In a situation of systematic oppression, silence amounts to complicity. Almost 60 years after the creation of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian society – following the ethnic cleansing of most of the indigenous Palestinians from their lands, and in the face of Israel’s 40 years of military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem – this complicity becomes indicative of a deeply ingrained colonial view of the Palestinians and Arabs in general as lesser humans, or what I call ‘relative’ humans.
The latest political developments in Israel, particularly the last parliamentary election that allowed an overtly fascist party into the governing coalition, showed that an overwhelming majority of Jewish-Israelis stand fervently behind their state’s racist policies and its persistent violations of international law. A reliable Israeli poll conducted on 31 July and 1 August 2006^1^ found almost the entire Jewish-Israeli public supported bombing Lebanese civilians and their infrastructure, despite the level of destruction and civilian casualties that resulted.
Following Israel’s widely recognized defeat in Lebanon, which undermined its deterrence doctrine, the Israeli military-security establishment has intensified its campaign of death and destruction against innocent Palestinian civilians under occupation, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Many more people of conscience have, as a result, started paying more attention to Palestinian civil society’s call for nonviolent resistance in the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it fully complies with international law. While not endorsing boycott yet, former US President Jimmy Carter, and current UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, John Dugard, are only the latest high-profile figures to draw parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa.
In September 2000, after years of a ‘quiet’ Israeli occupation and the enormous growth of its settlements in the occupied territories, the second Palestinian intifada broke out. Israel’s brutal attempts to crush it reopened – at least in intellectual circles – long-forgotten questions about whether a just peace can ever be achieved with this exclusivist and expansionist state. It was against this background that the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 revived the 1975 debate on Zionism. While the official assembly failed to adopt a specific resolution, due to direct threats from the US, the NGO Forum condemned Zionism as a form of racism and apartheid. Despite the official West’s unwillingness to hold Israel to account, Durban confirmed that grassroots support, even in the West, for the justness of the Palestinian cause was still robust. What it needed was to be channelled into effective forms of solidarity.
Soon, campaigns calling for divestment from companies supporting Israel’s occupation spread across US campuses. On the other side of the Atlantic, particularly in Britain, calls for various forms of boycott started to be heard among intellectuals and trade unionists. These efforts intensified with the brutal 2002 Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian cities.
By 2004, mainstream churches were joining academic associations, trade unions and solidarity organizations across the US and Europe. They launched a study of divestment and other forms of boycott against Israel, similar in nature to those applied to apartheid South Africa. Most significant was the precedent-setting decision of the US Presbyterian Church in July 2004, calling for ‘phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel’. The Presbyterian move could not be dismissed as ‘symbolic’ or economically ineffective and inspired other denominations to consider halting their investments.
A development of signal importance for these efforts was the Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague on 9 July 2004, condemning as illegal both Israel’s Wall and the colonies built on Palestinian land. Ironically, the PLO scored this victory at a time when it was least prepared to build on it. A similar advisory opinion by the ICJ in 1971, denouncing South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, had triggered what became the world’s largest and most concerted campaign of boycotts and sanctions, eventually contributing to South African apartheid’s demise. The ICJ ruling on the Wall failed to create a similar reaction, chiefly due to Palestinian structural and political powerlessness, but it did fuel a revival of principled opposition to Israeli oppression around the world.
About the time of the ICJ ruling, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), formed in April 2004, issued a statement of principles urging the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a ‘contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid’.2 On the first anniversary of the ICJ ruling, 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the main political parties, issued a further Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel ‘until it fully complies with international law’.3 After 15 years of the so-called ‘peace process’, Palestinian civil society reclaimed the agenda, articulating demands for justice long obscured by deceptive ‘negotiations’. In a noteworthy precedent, the BDS Call was issued by representatives of all three segments of the Palestinian people — the refugees, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and those under occupation. It invited conscientious Israelis to support its demands.
It is not just Israel’s military occupation and denial of refugee rights that must be challenged, but the wider Zionist system of racial supremacy. Jews have stood in the front lines of the struggle for civil rights, democracy, equality before the law and separation between church and state in many countries. For them, any defence of Israel’s ethno-centric laws and its reduction of Palestinians to relative humans, whether under occupation or in Israel itself, should be out of the question. The Palestinian claim to equal humanity must be primary, because it lays the proper moral and political foundation for addressing effectively the myriad injustices against Palestinian people.
Progress on the BDS initiatives will be gradual. It is designed to be effective in various contexts. The West, owing to its overwhelming political and economic power, as well as its decisive role in perpetuating Israel’s colonial domination, remains the main battleground for this non-violent resistance. However, the rest of the world should not be ignored. The movement should reach China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil and Russia, among other states that seek to challenge the West’s monopoly on power.
If oppressors can afford a measure of ‘constructive ambiguity’ – to borrow the words of Henry Kissinger – the oppressed certainly cannot. Failure to spell out the endgame adversely affects our ability to sway international public opinion in our favour. For the Palestinian BDS movement to be as influential as its South African predecessor was, it needs to define its ultimate objectives, its vision for a future of justice, peace and reconciliation.
Since Israel is a settler-colonial state, its replacement must be a secular, democratic state, offering unequivocal equality in citizenship, individual and communal rights to _both_ Palestinians (refugees included) _and_ Israeli Jews. Only such a state can _ethically_ decolonize Palestine and reconcile the ostensibly irreconcilable: the inalienable, UN-sanctioned rights of the indigenous people of Palestine to self-determination, repatriation and equality, in accordance with international law; and the _acquired_ and internationally recognized rights of Israeli Jews to coexist – as equals, not colonial masters – in the land of Palestine.