Mohammed Nabulsi

“Crawling on our knees so as to gain the sympathy of official Western quarters will do nothing to diminish our alienation from the world." Mahmoud Darwish[1] 

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched on July 9, 2005 by the Palestinian Civil Society (consisting of more than 170 Palestinian civil organizations), calls upon the international community to implement broad boycotts and divestment initiatives, and to pressure states to impose embargoes and sanctions against the state of Israel. With boycott and divestment initiatives now spanning the globe, Israel continues to experience the economic consequences of its policies towards the Palestinians. A recent UN report attributes the almost 50% drop in foreign direct investment into Israel over the last year at least in part to BDS efforts, and estimates of annual losses range from $1.4 billion to $4.7 billion.

Yet in marking the achievements of BDS after ten years, it is important to reflect on its current state moving forward. BDS is generally understood to be a nonviolent project anchored in universal principles of human rights by which the international community can affect Israeli policy, but its politics and strategic vision have been widely contested. Some activists argue that in choosing not to adopt “any specific political formula,” BDS can remain flexible to account for, in Omar Barghouti’s words, “context particularities, political conditions, and the readiness in will and capacity of the BDS activists.”[2] But this lack of political direction makes BDS politically incoherent—specifically on the question of the one-state-two-state solution. To this point, international relations scholar Lee Jones argues that because BDS “lacks consensus on the end goals, and the mechanisms by which BDS is meant to contribute to their achievement … it neither focuses on activating these mechanisms, nor does it evaluate ‘success’ sensibly.”[3]

At the Socialism 2011 conference, Barghouti explained that he considers BDS a “liberal agenda” insofar as it is grounded in principles of “freedom, justice and equality.” Though this characterization, understandably, acts as a means to garner wider appeal, it presents a serious danger for the Palestinian cause: it ultimately provides that the Western liberal framework—a framework that (purposely) fails to properly account for and asses the realities on the ground—is the framework by which solidarity activists can advance the Palestinian cause.[4]

The movement’s political incoherence in the context of its seemingly default characterization as a “liberal” project misrepresents the plight of the Palestinians and undermines their liberation strategy. It is important to understand that Palestinians made the call for the implementation of BDS as an element of (rather than an alternative to) their liberation strategy. To remedy this and to remain true to its intent, BDS must be situated within the greater context of Palestinian resistance via an anti-colonial framework.

The liberal West interacts with the question of Palestine with an underlying racism that comes into full view in its discussion of the actors’ supposed political structures (or ideologies) as well as the ‘essential’ attributes of their respective populations. It interacts with Israel as a ‘liberal, pluralist democracy,’ i.e., an outpost of Western civilization in the uncivilized East, whose alliance advances its strategic, economic and political interests. With the Palestinians, the story is a little more complicated. Hamas, the governing body in Gaza, is considered an ‘undemocratic’ (though democratically elected), ‘Islamist,’ and ‘fundamentalist’ entity whose only interest is to see the destruction of the State of Israel. The Palestinian Authority (PA), though at times treated as the only potential partner for peace (read: capitulators), is viewed as a corrupt, incompetent administrator of Israeli (colonial) security interests in the West Bank.

This racist political dichotomy also extends to the populations in question. The liberal West posits itself as a ‘mediator’ between an uncivilized, violent Arab population and an enlightened, peace-seeking, Jewish population. The Israeli Jews, an essentially non-essential group, represent Europeanized (and yet ancient) others that have the misfortune of finding themselves, after escaping the brutalization of the West, in a hostile “Oriental” environment. Because the Palestinians have been displaced and dispossessed in Palestine, the Palestinians are, first and foremost, as Edward Said articulated, “nonpersons.” The Israeli Jews had to become, themselves, the only persons in Palestine. However, the Palestinians are not completely erased. They enter the liberal West’s gaze only as “trouble, negation, and ‘bad values.’”[5] The racist conception of the Palestinians, both politically and culturally (or socially), vis-à-vis Israeli Jews, however, is not enough in the ‘post-colonial’ era to discursively justify supporting the Zionist project.

