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BDS Conference in Palestine: Building Solidarity, Combating Normalization

Andréa Schmidt
Date Published: 
April 09, 2008

It's the end of November. International attention is focused on the upcoming summit in Annapolis, MD, and foreign reporters in Gaza City, Tel Aviv, Ramallah are busily soliciting predictably jaded and mocking Palestinian and Israeli responses to the question, "Will Annapolis bring peace?" I am in Ramallah too, listening as Allam Jarrar of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network (PNGO) welcomes his audience to "the launching of a new vision and new era for the renewal of popular resistance and Palestinian dignity." He's definitely not talking about Annapolis. Instead, this is the first-ever Palestinian conference to promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid. Almost 300 people-mostly Palestinian political activists, NGO workers, and university students, but with a sizable contingent of international activists as well-have gathered in a conference hall for a day of panel discussions and strategy sessions. Boycott Israel The call for BDS to isolate the state of Israel was issued more than two years ago, in 2005, and signed by 170 Palestinian organizations. They asked the international community to enact these punitive measures until Israel "recognize[s] the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law" in three ways: "ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting [...] the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194." In response, the global BDS campaign has taken off, attracting steadily growing support from progressive communities in South Africa, the UK, Europe, the US, and Canada. Strength in unity The conveners of this conference decided it was necessary to raise the local profile of the BDS campaign. They are hoping it will put all the Palestinian groups present on the same page and develop shared strategy and criteria for the campaign in order to provide clear Palestinian leadership for the global component. There is strength in unity, especially in an anti-colonial struggle where a primary tactic of the colonizer is always to weaken by fragmenting or to divide and conquer. As Gabi Baramki of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) puts it, "Feeling weak makes us lose dignity, and makes us act like a beggar accepting the remains from another people's table even if they are dipped in poison." Throughout the day, panelists expressed optimism that BDS will contribute to rekindling the kind of mass grassroots civil resistance that characterized the first Intifada. Yet there is some skepticism to be overcome concerning the effectiveness of a local boycott of Israeli products before BDS gains massive popular support here. Boycott campaigns against Israel have a history here that stretches as far back as the '20s. In that sense, Baramki points out, BDS is both a "new and old approach." But given the intense dependence of the Palestinian economy on Israel's economy-the result of years of Israeli de-development, land theft, and closure policies-there are also significant challenges to the local success of a consumer boycott. The participants in the conference agreed that for Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, the boycott will have to be limited to Israeli products for which a Palestinian alternative is available. For this reason, Jamal Juma' of the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign underscored the importance of linking boycott with supporting Palestinian agricultural and cultural production. Employment in Israel and the settlements is also exempt from the boycott-reality is such that far too many families rely on it to make ends meet. So on the ground in Palestine, a BDS campaign is just one of many strategies Palestinians must use to resist the daily devastation of Israeli apartheid and occupation. This is something that participants asserted repeatedly and emphatically during the question and answer periods that followed the morning's panels. International activists But as the day goes on, it strikes me-as it will several more times throughout my two-week stay-that for international activists, BDS is likely the most effective strategy for Palestine solidarity work. Unlike so many equally well-intentioned solidarity efforts, it doesn't seem condemned to reiterate the very exploitative or divisive dynamics of colonial relationships it is attempting to overcome. The BDS strategy is powerful precisely because it defies the political fragmentation that has been the consequence of Israel's expulsion, settlement, and bantustanization policies. As Jarrar emphasized, it contributes to building a united framework for a struggle for self-determination that Palestinians living in the Diaspora, Arab countries, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel can all participate in. BDS avoids creating a situation in which solidarity activists undermine that unity by funding or grooming the Palestinian counterpart that reflect their own sense of a just solution, or of what "self-determination" should look like. Islah Jahad, a professor of Women's Studies at Birzeit University, referred to BDS as a way of developing "joint ownership" over a political process, and contrasts it with the divisive "clientelism" that has characterized the vast majority of international support for Palestinian non-governmental organizations since the first Intifada. Most importantly, BDS is a framework for solidarity that directly counters normalization-the subtle and insidious processes from dialogue projects between Palestinian and Israeli women to the upgrading of military checkpoints into "terminals"-that legitimize Israel's colonization and occupation policies even as they purport to pursue peace. "How to stop normalization," says Juma', "is the major question for Palestinians today." By emphasizing the racism of the Israeli state and its policies, and insisting on Palestinians' inalienable rights to self-determination and to return, the BDS campaign attempts to answer that question. Beyond boycott The afternoon is devoted to three concurrent breakout sessions to discuss practical steps for BDS locally, within the Arab world, and internationally. I join about fifty other people for the one on international strategy. It is clear from the conversation that there is a great deal of work to be done to expand the understanding of the 'B' in BDS beyond consumer boycott, to encompass a multi-sector boycott of Israeli cultural, sports, and academic institutions as well. Where a consumer boycott is undertaken as a focus, the symbolic and educational value of the target is often more important than the actual economic impact of the boycott. Still more effort is needed to move beyond boycott to campaigns within labor unions and other institutions that have the power to divest. It is also apparent that the kind of coordination necessary to make this kind of global campaign work will require the kind of patience that international solidarity activists aren't necessarily known for cultivating. Virginia Magwaza-Setshedi from the Palestine Solidarity Committee had said it best earlier in the day when, drawing on South Africans' experience fighting an apartheid regime, she cautioned her audience against getting disillusioned when results come slowly at first: "Building a campaign like this takes years-a generation even." So although much of the potential of the BDS strategy can be expressed in terms of its capacity to bypass the contradictions that too frequently plague international solidarity work, it nonetheless provokes a different, and possibly more productive kind of dissonance. The urgency of responding to military occupation, ethnic cleansing, and land-theft collides uneasily with the painstaking coordination and education necessary to build a global movement to isolate Israel and contribute to dismantling its apartheid policies. On the 60 anniversary of the Nakba, we must build, urgently. Andréa Schmidt is a researcher based in Toronto. She wants to thank Rafeef, Justin, Kobi, and Abu Ahmed for conversations that contributed to the writing of this piece.