Israel has violated international law more than any other country, yet has rarely, if ever, been held accountable for its crimes and misconduct. Israel’s successful PR campaigns via ever-willing Western media partners, coupled with relentless work and pressure by its powerful backers in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere, have borne stupendous results.
For a while, it seemed Israel was able to maintain its occupation and deny Palestinians their rights indefinitely, while promoting itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Those who dared challenge that skewed paradigm via resistance in Palestine were eliminated or imprisoned. Those who challenged Israel in public arenas anywhere in the world were smeared as “anti-Semitic” or “self-hating Jews.”
Things seemed to move forward nicely for Israel. With Western financial and military aid, the size, population and economy of illegal settlements grew fast. Israel’s trade partners seemed oblivious to the fact that settlement products were manufactured or grown on illegally occupied Palestinian land. For a long time the occupation was very profitable, with very little censure or pressure.
Israeli leaders just had to adhere to the script: Palestinians are terrorists, we have no peace partner, Israel is a democracy, our wars are carried out in self-defense, and so on. The media repeated such misleading notions in unison. Palestinians — oppressed, occupied and disowned — were duly demonized. Those who knew the truth about the situation either faced the risk of speaking out and suffered the consequences, or remained silent.
But as the saying goes, “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Justice for Palestinians, which once seemed a lost cause, received a massive resurgence during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 2000.
Growing awareness due to the dedicated work of many intellectuals, journalists and students saw the arrival of thousands of international activists to Palestine as part of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Academics, artists, students, religious officials and ordinary people came to Palestine then fanned out to many parts of the globe, utilizing whatever medium available to spread a unified message to their numerous communities.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has grown to become the incubator of much of the international censure of Israel. Its early impact included artists who refused to entertain in Israel, then companies started to shut down their operations there, followed by churches and universities divesting from Israel’s economy.
It was that groundwork that facilitated the success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Established in 2005, BDS was a call made by Palestinian civil society organizations to people worldwide to take part in exposing Israel’s crimes and hold accountable its government, army and companies that benefit from subjugating Palestinians.
With large and growing networks already in place, BDS spread quickly and took the Israeli government by surprise. In the last decade, BDS proved resilient and resourceful, opening many new channels and platforms for discussions on Israel, its occupation, Palestinian rights, and moral accountability for those who support or ignore Israel’s violations of human rights.
What worries Israel most about BDS is what it calls the movement’s attempt to “delegitimize” it. Since its inception Israel has fought for legitimacy, but it is difficult to achieve without respecting the rules required for a country to be legitimate. Israel wants to have it both ways: Sustain its profitable occupation, test its latest weapons technology, detain, torture, besiege and assassinate while receiving international approval.
Using threats, intimidation and cutting off of funds, the US and Israel have labored to silence criticism of Israel, the main US ally in the Middle East, but to no avail. Just days ago, a UN report said Israel has established an “apartheid regime.” Although the report’s author Rima Khalaf resigned under pressure, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
BDS has grown to become the incubator of much of the international censure of Israel. Its early impact included artists who refused to entertain in Israel, then companies started to shut down their operations there, followed by churches and universities divesting from Israel’s economy. With time, Israel has found itself facing a unique, great challenge.
So what is Israel to do? Ignoring BDS has proved dangerous and costly. Fighting it is like launching a war on civil society. The more Israel tries to disrupt its work, the more it legitimizes BDS, offering it new platforms for debate, media coverage and public discussion.
In March 2016, a large conference brought together Israeli government officials, opposition leaders, media pundits, scholars and even entertainers from Israel, the US and elsewhere. The conference was organized by one of Israel’s largest media companies, Yediot Achronot. It was a rare display of unity in Israeli politics, with hundreds of influential Israelis and their backers trying to forge a strategy aimed at defeating BDS.
Many ideas were put on the table. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Dery threatened to revoke the residence of Omar Barghouti, BDS co-founder and one of its most effective voices. Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Israel Katz called for the “targeted civil elimination” of BDS leaders, signaling Barghouti in particular. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wanted BDS activists to “pay the price.”
The war on BDS had officially started, though the groundwork for that battle was already in motion. The UK government announced earlier in the year that it was illegal to “refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products, or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.” That same month, Canada passed a motion criminalyzing BDS.
A couple of months earlier, the US Senate passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, conflating the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel on US campuses, many of which have responded positively to the call made by BDS. Eventually the UK adopted a similar definition, equating anti-Jewish hate crimes and criticism of Israel.
More recently, Israel passed a law banning individuals accused of supporting BDS from entry to Israel. Considering that entering Israel is the only way to access the occupied Palestinian territories, the ban aims to sever the strong rapport that has been connecting Palestinians to the global solidarity movement.
The anti-BDS campaign culminated in the detention and interrogation of Barghouti himself. On March 19, Israeli tax authorities detained him and accused him of tax evasion. By doing so, Israel has revealed the nature of the next stage of its fight: Using smear tactics and faulting leading activists based on charges that are seemingly apolitical in order to distract from the urgent political discussion at hand.
Along with other steps, Israel feels that defeating BDS is possible via censorship, travel bans and intimidation. But its war on BDS is destined to fail, and as a direct result of that failure BDS will continue to flourish. Israel has kept global civil society in the dark for decades, selling it a misleading version of reality. But in the age of digital media and globalized activism, the old strategy will no longer deliver.
Regardless of what transpires in Barghouti’s case, BDS will not weaken. It is a decentralized movement with local, regional, national and global networks spanning hundreds of cities worldwide. Smearing one individual or 100 will not alter its progress. Israel will soon realize that its war on BDS, freedom of speech and expression is unwinnable. It is a futile attempt to muzzle a global community that now works in unison.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.