In order for the liberal West to reconcile its interests with a supposed commitment to nation-state building (along with various other liberal principles), it must move to define not only the nature of the respective parties, but also the nature of the ‘conflict’ itself. To this end, it has characterized itself as an ‘impartial mediator’ in a clash between two rival nationalisms, each vying for their deserved right to self-determination. Though on its face, the underlying racist dichotomy appears at odds with this seemingly neutral characterization of the ‘conflict,’ these two aspects work in concert to consistently reproduce a discourse that privileges and sustains (read: advances) Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

It is important to note that the liberal West characterizes the ‘conflict’ as such not to acknowledge that Palestinian nationalism exists (or that it existed in the past), but rather to assert that though the Zionist project has acted as an expansionist, separatist settler-colonial enterprise since its inception, it is simply a Jewish nationalist project—a project that is compatible with the existence of the Palestinians in Palestine. Therefore, in spite of the status quo (i.e., the continued colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine), both parties, theoretically, still have an ‘equal’ right to self-determination.

Furthermore, this creates the illusion that though the Palestinians, wherever they find themselves, live in a constant state of suffering, and though they are militarily, structurally, and politically destitute, they are on equal footing or symmetrical to the Israeli state insofar as both parties are capable of negotiating (through this ‘impartial’ mediator) to advance their respective right to self-determination. Thus, because a symmetrical relationship supposedly exists between both parties, it is not the nature of the ‘conflict,’ i.e., it is not the colonizer-colonized relationship, that perpetuates the continued suffering of the Palestinian people, but rather the nature of parties themselves—specifically the nature of the Palestinians as uncivilized and violent. By this logic, the solution to the question of Palestine becomes a question of whether the Palestinians are willing to give up their uncivilized and violent ways.

An obvious example of such a discursive move is the “land-for-peace” formula within the context of the so-called “peace-process.” Joseph Massad, in discussing the “land-for peace” formula and the adoption of Western, liberal “lingo” by Palestinian leaders, states:

[The “land-for-peace”] formula prejudices the entire process by presupposing that Israel has “land” which it would be willing to give to the “Arabs,” and that the “Arabs”—seen as responsible for the state of war with Israel—can grant Israel the peace for which it has longed for decades … Whereas the Israelis are asked (and are presented as willing) to negotiate about property, the (Western) bourgeois right par excellence, Palestinians and other Arabs are asked to give up violence—or more precisely “their” violent means—which is an illegitimate right attributable only to uncivilized barbarians.[6]

The illusion of a “peace process” that tempers Palestinian incivility owes its success in advancing the Zionist project, in part, to the hegemonic intervention of Western liberal discourse.

To make the Palestinian cause palatable to liberal sensibilities, the drafters of the BDS call strategically presented BDS through the language of ‘human rights.’ For many, especially within the liberal West, the human rights movement presents an (apolitical) alternative to the politically charged nature of conflict resolution by operating ‘neutrally’ (i.e., without particular political interests or goals in mind) and ‘universally’ (i.e., independent of context). Yet it is undeniable that, as legal scholar David Kennedy notes, the human rights movement expresses the “ideology, ethics, aesthetic sensibility and political practice” of the liberal West.[7] In turn, it cannot be delinked from the ideological tendencies of the liberal West, and, generally speaking, can only be mobilized within the discursive constraints of Western liberalism.

Though formulated through human rights and appealing to the inalienable right to self-determination, the BDS call does make precise political demands. It states that the strategy ought to be maintained until Israel fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

  1. ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Many within the liberal West do not consider the affirmation of these three ‘rights’ to be a politically neutral act, despite the human rights-based language and the lack of political formulation on the part of BDS.[8] Instead, they insist that they necessarily have political implications (that they do not espouse), often accusing the BDS movement of being intent on destroying the state of Israel. Although such intentions are not entirely apparent in the language of the BDS call, they arrive at such a conclusion because these critics understand the question of Palestine through a Western liberal framework.

For these critics, these three rights, taken individually or holistically, constitute a tremendous threat to the state of Israel. Realizing the first demand would jeopardize Israel’s ability to protect its population from the ‘illegitimate’ and ‘senseless’ violence of the Palestinians—echoing the “land-for-peace” formula. Though many would assert that Israel is a democracy with ‘equal’ rights for all its citizens, they would, in being good liberals, view the second demand to recognize said rights as ‘laudable’ (even if only in theory). It is when combined with the third demand, which garners the staunchest opposition within the liberal West, that it becomes an immense point of contention. They argue that allowing the refugees to return to the homes and land from which they were displaced (combined with granting them equal rights) would render the Israeli establishment incapable of maintaining its ‘Jewish character.’ In other words, the 5 million returning refugees would potentially undermine Jewish political, social, and demographic supremacy in Israel, which is what protects it from becoming oriental (i.e., uncivilized, anti-democratic, and anti-western).

