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BDS in the Arab World in light of the recent Uprisings

Written by  Wissam al-Saliby
 palestinian activists demonstrating in support of BDS. (© Ma'an) palestinian activists demonstrating in support of BDS. (© Ma'an)

Since the outbreak of uprisings across the Arab world, analysts of the region have sought to predict how the decisive events will impact on the continuing struggle for Palestinian rights. Whereas much attention continues to be paid to the potential changes in governments' policy and the intricacies of the stagnant peace process, less coverage has been given to the contributions made by ordinary Arabs across the region to end their governments' role in supporting the Israeli regime.

During the Egyptian uprising, the images on TV screens of Egyptians waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans in support of Palestine evidenced that when the Arab public are able to speak, they inevitably turn their attention to the longest-standing colonial venture in the region: the occupation of Palestine. Whilst this is most obvious in the 'front-line' countries bordering Israel, similar sentiments have also been expressed in the eighteen separate Arab countries to which the 'Arab Spring' has now spread with varying degrees of intensity and where the infectious slogan “The people want to topple the regime," has often been followed closely by calls for a free Palestine.

Amidst the uncertainty that the revolutions have created, activists remain convinced that they present an unprecedented opportunity to overthrow the Western-backed authoritarian regimes that pervade the Middle East, and with it, Israeli Apartheid. One strategy increasingly employed to end their governments' complicity in Israeli crimes is the growing campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. This article traces the history of the Arab boycott and examines what implications the Arab Spring might have for the BDS campaign directed against Israel.

Background: The Arab League Boycott of Israel

Boycott related actions in Arab countries, or 'anti-normalization' campaigns as they are referred to, are often associated with the Arab League Boycott initiated in 1945 and administered by the Central Boycott Office (CBO) in Damascus. The Arab League boycott was one of a number of state-run boycotts alongside others initiated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement; all of which were inspired by the boycott of Zionist organizations developed by Palestinian revolutionaries in the early twentieth century. The Arab League Boycott was extensive and included three-tiers, encompassing a boycott of Israeli companies; companies who did business with Israel; as well as a prohibition against any entity in a participating country from trading with blacklisted firms – a list which generally covers firms that trade with other companies that do business in Israel (for a more extensive history of the Arab boycott see the Stop the Wall Report).1

Although the Arab League boycott was not centrally enforced (with the CBO only issuing non-binding regulations), it was well maintained by individual boycott offices of the member-states of the Arab League and coordinated by biannual meetings in Damascus. In 1979, however, the united front it presented was shattered by the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (leading to the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab league) and further damaged by the subsequent Declaration of Principles between the PLO and Israel in 1993, the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994 and the establishment of Israeli economic and diplomatic ties with a number of other Arab states.2

Where the boycott has been formally maintained, economic and diplomatic pressures, emanating principally from the United States, have resulted in the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) choosing to only enforce the first tier of the boycott, if at all. As a result, today the Arab League boycott is patchily implemented with extensive economic and diplomatic ties existing between Israel and a number of Arab countries, although it should be noted that many of these remain surreptitious due to popular opposition to normalization and often fluctuate according to the intensity of conflict in Palestine (e.g. the declaration of Council of Arab Ministers in response to the invasion of the West Bank in 20023 or the severing of diplomatic ties by Mauritania during the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza).4

The last meeting of the CBO in 2006 added a few companies to the blacklist of companies but, due to opposition from member states, failed to revitalize the CBO as an organization capable of carrying forward the boycott in earnest.

Grassroots BDS Campaigns

In opposition to the softening position on a governmental level, the opinion on the Arab street has consistently supported using BDS as a method of pressuring Israel to meet its international legal obligations. As governments and businesses increase relations with Israel over the heads and against the will of the Arab people, the general public has responded with the establishment of ad hoc committees, normally consisting of a broad range of society including leftists, unionists, liberals, Islamists and members of the professional classes, to oppose normalization.

