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BDS: Can three simple letters spell liberation for one of the world’s most polemical conflicts?

“It is no longer enough to try and change Israel from within. Israel has to be pressured in the same way apartheid South Africa was forced to change.”

Those are the words of Yonatan Shapira, a former captain in the Israeli Air Force turned anti-apartheid activist. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign he supports has grown in just a few years to be a key strategy internationally for the advancement of Palestinian rights.

BDS is straightforward: “the application of pressure in an effort to change government and corporate practices”. The call from NGOs, trade unions, faith groups, and students in Palestine includes three demands that encompass the core rights denied Palestinians by Israel: ending the military occupation, equality for Palestinians inside Israel, the right of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties.

There are four main reasons for why BDS is necessary. The first, most important reason is the reality of Israel’s ongoing policies of colonisation and apartheid.Israel’s settlements in the Occupied West Bank are built in defiance of international law, a position clarified in various UN resolutions, by the EU, UK government, and others. The Separation Wall has also been condemned, most notably by the International Court of Justice inThe Haguein 2004.

The Israeli government and military routinely carry out gross violations of rights: demolishing homes outside the context of military necessity; holding Palestinians without trial; controlling people’s freedom of movement based on what kind of ID they hold. In Occupied East Jerusalem – a territory Israel unilaterally and illegally annexed – Palestinian residents suffer from harsh discriminatory practices, including the rescinding of their very ‘right’ to live in the city.

Meanwhile, millions of Palestinians remain refugees, the legacy of the ethnic cleansing that took place with Israel’s establishment in 1948, when the majority of Palestinians inside the new borders were excluded, forbidden from returning, and their property confiscated.

Israel’s conduct has been slammed in numerous UN resolutions – and this leads us to the second reason for BDS: the absence of accountability. While groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and many others record the facts, what is missing at the governmental level is the will to enforce international norms. BDS is a response to this continued impunity, a way for Palestinians to seek support and solidarity that should be, but for now isn’t, given by Western governments.

Thirdly, BDS educates.Palestinesolidarity actions, including those using the tactics of boycott and divestment, stimulate debate and discussion on campus, and provide an invaluable opportunity to increase awareness about the facts on the ground.

And fourthly, the BDS campaign empowers people to take action and make a difference. Just as students and non-students alike have answered the call from numerous oppressed groups in the past and through to today, the Palestinian call for action offers an alternative to apathy or complicity.

You might hear a number of objections to BDS. One claim is that it ‘singles out’Israel. Well, yes, it does: the Palestinians have not been dispossessed or occupied by Guatemala. Those making the point would not dream of accusing Tibetan activists of ‘singling out’China, or tell campaigners against child slavery to go focus on something else. In fact, this objection implies that Palestinians as a people are uniquely prohibited from resisting their oppression and seeking allies in their struggle.

A second objection is that BDS ‘creates tension’ on campus, a criticism sometimes accompanied by the suggestion that Jewish students are being ‘targeted’. This is a cheap shot that seeks to smear students committed to human rights. Those active in BDS include Palestinians, Jews, and many others. Whenever injustice is challenged, a tension will occur: between those who seek to remove it, and those wanting to defend the status quo.

BDS has also been criticised on the grounds that ‘it hasn’t worked’, i.e. its goals of implementing Palestinian rights has not been realised. I’m not sure if those making this argument understand how strange it sounds: thank goodness they weren’t around in the 1970s to tell anti-apartheid activists, ‘Give up, this boycott South Africathing isn’t going anywhere’.

A more substantial objection is that BDS alienates the Israeli peace camp. But who is in this ‘peace camp’? The Israelis who yearn for the days of Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli leader committed just like all the others to maintaining a regime of ethno-religious discrimination and colonisation? The ‘peace camp’ that calls for a withdrawal from some or all of the West Bank – only in order to secure Jewish privilege in the majority of the land? Thankfully, there are Israelis who genuinely believe in peace with justice, and who join Palestinians in co-resistance to the system of discrimination. Israelis like Shapira, who support the call for boycott.

The words of Martin Luther King, in his letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, resonate today:

“Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

To emphasise: BDS is a tactic, not an end in and of itself. It is a response to a call from Palestinians, and makes a direct link between Israeli crimes and a response to them. It is a sign of hope, not despair. And it is a grassroots strategy steeped in a rich, historical tradition of opposition to all sorts of injustice.

Boycott and divestment are not mysterious or new: BDS is a well-trodden path as a means of effecting change and challenging the powerful. It is not the only means of showing solidarity with Palestinians, and BDS must be part of a bigger picture, one element in a broader programme for Palestinian liberation. But it is our part to play. It is our response to the call from Palestinians, and in taking action, we can make a vital contribution to the establishment of a just resolution to the conflict.

First published by the London Student.

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