The 2014 annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest Zionist political lobby in the US, much like its predecessor conferences, did not address the seven decades of unchallenged human rights abuses perpetrated by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people. What set apart this seemingly routine exhibition of Zionist apathy towards Palestinian suffering, characteristic of the American political mainstream, was Benjamin Netanyahu’s iconic speech that infamously re-christened BDS as the movement of “bigotry, dishonesty and shame.” When held up against what BDS actually stands for, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, Netanyahu’s words appear misguided. To criticize a nonviolent activism movement that demands freedom, justice and equality for a people living under settler colonialism, inspired by the movement against apartheid in South Africa, on an international forum only perpetuates the image of Israel as a state immune to international law, which has a blasé commitment to human rights.
BDS’ success in containing Israeli aggression hence plays up as a direct contrast to this. By creating a global network of politically responsible activists who shape passive global opinion into active opposition of Israeli apartheid and colonialism through nonviolent pressure campaigns, BDS offers a novel way to restrain Israel in a way international law cannot.
International law has been at the heart of the political debate surrounding the conflict between the Palestinian people and Israel. To understand this debate, it is imperative to distinguish the core principles of the law from its physical manifestation- enforcement. That Israel is in violation of the core tenets of International Humanitarian Law, proportionality and distinction in armed conflict, is common knowledge. Through the repeated bombardments of the Gaza Strip, continual expansion of Israeli settlements into the occupied West Bank, denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced during the Nakba of 1948, and normalization of military violence against Palestinians resisting occupation, Israel has proved its irreverence to the spirit of international law and governance time and time again. The law’s ethical opposition to Israel also indicates its alignment with justice for Palestine. In practice however, imposition of law on Israel is infeasible. Institutions of global governance, like the United Nations, that are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcement of international law are structurally state-centric, and therefore place state interests above the political will of a people. Further, decision-making in these organisations is heavily influenced by the political interests of the powerful states that have economic and political leverage within them. In this asymmetrical conflict, that pits a people without agency, resources, and allies against a highly militarized state that is the foremost ally of the United States; ethics cannot win. Thus, even though the law supports the freedom of Palestine at its core, the lack of an ethical enforcement mechanism obstructs Palestine’s path to justice and encourages further defiance of law.
It is here that the BDS movement steps in, single-handedly taking on the formidable task of enforcement of international law on Israel, which it proceeds to do through an unconventional mechanism of non-violent activism, which efficiently props up the sagging ethical diktats of the law. The BDS breaks the precedential straightjacket of legal enforcement through a state-centric procedure that many agencies of the UN have used unsuccessfully against Israel in the past. It does this by tailoring campaigns that target individuals, corporations, and communities with a palpable influence over Israeli decision making. Further, the campaigns are designed such that global scrutiny on Israel’s follies are maximised and global awareness on the situation in Palestine is enhanced. More importantly, the BDS does not pander to the interests of state actors like the UN, which adds to its credibility as an enforcement agency that truly places popular ethics and conscience above politics. In other words, the BDS translates the idealism of the ethics of international law into palatable and realizable goals. If enforcement of international law is Palestine’s last recourse to the 70 years of justice it has been denied, BDS is the last recourse for the institution of international law.
The goals of the BDS complement the ideals of international law in terms of the major demands it makes of Israel. These include ending the occupation and colonisation of all Palestinian land and the dismantling of the wall between the West Bank and “Israel proper,” recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the granting of the right of return and resettlement to Palestinian refugees who were forcibly evicted from their homes for Israeli state-building in 1948. Each of these three fundamental goals of the movement trace their roots in previous international legal documents. For instance, the advisory opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Territories published by the ICJ in 2004, as well as numerous other resolutions, have addressed the first goal by condemning Israeli settlements and military occupation of the West Bank and the wall. The second demand of BDS—equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel—has long occupied the focus of reports published by the UN and other international NGOs, like Amnesty International, on structural racism against minority communities within Israel. The third BDS goal demanding the Palestinian right of return is enshrined within UN Security Council Resolutions 194, passed soon after 1948, which asks Israel to repatriate Palestinian refugees borne from that war.
