Setting The Record Straight On BDS


The Palestinian civil society campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel came under attack in recent weeks from Murdoch media outlets, politicians and various interest groups as Sydney’s Marrickville Council struggled to keep the BDS resolution that they had adopted in December last year. The wild distortions and outright fabrications against BDS and its supporters in Sydney peaked in an article by Leo Shanahan, "Greens’ boycott rebounds", published in The Australian on the day of the Council meeting when the BDS motion was rescinded. 

Marrickville Council has since reaffirmed its support for the principles of the BDS campaign by actually spelling out the three fundamental Palestinian rights that constitute the minimum requirements for the Palestinian people to exercise our right to self determination.

Although the Council, after months of unprecedented bullying, threats, smear campaigns, and intimidation orchestrated by well-oiled Israel lobby groups, felt compelled not to put that principled support into action in the form of specific BDS measures, the fact that it stood its ground defending these basic Palestinian rights, as outlined in the BDS Call, is praiseworthy and quite inspiring. BDS is about asserting our long forgotten rights, first and foremost. Action to achieve those rights can come later, when the ground is fertile enough and resistance to intellectual terror and misinformation is higher.

Regardless, the record needs to be set straight. Misrepresentations of the type that litters Shanahan’s article should not go unchallenged. As the great Palestinian thinker Edward Said once said, "[D]espite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken …"

Shanahan dismissively writes, "The BDS is a movement advocated by a multitude of left-wing political parties, universities, trade unions and other local governments throughout the world." He writes this even though he admits just a few lines above that BDS is a Palestinian-led movement. In fact, BDS is called for by the largest and broadest coalition ever created of Palestinian civil society institutions, political parties, trade unions and NGO networks.

On 9 July 2005, the Palestinian BDS Call was issued, endorsed by more than 170 of the leading institutions in Palestinian society. It called for holding Israel to account for its three-tiered system of oppression, for its persistent violations of international law to compel it to end its 1967 occupation of all Arab lands, including East Jerusalem; its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens which was described in the 2010 US Department of State human rights report as constituting "institutional, legal and societal discrimination"; and respecting the UN-sanctioned right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes of origin, as stipulate in UN Resolution 194.

Shanahan quotes a member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies making a baseless claim about me. He claims that I had said that BDS aims at "getting a Palestine next to a Palestine rather than a Palestine next to Israel." This is categorically false; I never made this statement.

Israel lobby propagandists have intentionally fabricated this claim by omitting its crucial context to insinuate that the BDS movement is bent on what they characterise as the "destruction of Israel". The remark above was part of a quote that I cited in an article and several presentations; it was first stated by a prominent Palestinian academic who argued that the right of return of Palestinian refugees in accordance with international law would lead, from an Israeli perspective, to a Palestine next to a Palestine. The point he was making is that Israel would not allow this aspect of international law to be implemented in order to maintain its ethnocentric and exclusivist nature in a two-state settlement. In responding to his argument, I insisted that the right of refugees to return home is deeply enshrined in international law and that implementing it would not "destroy" anyone or any people; it would simply end Israel’s apartheid regime and pave the road to real justice and democracy. If an unjust version of the two-state settlement is conditioned upon giving up the right of return, I argued, then we can do without that solution, but we cannot possibly surrender the UN-sanctioned rights of the refugees who make up two thirds of the Palestinian people.

For more than 28 years, I have, in my personal capacity, consistently and openly advocated a secular democratic state in the entire area of historic Palestine, where everyone enjoys equal rights, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or any identity attribute. This, to my mind, is the most ethically consistent formula that can accommodate the inalienable right of Palestian people to self determination with the rights of all the inhabitants of the land to justice, peace, equality, and democratic rights.

But this is certainly not the position of the BDS movement. The movement has consistently advocated a rights-based approach, consistently refraining from endorsing either of the one-state or two-state solutions. Any review of the hundreds of statements and media interviews by the BDS National Committee (BNC), the massive Palestinian coalition leading the international BDS movement, will confirm this. The BNC’s vision is for freedom, justice, and equal rights for all, regardless of identity and no matter what political solution is reached. People’s rights must be protected and respected above everything else. Furthermore, as a movement anchored in the universal principle of equality of all humans, BDS is firmly opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

This humanist platform is the essence of the BDS movement and the key behind its impressive growth. Many international trade union federations of the size of the Brazilian CUT (representing more than 20 million workers) and the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) and of the great symbolic significance of the South African COSATU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, have joined the BDS campaign, selecting diverse forms of implementing it. Faith-based groups, Jewish organisations, leading artists and music groups, and iconic moral leaders of the calibre of Archbishop Desmond Tutu also support the boycott of Israel, drawing parallels with the ultimately successful boycott and divestment campaign utilised in the strategy to end apartheid in South Africa.

In his article, Shanahan also unquestioningly repeats the inaccurate claim that implementation of BDS "would cost Marrickville ratepayers $3.7 million", an assertion that lazily ignores the track record of local council implementation of BDS.

Scores of councils across Europe have, at no cost at all, heeded the BDS call by excluding the French company Veolia from bidding on contracts. Why? Due to its involvement in an Israeli rail system serving illegal settlements that has been criticised by the UN Human Rights Council. Veolia is now considering ending its involvement. Local councils in Spain voted to support BDS and implemented their policy simply by switching bottled water provider to one other than Eden Springs, an Israeli company that sources its water from the Israeli-Occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Whether it is local councils changing service providers, artists such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and U2’s Bono refusing to play in Israel, or the University of Johannesburg severing its ties with an Israeli university complicit with violations of international law, standing up against Israeli spartheid needn’t cost a thing. It does, however, express a moral stand with the oppressed.

Finally, regarding the often discussed issue of violence and counter-violence, it is crucial to emphasise that Israel’s occupation, colonisation and denial of refugee rights are the roots of all violence. Israel’s illegal and patently immoral siege of Gaza, described recently by British Prime Minister David Cameron as a large "prison camp," is the embodiment of violence. Israel’s gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem is one of the cruelest manifestations of a policy of state violence aimed at further expulsion and dispossession of the indigenous Palestinians. To end all violence once must snuff out its causes: Israel’s decades-long, ruthless occupation and apartheid.

Those who truly care about all human life, as I do, and who think that any civilian life lost is a life too many should do their utmost to support the exceptionally effective, manifestly creative, morally consistent and impeccably non-violent BDS movement to end Israel’s impunity and violations of international law.

As Archbishop Tutu says :

Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence — but surely we must recognize that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The Marrickville Council was on the right side of history when it first chose to endorse the global BDS campaign. It remains so by insisting on Palestinian rights, despite the tactical setback. Brave Australians had done the same when responding to the calls from the oppressed South African majority under apartheid. We expect no less from conscientious Australians today in response to our urgent appeal for effective solidarity. I have no doubt that one day commentators and activists will mark Marrickville’s decision as the true beginning of mainstreaming BDS in Australia and of finally standing up to Israel’s lobby and for the rights of Palestinians.


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