Ultimately, what these critics have come to (correctly) recognize is that the political implication of the demands forwarded by the BDS call, which represent the interests of all Palestinians, is the decolonization of Palestine. The drafters of the BDS call mistakenly assumed their anti-colonial demands to be compatible with Western liberalism, notwithstanding their appeal to Western, liberal ideals. So, in order to resist the dominant discourse’s hegemony, the BDS movement must adopt an anti-colonial framework through which it can advance its goals. In turn, BDS activists may then begin to resolve the essential challenges confronting the movement and to formulate a means by which to support the Palestinian cause for liberation.

An anti-colonial framework, by definition, moves to account for the structural and material realities within the context of a colonizer-colonized relationship. It places at the forefront the constraints facing a colonized population as well as the colonizer’s advantages, and only then does it put forth a strategy for liberation. In other words, unlike the case of Western liberalism, the nature of the relationship pre-exists any formulation of politics. Therefore, it is only in understanding and identifying Zionism as a separatist, settler-colonialist project (as Palestinian resistance has for more than a century)[9] can we begin to develop a strategic vision for the BDS movement that will allow us to evaluate the mechanism by which we can define and achieve ‘success.’

In addition to a proper account of Israel’s relation to the Palestinians, the BDS movement must recognize the differing material realities and interests among the various Palestinian diasporic communities. In other words, an anti-colonial framework must inform our understanding of the relations between competing Palestinian groups and their respective relations to the state of Israel. It is not enough to simply conceive of our movement as aligning itself with the 'voices' or ‘interests’ of the ‘Palestinians.’ What this means for BDS activists is that in developing the strategic vision of BDS, we must (1) look to and support Palestinian resistance groups and civil organizations that remain steadfast, in the face of PA-Israel collaboration, in their commitment to anti-colonial struggle—groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad; and (2) commit ourselves to supporting a one-state solution (whether a bi-national or secular democratic Palestinian-Israeli state) because it is the only political solution that, in recognizing the colonial nature of ‘conflict’, attempts to account for the realities and interests of all Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees.

Mohammed Nabulsi is a Palestinian-American student activist at the University of Texas School of Law. He is currently pursuing his legal education with an interest in human rights, civil rights, and international law. He is also a member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (UT Austin) where he has helped organize boycott and divestment initiatives at the University of Texas as well as within the Austin, Texas community.

Image from The Lawless Line by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency); Photograph by Amina Bech

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[1] “Yasser Arafat in Berlin,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1973): 168.

[2] Omar Barghouti, Boycott Divestment Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 61, 217.

[3] Lee Jones, “Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian BDS Campaigns,” Boycotts: Past and Present, ed. David Feldman. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, in press, 2015), 2.

[4] Though an understanding of ‘liberalism’ as a flexible theoretical framework may suggest that the problems presented here are not necessarily constitutive of such, it remains that any theoretical model and the ideals it espouses are inextricable from the particular material, ideological, and political contexts in which they are situated.

[5] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 38-39.

[6] Joseph A. Massad, “Palestinians and the limits of racialized discourse,” in The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, ed. Joseph A. Massad. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 58.

[7] David Kennedy, “The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?,” Harvard Human Rights Journal 15 (2002): 118, accessed August 10, 2015.

[8] Noura Erakat, “BDS in the USA, 2001-2010,” in The Case for Sanctions Against Israel, ed. Audrea Lim. (New York: Verso, 2012), 88.

[9] In 1911 parliamentary speeches, deputy Rushi al-Khalidi warned that “the aim of the Zionists … is the creation of an Israeli kingdom whose capital will be Jerusalem,” while another deputy, al-‘Asali declared that the Zionists intended “to create a strong state, for after taking possession of the land will expel the inhabitants either by force or through the use of wealth.” Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity the Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 32.