BDS: Decolonizing Palestine

Because I am a Palestinian, born to a “goy mother,” I do not have the option of leaving the blockaded Gaza Strip where I live to attend a conference, or a give a talk at any international academic institution. Along with the other two million Palestinians on this tiny coastal strip of land, my horizons are confined to 360 square kilometers. If we were Jews, then under Israel’s apartheid system and discriminatory basic laws, we would not only be invited back to our homes throughout historic Palestine, but provided all sorts of subsidies, housing, and support. This mass imprisonment of two million human beings, seventy to eighty percent of us refugees, just because we belong to the “wrong” religion, finds precedents only in the most horrific chapters of human history. Ask the architects of apartheid and Jim Crow!

The Gaza Strip, described as the largest concentration camp on earth by major human rights organizations, remains under a stifling siege for the tenth year in a row, notwithstanding international demands that the siege be lifted. International shipments of vitally needed medical supplies, food, clothing, and building materials have been systematically diverted by Israel using pirate-like raids against ships in international waters, as well as overland caravans. Some of these criminal attacks resulted in the massacre of peace activists and the injury of dozens of others aboard; the Mavi Marmara is a case in point.

Not only are we imprisoned, but we are subjected to regular attack. During its fifty-one-day-long assault on Gaza in 2014, Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children, and injured more than 12,000. International as well as Palestinian human rights organizations documented illegal use of weapons such as white phosphorus and cluster bombs. Of the tens of thousands of homes, schools, and businesses intentionally destroyed or seriously damaged by Israeli bombing and bulldozers, only one house has been rebuilt, since Israel uses the pretext of “security” to prevent the shipment of cement and other building materials into Gaza.

But the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank is also dire. The gigantic apartheid separation wall cuts Palestinians from their social, economic, and cultural centers and prevents them from working their land. Hundreds of checkpoints prevent normal travel, including visits to hospitals for essential medical care and attendance at schools and universities for both students and teachers—or just for maintaining normal family and social life.

So what are we suggesting?

BDS: A Strategy of Decolonization

The logic behind BDS is that for Zionism, like any other supremacist settler-colonial ideology, the “other”— the indigenous Palestinian people—must be assimilated and subjugated without being conscious of that subjugation. This was the thinking behind Israel’s decision to grant Palestinians “autonomy” under the Palestinian Authority. It is the logic behind the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The formation of the Boycott National Committee in 2007, two years after the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) call, together with the current uprising against Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression, are parts of a process of decolonization—as opposed to what the Oslo accords have done, namely, improving the conditions of oppression. Having learned that lesson, Palestinians’ anti-colonial resistance—especially the BDS movement—depends, like that of Black South Africans under the inhumane apartheid regime, and African Americans under Jim Crow laws, on the higher moral ground that they occupy as a result of being dispossessed of their internationally-recognized basic rights and land.

BDS activists do not buy the faint promise that redemption—in the form of “statehood” and “self-determination”—lies at the end of “negotiations” and “dialogue” with Israel. In fact, activists’ message is crystal clear: the problem is not only with the occupation, but also with settler colonialism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and Israel’s genocidal policies. Palestinian Civil Society strongly believes that the BDS movement is forging a new leadership, one that understands the unity of the cause of all Palestinians, whether inside or outside historic Palestine, whether refugees from today or from long, painful decades ago.

Boycott: A Strategy for De-Normalization

Palestinian academics and artists, especially in the Occupied Territories, sometimes get approached by Western, mainly American, associations with initiatives to engage in “dialogue” and “collaborate” with their Israeli counterparts, even though the former are under a system of occupation and apartheid. Seeds of Peace, One Voice, and Paths to Peace are just a few examples. All these initiatives ring serious alarm bells in light of the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). These associations usually come up with statements of purpose that are intentionally vague when it comes to issues related to Palestinians’ basic rights; it is, however, important for anyone who wishes to engage in serious “dialogue” to be aware that a condition of utmost and serious conflict exists between a colonial, apartheid occupying power, namely Israel, and the indigenous people. These dialogue and normalization programs often aim to provide Israel with a fig leaf in the hope of helping it cover its severe violations of human rights and international law.

