Overcoming the Nakba

This year, the 60th since the establishment of Israel through the systematic forced transfer of most of Palestine's indigenous population, has witnessed the largest global mobilization in support of Palestinian rights since the 1948 Nakba. In cities around the world, supporters of human rights and just peace participated in actions and events demanding that the truth of the Nakba be exposed and calling for the implementation of Palestinian refugee rights. Many of these actions and events were part of the emerging global movement to reverse, and not just commemorate, the 60-year Nakba, through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel until it fully complies with its obligations under international law and universal human rights and dismantles its regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation. This issue of al-Majdal brings together the voices of BDS activists from around the world to describe and evaluate their campaigns to date.

The current BDS campaign is deeply rooted in the century-old history of Palestinian civil resistance against Zionist colonization. In the two decades before the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinian national movement had implemented a local boycott of Zionist enterprises that escalated during the uprising of 1936-1939. After 1948, member states of the League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and Organization of the Islamic Conference launched state-run boycott campaigns to ensure that commercial and financial relations with Israel did not take place, a boycott that began to be reversed under US pressure when Egypt signed the Camp David Accords and other Arab states engaged in the normalization treaties of the 1990s. Anti-normalization, a term that describes opposition to the treatment of Israel as a 'normal state' given its abnormal regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation, became a central slogan of civil society in Arab countries that initiated relations with Israel, as well as in Palestine after the Oslo agreements.


  Western governments, under the leadership of the US and the EU, threw their weight behind breaking the boycott over the past 15 years, and economic normalization with Israel became a condition of any bilateral trade agreement between Arab states and the US. Normalization with Israel is central to the US vision for the region, exemplified by the US goal of a Middle East Free Trade Agreement (MEFTA) that is to be achieved by the year 2013.

 The current BDS movement, which began to take form with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and evolved into a coherent strategy with the broad 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS, is an extension of the previous boycott and anti-normalization campaigns. It is set apart, however, by several differences, primary among which is the fact that, for the first time, BDS has become central also in the Western solidarity movement, with emerging regional and global coordination mechanisms. As a result, it has become a far-reaching grassroots campaign that involves people from all walks of life, rather than being limited to state-driven initiatives.

 A second and related difference is the analysis of Israel as an apartheid regime which has become widespread in the BDS movement. This analysis triggers memories of the struggle against the South African apartheid regime and the boycott campaign against it, and plays a positive role in galvanizing popular energies. At least as important is the fact that apartheid is a crime, which is clearly and legally defined in the International Convention on the Repression of the Crime of Apartheid. Commission of this crime creates an obligation on states to condemn and prevent its occurrence and ensure reparation for the victims.

 The international community, including the United Nations, have so far abstained from applying the Convention to Israel's regime, while the analysis of the solidarity movement has remained focused on its manifestations, i.e. on differences and similarities in the ways Israel's regime plays out in oppressing the Palestinian people as compared to the forms of oppression employed by South Africa during political Apartheid. In this context, the Durban Review process launched by the United Nations in 2008 in order to improve the Declaration and Programme of Action for the Combating of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance adopted by the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban provides a unique opportunity for deepening the legal analysis of Israel's regime and state obligations deriving therefrom. A preliminary legal analysis of the applicability of the crime of apartheid to Israel's regime over the Palestinian people is included in this issue of al-Majdal in order to stimulate further analysis and debate.

 This issue of al-Majdal includes assessments of BDS campaigns across Europe, North America and South Africa which raise a number of notable points regarding weaknesses and strengths of the movement. In many countries, BDS campaigns have provided a space for the creativity and energies of the diverse Palestine solidarity efforts to coalesce. As such, BDS-initiatives have played an important unifying role. The persistence with which many countries of Europe and North America provide political and economic support to the state of Israel, illustrated by the recent EU decision to upgrade relations, and the fact that the Palestinian leadership (PLO, PA) remains tied-up in political negotiations with Israel in meaningless diplomatic process have, however, have played a detracting role that has undermined BDS efforts in many countries.

 Another notable characteristic of the campaigns is their diversity which, in some ways, has been an advantage: it has allowed campaigners to focus energies on their strengths, with anyone and everyone able to play a role. Countries in which BDS activists are connected with the local labor movements, for example, focus energies on trade unions, while those where social-justice-oriented political parties exist, focus their efforts on lobbying parliaments and government policy. Diversity, however, also poses many challenges, including a lack of coherence of the legal and political analysis and the strategy for choosing targets on a global level.

One manifestation of this, for example, is that activists worldwide still lack consensus about whether to focus their campaigns against Israel's military occupation regime in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory (often characterized by a focus on settlement products, and referred to as 'selective boycott') or the Israeli regime in its entirety, the latter being the position of the Palestinian BDS movement and the spirit of the 2005 BDS Call. Irrespective of the consensus in Palestine about the strategic importance of a coordinated boycott of Israeli sports, moreover, only sporadic actions have so far been accomplished on this front. The choice of other targets often appears to be arbitrary and efforts scattered; several campaigns have been launched for the boycott of Israeli diamonds, the Jewish National Fund, Eden Springs, Israeli arms trade, Caterpillar, and others, but these campaigns have not been sustained or coordinated. Signs of better coordination have appeared recently with the dynamic campaign against the global enterprise of Lev Leviev, an Israeli multimillionaire involved in settlement construction, the diamond trade, and other oppressive business.

 A landmark achievement for the global campaign has been the formation of a Palestinian reference-point by the Palestinian civil society organizations signatories to the 2005 BDS Call. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) emerged from the November 2007 BDS national conference in Ramallah, and includes as members all major movements, unions, networks and associations that make up Palestinian civil society. The central aim of the BNC is to deepen the involvement of the Palestinian people in the campaign and provide Palestinian support and resources for campaigners worldwide. One of the recent achievements of the BNC has been the launch of a central website 'BDSmovement.net' to serve global coordination of the campaign until Israel complies with international law.

 The articles included in this issue of al-Majdal provide only a sample of BDS activity actually taking place worldwide. We hope, however, that the reflections shared by activists in various countries will be of use for assessing the way forward towards a Palestine without apartheid, colonization and occupation, a Palestine characterized by freedom and justice for all of its people, regardless of their nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.