by Hillel Schenker
As we marked the 45th anniversary of the occupation this June, I would support any effective nonviolent strategy that will end the occupation of the West Bank and lead to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps — what is known as a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders — which I believe is in the genuine interest of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
If BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), clearly a nonviolent tactic, could produce such a result, I would support it. To borrow Shakespeare’s formulation, “To BDS or not to BDS, that is the question.” To my mind, the primary problem with BDS is that it won’t work. It will not produce the desired result of ending the occupation.
I can understand those Palestinians and their international supporters who, out of frustration with the current situation, the breakdown in negotiations between the Israeli government and the PLO leadership, the weakening of the Israeli left and peace movement and the realization that violence has not worked, are looking at BDS as a possible solution.
There are a number of reasons why I believe BDS can’t do it:
1) There is no chance that the international community, as represented by its governments and the United Nations, would support BDS. Without North American, European, Latin American, Asian and African governmental support, and the backing of the UN Security Council and Secretary-General, BDS cannot be a decisive factor in determining the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations;
2) The “silent majority” of the Israeli public, which, according to all public opinion polls supports a two-state solution, and whose backing is absolutely necessary to bring an end to the occupation, sees BDS as an attempt to de-legitimize the existence not of the occupation, but of the very right of the State of Israel — even within the 1967 borders Green Line — to exist. This is also true for the mainstream of Jewish communities around the world; and
3) In most European countries, given the background of European responsibility for the Holocaust and past persecutions of the Jews, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize the majority of civil society public opinion to support BDS. This is particularly true for Germany, in many ways the most influential country in Europe today, and even more so when it comes to the United States, because of the “special relationship” between America and Israel, which is due to a combination of historic, cultural and strategic factors, whatever one may think about them.
Confronting “There Is No Partner for Peace”
Within the Israeli context, certain types of BDS activities which support a boycott of all cooperation and joint activities with Israelis reinforce the right-wing claim that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. “You see,” right-wing advocates exclaim, “Palestinians and their supporters aren’t ready to cooperate with left-wing Israeli academics who are openly critical of Israeli government policy. They aren’t even ready to work together with Israeli peace and human rights NGOs.”
One of the most effective ways to counteract the claim that there is no Palestinian partner, initiated by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the failure of Camp David 2000 and developed by current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is joint Palestinian-Israeli civil society activity to end the occupation and build a better future for both peoples.
The Background to BDS
On July 9, 2005, a Palestinian Civil Society Call to BDS was issued by a group of NGOs in the West Bank. In explaining the reasoning behind the initiative, the Call stated:
Given that all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine; and In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions; and
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 (my emphasis). We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.
These non-violent 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 fact that this is a nonviolent campaign is admirable, and the frustrations that motivated the Call are very clear, but one of the primary problems with the initiative is that it made no distinction between the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and Israel proper. Unfortunately, the statement calls for the imposition of “broad boycotts and implement[ation of] divestment initiatives against Israel,” and not the Israeli occupation. If the Call had been aimed at a boycott of all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of all settlement products, it would have made a clear distinction between Israel’s illegal activities in the OPT and the legitimate right of the State of Israel to exist within the 1967 borders, a right recognized by the entire international community, and since 2002 by the Arab Peace Initiative backed by the 22 member states of the Arab League and the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (of course, on condition that Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem).
Since this distinction was not made, the BDS campaign has caused many mainstream Israelis and their supporters around the world to conclude that the campaign is not only aimed at an end to the occupation, but at the very right of the State of Israel to exist. The fact that some advocates of BDS have called for a one-state solution has only served to reinforce this impression.
Feeding into the Israeli Government’s “De-legitimization Campaign”
The Israeli government has used a number of tactics to divert attention from the need to move forward toward an end to the occupation and a resolution of the conflict: Focusing attention on the Iranian nuclear program at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a pre-condition for negotiations (an issue which wasn’t raised in the Israeli-Egyptian, Israeli-Jordanian or 1992-93 Israeli-PLO negotiations), the uncertainties created by the impact of the Arab Spring on regional governments, and the specter of an international “de-legitimization campaign” which challenges Israel’s very right to exist.