The crux of the argument made by anti-normalization activists is that Israel, as a colonial state, will only end its decades-long denial of Palestinian rights if obliged to do so. In this context, any attempts to convince Israel to comply with international law through 'dialogue' and peace initiatives simply emboldens it in its oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians, a view which has grown in credence after some 20 years of failed peace negotiations. As Cairo University professor and prominent anti-normalization activist Radwa Ashour puts it, “anti-normalization is a very important weapon because, despite the fact that we dream of peace, what we are being sold today is a mere illusion and a consolidation of oppression".5

On the eve of the opening of the Israeli embassy in Cairo a meeting held in the headquarters of the leftist Tagammu party heralded the establishment of Egypt's first anti-normalization committee focusing on encouraging professional syndicates to adopt anti-normalization clauses and ensuring adherence to them. Similarly in Jordan, despite severe repression by the government, opposition movements launched anti-normalization campaigns in immediate response to the 1994 peace accords with Israel. Once again, in the Jordanian context, anti-normalization efforts focused on the popular and professional fields as well as among unions and cultural workers.6, 7

The Egyptian and Jordanian campaigns have been joined by campaigns in virtually every Arab country including Lebanon, Tunisia, Oman and, more in more recent years, by Qatar, Bahrain and Morocco.8 In some cases campaigns have even worked trans-nationally to organize conferences or launch joint initiatives, such as the Jordanian-Egyptian campaign against The Copenhagen Group in the late 1990's. While such committees have been successful at a grassroots and union level, activists have been unable to translate these accomplishments into government policy due to the exclusion of activists from the corridors of power and continued government repression.

Escalating Israeli brutality during the Second Intifada and the increasingly obvious failure of peace negotiations precipitated a further upturn in anti-normalization actions throughout the Arab world in the early 2000's. In Oman, massive mobilization in 2001 forced the closure of the Israeli trade office in the country while in 2005, thousands of demonstrators came out in Tunisia to protest the visit of Israeli foreign minister attending the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In Bahrain, activists responded to a 2005 attempt by the King to close the Bahraini branch of boycott office by a series of protests, conference, petitions and passing legislation in the lower, elected house of Parliament to criminalize contact with Israel.9

It is against this background that the 2005 BDS call was issued by Palestinian civil society laying out the Palestinian people's rights-based demands. While the framework and discourse of the 2005 call has only been adopted by a minority of Arab civil society (for example in Lebanon and Morocco),10 as opposed to anti-normalization work more generally, the 2005 call has worked to reinvigorate existing initiatives in the Arab world by providing concrete, successful campaigns to focus on as well as sparking crucial debates among anti-normalization activists about how criteria and guidelines for boycott are to be applied across a variety of political contexts.

The Arab Spring: BDS and Democracy

Although the drama of the Arab Springs has yet to settle, the indicators are already that the recent revolutions will do much to stem the retreat of Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The beginnings of such a change are evident in the discourse of government officials as well as the positions of leaders of the revolution, such as Ahmad Maher, one of the leaders of the April 6th Movement in Egypt, who refused to conduct an interview on Israeli television on the grounds that he “rejects normalization with Israel”.11

More concretely, on April the 28th, the Egyptian Foreign Minister told Al-Jazeera that preparations were already underway to permanently open the Rafah border crossing, which would allow goods and people in and out of Gaza without Israeli supervision. The subsequent 'opening', although still very restricted,12 shows the beginning of a change in policy on a formal political level more in line with Egyptian popular sentiments, the majority of whom support an annulment of the 1979 peace treaty.13

Along similar lines, the ousting of Mubarak has brought focus to Egypt's corrupt and mismanaged deal to sell natural gas to Israel. The criticism of the deal, which combines a criticism of Israeli policy with a rebuke of the corrupt and unaccountable agreement itself, highlights how BDS, democracy and transparency are intertwined. Indeed, striking gas workers back in January emphasized this point by presenting work-related demands alongside demands for the impeachment of the then minister of petroleum Sameh Fahmy and the cessation of gas exports to Israel,14 sentiments in favor of boycott echoed by the statements of Kamal Abu Aita, representative of the Egyptian Independent Union Federation (EIUF) during a meeting in London.15

Meanwhile in Jordan, the opposition called, at the end of April, for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from the Israeli embassy in Amman.16 At the same time, the anti-normalization committee of syndicated professions called for the boycott of an environmental trip organized by an environmental NGO, because it included the participation of Israeli organizations.17

As for Morocco, a recent report revealed that the well-known Israeli-Moroccan economic relationship amounted to 18.5 million dollars in 2009 and to 13.1 million dollars in 2010, a figure which rose to 3.1 million dollars in the first two months of 2011 alone. In reaction, a new Moroccan BDS initiative, www.bdsmaroc.org, is calling for legislation prohibiting the entry of Israeli goods in to the country. In Bahrain, police were seen opening fire on demonstrators waving Palestinian flags on Nakba day 2011, suggesting that had the uprising there not been crushed, the scope for strengthening the already vibrant anti-normalization work may have further increased.

