement with Tel Aviv “until the Israeli authorities put an end to the system of violations of Palestinian human rights.”
Israel and its allies fear BDS because they know it works – and they know it works because they do it, too. These were the methods they used against Russia when it launched its invasion of Ukraine in February last year, and by November, imports from Russia had decreased 98.2%. Yet now those who opposed BDS are encouraging the same tactics.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli author, ridiculed Airbnb when it ended its business in the illegal settlements. Last week, the author argued that Americans should consider not purchasing Israel bonds in reaction to the judicial reforms. Yair Lapid, Knesset opposition leader and former prime minister, once suggested BDS leaders were “out-and-out antisemities”. No longer weighed down by his brass neck, he has become a leading critic of the Israeli government and continued to push for more widespread protests, which he sees as an expression of the “democratic instinct” of the Israeli citizens. Its Jewish citizens, that is.
Ultimately, critics of BDS and of the new Israeli government have the same objective: to preserve Jewish supremacy in Israel. All that’s changed is that the tactics of BDS have been coopted for that end. Make no mistake, therefore: if this fascist government collapses, it will be because of the tactics Palestinians have long promoted, and been punished for. This “pro-democracy” movement has proven that civil resistance is yet another right afforded to Israelis but not to Palestinians.
Hamza Ali Shah is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.