These goals are then broken down into short term campaign plans directed towards specific firms and individuals. Take, for instance, the passage of the May 2018 bill in the country of Ireland that made it the first member state of the UN to officially call for a national boycott of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This was the direct outcome of an activism campaign spearheaded by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a pro-BDS organisation based in Ireland that was able to launch a nationwide movement supporting Irish divestment from the settlements in Palestine. Previously, the UN had released several reports and recommendations asking states to boycott businesses that profited from activities in the settlements and to reward firms that complied. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that urged states to not assist businesses that profited from settlements and asked for the publication of a ‘blacklist’ of such companies. Yet, it wasn’t until the Irish pro-BDS network launched a nationwide mass mobilization movement that these recommendations of law became reality. The same can be said of the campaign led by the same network that succeeded in making Ireland’s capital, Dublin, the first European capital to endorse the BDS movement.
Aside from targeting states, the BDS has focused also on pressuring multinational corporate giants from retracting from operations in the West Bank. This has been done through mass activism against MNCs that sell security and military equipment to Israel, facilitate military operations of the IDF in the West Bank, and securitize the widely condemned checkpoint system that restricts Palestinian freedom of movement. Both of these actions are extensions of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and have been the subject of global denouncement. However, the first substantive step that would support the denouncement was also an outcome of activism by the BDS. The ‘Stop G4S’ campaign, aimed at preventing the British security firm G4S from selling military technology, cost millions of dollars in contracts to the firm, finally leading it to sell most of its operations in Israel. Similar campaigns targeted at companies like Veolia, a French MNC that provided water, energy and transport services in the settlements, were also able to push the firm out of the West Bank. The BDS also succeeded at getting the European Union to pass a resolution on ethical engagement with Israeli firms that stated, “[the]… European Investment Bank [are going] to stop loans to ‘virtually all’ major Israeli businesses and public bodies.” All of these cases demonstrate the novelty of BDS as an enforcement technique that can mount economic pressure on Israel and push it towards compliance with law.
The BDS also uses an alternative pressure tactic to garner a response from Israel by targeting individuals and institutions of cultural significance in their campaigns. This achieves two goals: it expands global consciousness about Israeli apartheid, while using the political leverage of these celebrities to influence Israeli policy decisions. The BDS campaign surrounding the FIFA World Cup of 2018 that pressured the national team of Argentina into withdrawing from the practice match it was supposed to play against Israel was a classic example of such a campaign. Further, the campaign gained momentum because of its online reach, spurred by activism on social media. This had a tremendous global impact, especially among politically unaware communities who were exposed to the realities of Israeli oppression. Given Israel’s large domestic football following, the regime was compelled to engage with the qualms that the campaign raised against Israeli policies targeting Palestinian football players. Similarly, a worldwide pressure campaign against artists who were invited to perform at the Israeli Meteor Festival, an annual international music festival in Tel Aviv, succeeded in getting 14 artists to decline their invitations to perform at the festival. In particular, BDS was successful in getting Lana Del Rey to revoke her initial acceptance of the invitation. This too was achieved through a widespread social media campaign, launched by the BDS movement and carried forward by a compassionate global community that helped raise awareness on Israeli apartheid among music followers, who aren’t politically inclined. Thus non-conventional, cultural activism by the BDS has helped to pressure domestic policy decisions in Israel, taking the state a micro step towards adherence of law. That the BDS is so hated in Zionist circles within Israel and its ally states, so much so that Netanyahu is compelled to address it at an the international AIPAC conference, is only further evidence of its impact. If anything, the BDS has effectively created a global community of politically conscious people, who personally value the cause of Palestinian liberation.
In conclusion, given the recent successes of the BDS movement that seem to be affecting Israeli policy making, one cannot help but feel optimistic about the increasingly supportive role that the international community plays in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. While law is the final means to absolute justice, law is shaped by public will; international law, in particular, is constantly evolving. Thus activism, especially the transnational activism that the BDS stands for, plays an important role in filling the social gaps where law cannot percolate. The BDS has and will continue to shape global perceptions on Israeli apartheid, creating a supportive global community that will struggle for political justice in Palestine, empowering international law to fetch the concrete outcomes it seeks to create.