BDS and Third World Internationalism

In 2005, indigenous Palestinians issued the most authoritative call for international solidarity to come out of Palestine in decades. A broad coalition of unions, popular organizations, and civil society institutions representing Palestinians within the 1967 occupied territories, Palestinian citizens inside Israel, and refugees in exile called on people of conscience throughout the world to implement comprehensive boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli settler colonial and apartheid system. Taking stock of what has become a global solidarity movement, this essay asks: what are the histories, genealogies, and anti-colonial traditions that underlie the indigenous Palestinian call for BDS?

In many ways, BDS reorients our attention to the role that indigenous popular forces, associations, and intellectuals are claiming, outside of both the traditional party framework and a compliant leadership in Palestine, in order to take the decolonial struggle forward, whether in Palestine or in Turtle Island. It is necessary to re-center the histories of anti-colonial struggle that underlie the BDS movement, which have been obfuscated in discussions of BDS. It is often overlooked that many of the Palestinian intellectuals, members of the women’s movement, activists, and artists who launched the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in 2004, or joined the broader BDS movement in 2005, were part of the mass-based movement that led the uprising decades earlier. The fourteen-year period of political organizing that culminated in the intifada of 1987 produced popular committees, women’s organizations, and cooperatives—to name but a few—that sought to delink Palestinian society from Israeli settler colonialism and build an alternative economy and egalitarian social order. As a key strategy, activists in this liberation struggle organized a boycott of the Israeli colonial economy (a form of Palestinian resistance that dates back to the 1920s) that also helped sustain mass resistance. Within the history of Palestinian resistance, therefore, civil organizations and associations, what might be called civil society, have been an organic part of the anti-colonial movement and have performed essential political roles in building consciousness and organizing resistance. The BDS movement emerged from this history.

The BDS movement thus reveals the varied histories and political genealogies that underlie the concept of civil society and disrupt the meanings the term has come to embody under global free market capitalism.

Given that civil society is a term often used by the BDS movement, and a contested one for some, I recover its meaning from within Palestine’s anti-colonial history, and while doing so locate the BDS movement within the Third World internationalist tradition, which it is both a part of and continues to keep alive. I am fully aware of the critique of NGOization in Palestine but I make the case that the BDS movement exemplifies the Gramscian concept of civil society par excellence: through BDS, Palestinian people’s organizations, which have a long history in the Palestinian liberation struggle, have created a counter-hegemonic force, backed by transnational solidarity, that opposes the ideologies inscribed through the Oslo Accords and resists the Zionist settler colonial and apartheid system.

It is necessary to differentiate the BDS movement from the NGO phenomenon in Palestine. NGOization and the deluge of donor funding that buttressed the Oslo “peace process” in 1993 individualized and deradicalized mass-based organizing. In my own critique of the non-profit industrial complex, I examine how former militant Palestinian cadres, now leaders of professionalized NGOs, became delinked from the anti-colonial struggle. The BDS movement counters this trend: its collective opposition to Zionist settler colonialism, after the devastating effects of the Oslo agreements, reveal that local forces have carved out a movement that counters this process of deradicalization.

One only has to look at the signatories of the 2005 unified Palestinian Call for BDS to see that this is a broad movement. This wide coalition is made up of forces including NGOs, but also mass-based organizations; trade unions representing academics and university employees, teachers, workers, and farmers; women’s organizations; and centers in the refugee camps. For example, there are grassroots women’s organizations, such as the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees, political movements like the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (STW) and the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, independent unions such as the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, as well as refugee organizations in Palestine and the diaspora that were excluded from the Oslo process. This coalition brings together the intermediary strata of associations that represent unions and workers, as well as social and political forces and movements that have historically been under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its political parties. Through the BDS movement, these forces have not only built a global solidarity movement, but they have claimed a space to restore the indivisibility of the Palestinian people and the struggle for liberation after the capitulations the Palestinian leadership made by signing the Oslo agreements, hijacking the PLO and the entire Palestinian movement.

Equally, I want to suggest that other histories of struggle have also been elided in current discussions of BDS. The attempts to conflate the BDS movement with a human rights campaign or a legal strategy are not only misinformed, but erase the histories of connections between Palestine and other liberation struggles that also underwrite the call for BDS. These purportedly radical attempts to take the movement to task silence the fact that the impetus behind indigenous Palestinians turning outwards, and calling for international solidarity in the form of a comprehensive boycott of the Israeli settler colonial apartheid regime, was not international law, but people’s power. Both the PACBI and the unified BDS call predicate themselves on “the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa.” In fact, the movement consciously borrowed from the struggle against colonialism and white supremacy in South Africa. BDS instrumentalizes human rights and international law, for strategic reasons. But many of the intellectuals and organizations behind the BDS movement also come from a different political tradition, one Randall Williams describes as a political epistemology produced in Third World struggles for decolonization.

