Raffaele Piccolo
Last updated: 19 August, 2014

Is BDS just BS?

"There is a huge disconnect between the origins of the BDS campaign in Palestine, the Palestinian people and the European/Western Palestinian solidarity movement," writes Raffaele Piccolo.

The conflict in Gaza has given the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign greater prominence, and the global movement a renewed sense of vibrancy. BDS seeks to end the conflict that has plagued Palestine and Israel by placing economic pressure upon Israel and in turn forcing it to change its policies and interactions vis-á-vis the Palestinian people and Palestine. It encourages people to stop buying Israeli produced goods, services and interacting with Israeli institutions such as universities (boycott), to pull investment from Israeli companies (divestment) and to implement restrictions against Israel (sanctions). 

It is a somewhat novel tactic given that the conflict has for the most part been characterised by violence, destruction and death. However like any campaign, one of the greatest weaknesses of the BDS campaign can be found in the diverging levels of commitment or adherence to the core premise amongst its proponents and supporters.

“BDS was instigated in Palestine by Palestinian organisations”

The greatest attribute of the BDS campaign is that it was not a top down, European/Western originating campaign. BDS was instigated in Palestine by Palestinian organisations. This is important as it gave the campaign legitimacy, placed the Palestinian people in a position of empowerment and ownership of the campaign and allowed them to be agents in directing the course of their future (and the end of the conflict).

Globally the campaign has gained momentum. In January 2014 the Norwegian government announced that its pension fund will no longer be allowed to invest in Africa Israel Investment and Danya Cebus. In that same month, the largest bank in Denmark, Danske Bank, blacklisted the Israeli bank Bank Hapoalim. In May, Bill Gates sold his stake of shares in G4S. G4S is a British security firm that has contracts with the Israeli prison system and Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Not long after, G4S announced that it would not seek to renew its contract with the Israeli prison system on its expiry.

It is clear the effects of the BDS campaign are being felt. The Israeli Minister of Finance recently drew parallels between the campaign and the outcome in apartheid South Africa. He said that as a result of the BDS campaign Israel is on the cusp of reaching the same ‘tipping point’ as that which saw South Africa left isolated from the international community. It is estimated that in 2013 the BDS campaign was responsible for an approximately 100M NIS ($30M USD) loss in the Israeli agriculture sector alone.

These are all things that the proponents of the BDS campaign have sought to achieve. Nevertheless, despite the Palestinian origins of the campaign, one cannot help but feel that there is a huge disconnect between the origins of the BDS campaign in Palestine, the Palestinian people and the European/Western Palestinian solidarity movement.

On one hand, one does have to wonder if the campaign has not been hijacked by the European/Western Palestinian solidarity movement and/or if the campaign really ever had any currency outside of the Palestinian elites. Amongst the protests that have recently taken place across the world there have been renewed calls for boycotts. Activists march carrying posters and make chants that call on private individuals, groups and governments to get behind the BDS campaign.

Yet on the other hand, similar sentiments or actions have not historically been widely visible in Palestine. At the regular rallies that take place at al-Manara, Ramallah, there are posters that liken Israel’s actions in Gaza to genocide, yet the BDS movement does not feature heavily. Moreover one would expect shops in Palestine to be the leading advocates and participants in the BDS campaign, but that is not the case. A European/Western supporter of the Palestinian cause who walked down from al-Manara towards Palestine Street in Ramallah would be struck by the lack of adherence to the core premise of the BDS campaign; to boycott Israeli products. Quite simply Israeli products are plentiful.

However one cannot ignore the renewed enthusiasm the conflict in Gaza has provided the BDS campaign in Ramallah. Whether this renewed enthusiasm in BDS brings about behavioural change at a local level, is too early to know.

“One have to wonder if the campaign has not been hijacked by the European/Western Palestinian solidarity movement”

The BDS campaign is different to that which played a role in bringing down apartheid in South Africa. With regards to the boycott campaign for South Africa the majority of the international community was largely (eventually) united in its opposition to the situation. The campaign was successful in large part because of the involvement and willingness of national governments to support the boycott. This remains a significant point of diversion between the boycott of South Africa and the BDS campaign. Putting aside exceptions such as Norway (as mentioned above), for the most part, governments are not willing to get involved in the BDS campaign. This is despite the fact that most agree upon certain fundamentals (for example that East Jerusalem is occupied and settlement construction in the West Bank is illegal).

It is clear that unlike the boycott of South Africa, the BDS campaign must be a people’s movement, as opposed to a government movement; the Palestinian Authority remains conflicted in its stance. This means that for all the global supporters that the campaign has garnered since it was launched in 2005, the campaign must go back to its grassroots for it to be really successful. It must once again become a campaign that is owned by Palestinians, a campaign that empowers Palestinians to become agents for their own future.

The leadership for the campaign should, once again, come from the Palestinians. The campaign ought to be as visible in a shop in Ramallah as it is in a supermarket in Ireland. So long as it is otherwise, one can’t help but wonder, is it all just BS?

The views expressed are the author’s own.