Unfortunately, the BDS campaign, with its call for a general boycott against Israel and Israelis and its ambiguous attitude toward the State of Israel’s right to exist, feeds into the fears that the Israeli government is trying to generate in the Israeli public. Thus BDS unwittingly causes the majority of the Israeli public to rally around the government’s claim that “the whole world is against us.”
“The Problem with BDS is the Ambiguity of the Goal”
Even Prof. Norman Finkelstein, an outspoken critic of Israeli policy who lost his tenured position at DePaul University because of his views, has recently criticized the BDS approach. In an interview (Haaretz, April 5, 2012) on the occasion of the publication of his book Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, he stated:
I’ve written a little book on Gandhi, and one of the significant insights of his is that it’s important not only for your tactics to be perceived as moral, the public also has to see your goal as moral. And the problem with BDS is the ambiguity of the goal. Their official position is: “We take no position on [the legitimacy of] Israel.” While BDS is a legitimate tactic to force Israel to accept the two-state solution, it has to have a just goal, which means it has to include recognition of Israel as a state....
This doesn’t mean that an Israeli right-wing McCarthyite witchhunt of boycott advocates is any better. BDS advocacy should definitely be a part of the democratic debate in Israel, and “academic monitors” of Israeli professors and proposed laws against such advocacy undermine the democratic right to freedom of expression.
Productive Nonviolent Techniques Against the Occupation
So if BDS is not a productive approach, what civil society nonviolent tactics might be effective in promoting an end to the occupation and the achievement of a two-state solution?
1) Boycott of the Israeli Settlements and Their Products
A boycott of the Israeli settlements and their products sends a clear, targeted message to the Israeli government, public and their supporters. Such a campaign would express clear opposition to the settlement enterprise in the OPT, one of the primary obstacles to a resolution of the conflict, without challenging the State of Israel’s right to exist within the internationally recognized 1967 borders.
In this respect, initiatives in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Denmark to have products labeled “Produced in the Occupied Territories,” and not simply as “Israeli products,” are a very welcome and constructive initiative.
The same is true for the Israeli artists who refuse to perform in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, an initiative which has received the backing of international artists such as singer/actor Theodore Bikel, award-winning playwright Tony Kushner and many others. However, it should be noted that the construction workers who are building the settlements tend to be Palestinians. This is a major problem, though it is understandable that those workers need to provide for their families and do not have an alternative source of income.
2) Critical Engagement with the Israeli Intellectual World and Artistic Audiences
As an alternative to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, performances in Israel and music festivals, critical engagement with the Israeli intellectual world and artistic audiences sends a very powerful message. Once again, a total boycott tends to be interpreted as a questioning of Israel’s right to exist. Critical intellectual and artistic engagement sends a targeted message to the Israeli public: “We support you as people, but not your government’s policies.”
Recent powerful examples of such critical engagement include the acceptance speech by British author Ian McEwan, winner of the Jerusalem Prize at the bi-annual Jerusalem International Book Fair in 2011, who presented a powerful critique of Israeli policies and the occupation, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and right-wing Minister of Culture Limor Livnat. He followed in the tradition of a previous Jerusalem Prize winner, Susan Sontag, and others. Singer Leonard Cohen announced that he was giving all of the proceeds to his 2009 concert in Israel to the establishment of a Fund for Reconciliation, Toleration and Peace, to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. And Madonna announced that she was launching her 2012 world tour with a “Concert of Peace” in Israel, and dedicated it to the 600 peace activists from the Palestinian-Israeli PeaceNGO Forum whom she invited to be her guests at the concert. She even declared in a mid-concert speech that “you can’t be a fan of Madonna’s if you are not a fan of peace.”