Palestinians organizations like Stop the Wall, which are involved in organizing the arms embargo within the BDS movement today, spent significant time in South Africa after the intifada of 1987. It is there that the idea of mobilizing against the racist Israeli apartheid wall was born. South African trade union bodies such as COSATU played a pivotal role in expanding BDS in the early years. Before BDS was put on map in the United States, it is South African intellectuals and leaders who achieved what remains one of the most important victories for the academic boycott: in 2011 the University of Johannesburg became the first university to officially sever ties to an Israeli university by ending its relations with Ben Gurion University. Similarly, Hampshire College, which in 2009 became the first US university to divest its funds from companies profiting from Israel, also has important ties to the history of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, as the first university to divest from South Africa in 1977. So many of the ties currently forged through the BDS movement are linked to or build on the alliances of liberation struggles in the 1960-70s.

Against this backdrop, the real significance of the BDS movement is that it restores a framework for indigenous Palestinian struggle for decolonization, backed by transnational solidarity, in the post-Oslo order. The Oslo agreements sought to legitimize Israel as a settler-colonial apartheid state and undermined popular resistance. The agreements’ project of limited “autonomy” for indigenous Palestinians fragmented the territories occupied in 1967 into bantustans and ghettos. Haidar Eid suggests that Oslo embodies Zionist settler colonialism’s need for a new Palestinian consciousness in which the native “must be assimilated and enslaved without her/him being conscious of her/his enslavement.” By excluding from the parameters of the “peace agenda” the mass expulsions in 1948 of 85% of indigenous Palestinians and the apartheid policies against Palestinians inside Israel, instead focusing solely on Israel’s 1967 occupation of Palestinian land, Oslo sought to normalize Israeli settler colonial ideologies and structures of domination.

Thus the Palestinian BDS movement is best understood as the vehicle by which indigenous Palestinian civil and political society–both inseparable forces in the anti-colonial struggle–launched a challenge to Oslo and the settler-colonial and apartheid system it re-entrenched. It is often overlooked that the BDS call came at a time when so-called “realists” were floating various proposals for giving up Palestinian refugees’ right to return (ROR). The BDS movement established the widest possible coalition of civil and political groups that reestablished the integrity of the indigenous Palestinian struggle for liberation, by reasserting the indivisibility of the rights of Palestinian refugees as well as the rights of native Palestinians inside Israel. Thus BDS transformed the entire debate from a “conflict” under “occupation,” to one of a struggle against settler colonialism and racial supremacy.

That said, the BDS movement has made clear that it is not a replacement for the PLO or a democratically elected national body representing the Palestinian people. Whether to rebuild the PLO or replace it with another national body is an internal discussion Palestinians are having. In contrast to the superficial argument that suggests BDS coopts the national liberation struggle with a liberal human rights discourse, I contend that the BDS movement strategically deployed a rights–based discourse in ways that transcend this discourse. Though presented as rights-claims, the BDS call’s three demands lay out the parameters for decolonization. In this respect, the movement strategically utilizes a rights discourse to overturn the way the indigenous Palestinians’ rights to life and sovereignty over all of their land have been rendered unintelligible by Zionist settler claims to native lands. The practical realization of the three rights of native Palestinians that the movement insists on will necessitate the dismantling of Israel’s settler colonial and apartheid order and military occupation. Following the disarray of Oslo, the movement’s demands together reestablish a framework for decolonization and suggest visions of Palestinian liberation.

Finally, building on the analysis above, I want to suggest that the BDS movement comes out of and continues the tradition of Third World, decolonial, internationalist struggles. The fact that the BDS movement has learned from strategies used by the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa and forged deep alliances with comrades in Brazil and elsewhere has not been taken seriously. In fact, the BDS movement has created a framework for international solidarity that has restored relations among organizations and activists within Palestine, with unions, and across indigenous, Black Liberation, feminist, LGBT, and student movements on a scale not seen since the 1970s, when the PLO allied with movements across the global south. The BDS movement refocuses attention on the way our own universities, governments, and corporations profiting from Israeli settler colonialism are directly connected to the oppression of indigenous Palestinian people. It directs us to the question of how we can end this complicity. In doing so, it also enables alliances between peoples resisting oppression, linking Palestine to struggles against militarism, mass incarceration, and policing, as well as indigenous land claims and struggles in North America.

BDS campaigns have exposed the way Israeli corporations are exporting technologies of repression developed on native Palestinian bodies to Latin America, the US, and beyond and how these technologies are used to police poor communities of color. For example, activists launched a campaign to get the Israeli security company ISDS out of the 2016 Olympics Games in Brazil, politicizing and opposing the linkages between Israeli techniques used to repress Palestinians, Israel’s involvement in training right-wing Latin American dictators in the 1980s, and Israel’s current role in training a Brazilian police force that violently represses the favelas and disproportionately kills Afro-Brazilians.

The BDS movement’s most powerful weapon is the tide of rising internationalist solidarity.. This internationalist solidarity is not new: it is rooted in a prior history of relationships that these movements have forged since the 1960-70s. As Mumia Abu Jamal powerfully states:

[T]o millions of people, throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, [Palestinians’] unjust and cruel treatment at the hands of the Zionists finds purchase in hearts worldwide.
From their epic losses spring the fruits of solidarity that binds us, human to human, oppressed to oppressed.
As the cruelties of imperialism mount, giving rise to anger and distaste, the forces of solidarity grow too, encapsulating the majority of the people of the earth.

Salma Musa

Salma Musa is a Palestinian scholar.