The question we, Palestinian academics and cultural workers, always raise whenever we get approached to participate in such normalization projects is whether the Israeli partners in these projects are going to acknowledge the horror inflicted on their Palestinian counterparts? There are no two “equal” parties here: there is one side that has colonized both history and the land, ethnically cleansed most of the natives, and has been discriminating racially against the 1.4 million Palestinians who remain inside Israel as nominal citizens, as well as the roughly 10 million more Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip and the diaspora. Are these proposed “dialogues” between the oppressors and the oppressed expected to “speak truth to power”—as Edward Said put it—and take cognizance of the three demands endorsed by Palestinian civil society?

Palestinian academics and cultural workers have explicitly warned against projects that promote “false symmetry or balance.” In fact, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) condemns initiatives “based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the ‘conflict,’” as “intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible” because they often seek “to encourage dialogue or ‘reconciliation between the two sides’ ” without ever acknowledging basic injustices and power imbalances. Thus, such initiatives serve to “promote the normalization of oppression and injustice” (my emphases).

Under these guidelines, all “events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott.”

During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, no respectable academic institution collaborated with exclusively White universities; no respectable festival invited South African dance or music groups that were complicit in any way in justifying or whitewashing apartheid. Taking no position on apartheid was rightly regarded not as an expression of “neutrality” but rather as a form of complicity. Israel and its complicit institutions, including dance companies, should be treated with the same principles that were applied to apartheid South Africa.

Some claim that academia, art, and politics can be separated, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) knows this is not the case—it cynically uses the arts as a way to distract attention from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Not a single activist in the last century needed any convincing that art and politics cannot be separated: the world learned from South Africans that there can be no “normal” sports, art, business, or political relationships with an unjust and unequal society.

In 2009, Arye Mekel of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a reporter, “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits . . . This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” Brand Israel initiatives are designed to distract from the facts, including: Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands; Israel’s hundreds of Jewish-only settlements and “outposts” built on Palestinian land in violation of international law; Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank that further appropriates Palestinian land, also in violation of international law according to the International Court of Justice; Israel’s demolition of over 24,000 Palestinian homes since 1967; and Israel’s repeated invasions of Gaza which number more than five since the 2008-2009 invasion, prompting allegations of war crimes by a United Nations fact-finding mission. In addition, Israel has enacted over twenty laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel and enshrine their status as second-class citizens.

But BDS is working! Today, Israel’s intensifying construction of illegal colonial settlements and the wall, as well as its warmongering and obdurate disregard for international law in committing war crimes against the Palestinians, have all made Israel increasingly isolated in the world. A recent BBC poll reveals that Israel competes with North Korea over the position of third most negatively viewed country in the world. Large majorities across the world, including in all major European countries, view Israel “mostly negatively.” This explains the urgent need for polishing the state’s image through dance, music, and other fig leaves.

This is why we are working on raising our own and others’ consciousness that we are under a state of siege, facing the daily threat of extermination, and using all means in our power to resist and to preserve our communities. We believe that can only happen through a culture of resistance, a culture that will enable us to decolonize our mind of all normalization projects that keep repackaging the Oslo Accords.

Our argument is like that of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 70s and 80s of the last century: i.e., coexistence based on colonization and apartheid is no coexistence at all. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wisely said: “[We are] not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself [our] master. [We] want the full menu of rights.” And those rights are freedom, justice, and equality.

Haidar Eid

Haidar Eid is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Postmodern Literature at Gaza's al-Aqsa University. He is a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and a Policy Adviser with Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He is the author of Worlding Postmodernism: Interpretive Possibilities of Critical Theory.