Despite these developments and the successes in the professional and cultural fields, BDS in most Arab countries remains poorly adhered to in practice. A salient example of the non-compliance of some Arab states is Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s continued dealings with Veolia at the same time that a global campaign against Veolia was achieving significant worldwide successes. When there have been victories in this regard, such as in 2008 when the New York-based coalition Adalah-NY successfully spearheaded a campaign to prevent Lev Leviev from opening a branch of his diamond chain in Dubai,18 it was the mobilization of civil society outside the country that brought about the decision by Emirati authorities to deny that the jeweler had been granted any permission to open a branch. While such trans-national BDS mobilization is to be commended, it is necessary for civil society within the country in question to also participate in supporting BDS initiatives to ensure the long-term sustainability of campaigns.

Limitations and Conclusions

Once an article of faith for anybody involved with progressive politics in the Arab world, anti-normalization is once again gaining traction as a broad-based justice movement throughout the region. Progress, however, continues to be hindered by a misunderstanding of the rights-based discourse and a lack of proper organizing with debates often consisting of simply boycotting Coca Cola, Pepsi or focusing on the individuals who breach anti-normalization criteria. While many of these initiatives are no doubt an important part of BDS work, the failure of civil society and the Arab media to frame BDS beyond the immediate consumer boycott and as a global movement with a wide range of economic targets continues to limit its potential growth.

In the ongoing upheaval of the Arab Spring, the possibilities of a concerted effort to build upon the work of anti-normalization committees is beginning to take shape and a broader range of social groups are, and can be, drawn into BDS work. As the main lessons of the uprisings of active self-organizing and democratic expression are being taken up across the region, one can only imagine that the ranks of BDS activists will grow as revolutionaries make the links between domestic issues and the wider struggle against colonialism in the Middle East.

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Wissam Al Saliby is a researcher at the Center for Refugee Rights – Aidun, Beirut

Endnotes:
1. http://www.bdsmovement.net/files/bds%20report%20small.pdf
2. Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, March 26, 1979, Article III, paragraph 3; Treaty of Peace between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, October 26, 1994, Article 7, Section 2 Paragraph a; Declaration of Principles, September 10, 1993.
3. Boycott Israel? Not so Simple. Al Ahram Weekly Online, 11th-17th April 2002, [retrieved May 2011 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/581/ec1.htm]
4. Arab League Boycott of Israel, CRS Report for Congress, Martin A. Weiss, April 19, 2006, Order Code RS22424
5. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2000/470/pe5.htm
6. http://www.freearabvoice.org/jordanCrackDownOnAntiNormalizationActivists.htm
7. http://www.omct.org/urgent-campaigns/urgent-interventions/jordan/2001/03/d15173/
8. http://www.bdsmaroc.org/
9. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/237614 and http://stopthewall.org/cgi-bin/engine/exec/view.cgi/1/1024
10. http://boycottzionism.wordpress.com/ and www.bdsmaroc.org
11. al-Shrooq al-Jadeeda, Isam Abdul Aziz, 2 May 2011. http://shorouknews.com/contentdata.aspx?id=444926
12. http://www.gazagateway.org/2011/06/the-top-10-reasons-why-the-opening-of-rafah-crossing-just-doesnt-cut-it/
13. Haaretz, 27 April 2011.
14. http://www.arabawy.org/2011/02/14/nasr-cit/
15. http://www.bdsmovement.net/2011/egypt-independent-trade-unions-endorse-bds-7491
16. Al-Sabeel, 27 April 2011. http://bit.ly/l4USNB
17. Al-Madeena News, 24 April 2011. http://bit.ly/iHBG98
18. How Arab normalization is undermining the boycott movement, Wassim Al-Adel, The Electronic Intifada, 29 August 2008. Leviev is the chairman of Africa Israel Investments, which is constructing illegal Jewish-only settlements.