3) Joint Nonviolent Israeli-Palestinian Activism in the Field
Joint nonviolent Israeli-Palestinian activism against the occupation in the field is another powerful tool to promote consciousness-raising and achieve results against the human rights violations of the occupation. The joint Palestinian-Israeli demonstrations against the separation wall in Bil’in, Ni’lin and other locations; the joint demonstrations against the wall in Budrus, which were described so effectively in the film Budrus, produced by Just Vision; and the more than two years of joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations against the settlements in Sheikh Jarrah organized by Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity all build and contribute to the foundations for joint action against the occupation and serve as a role model for future Israeli- Palestinian cooperation.
4) Hunger Strikes by Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Jails
Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are another very powerful nonviolent tool for action against the occupation, which resonate throughout the world. Inspired by the principles of Ghandi in the Indian struggle for freedom, the hunger strike tactic has been used effectively in many national liberation struggles. Abie Natan, the Israeli peace activist who ran the Voice of Peace radio station, used the hunger strike tactic in a 40-day protest against the settlements.
5) Upgrading the Palestinian Status in International Institutions
Another potentially effective Palestinian nonviolent tactic, this time at the official level, is the initiative to upgrade the Palestinian status in international institutions, beginning with the UN and its associated bodies, which would help to establish “facts in the international arena,” parallel to the way the Zionist movement established “facts in the international arena” via the Balfour Declaration and UNGA Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan). Such upgrading will also enable the Palestinians to have recourse to institutions which are responsible for international law, which can be a lever to help end the occupation and achieve national liberation.
6) Israeli-Palestinian Scientific Cooperation
Israeli-Palestinian scientific cooperation is another powerful nonviolent tool, which while not necessarily directed specifically against the occupation, builds the foundation for future Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, for the sake of both peoples.
A prime example was the recent report about cooperation between Israeli physicians and Palestinian physicians in Gaza who successfully identified a unique strain of the MRSA bacterium in Gaza City. This work is the product of a joint Palestinian-Israeli research group established in 2009, with Israeli Jewish and Arab physicians, and physicians from Gaza, including Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, who despite having tragically lost three young daughters and a niece during the Gaza War to IDF fire remains dedicated to cooperative activity. The activity of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian chapters of Friends of the Earth — Middle East, around the productive use of water resources is another good example.
7) Joint educational work of bereaved parents and former combatants
The joint educational work of the Israeli and Palestinian members of the Parents Circle - Families Forum, who have lost family members to the cycle of violence and bear witness and do consciousness-raising activities before Israeli and Palestinian youth is a very powerful emotional tool against violence, the conflict in general and the continuation of the occupation in particular. The same is true for the work of the Israeli and Palestinian members of Combatants for Peace, who formerly used violence against the other and came to the conclusion that nonviolence is the appropriate tactic for dealing with and resolving the conflict.
8) Innovative Intellectual, Consciousness-Raising and Advocacy by Joint NGOs
The innovative intellectual, educational, consciousness-raising and advocacy work of such joint NGOs as the Palestine-Israel Journal, Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), All For Peace Radio, Bitterlemons, the Geneva Initiative and OneVoice, are all prime examples of joint, nonviolent activity against the occupation. They help to develop the innovative ideas and strategies necessary to continue the struggle, and to build the constituencies necessary to support an end to the occupation and a resolution of the conflict.
9) The Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum
And finally, the ongoing activities of the 100 or so peace and human rights organizations involved in the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, both on a uni-national and bi-national basis, continues to be a powerful tool for working against the occupation, and signaling that “there is a partner” on the other side.
This is a personal list of suggestions. I’m sure that many additional ideas and initiatives can be added to the list.
To conclude, I recently attended a book launch in Tel Aviv for a book entitled The Politics of Victimhood by Dr. Ruth Amir. When she was asked what moved her to write the book, she pointed to her two young granddaughters who were present, and said, “First of all, for them, so that they can have a future.” The point is not to allow ourselves to be victims, or victimized, but to proactively seek effective ways to end the occupation, for the sake of both peoples.