Image war

Kalandia, Checkpoint, Westbank

Kalandia, Checkpoint, Westbank

Palestinians developed a new weapon against Israel: A boycott movement like the one used against South Africa’s Apartheid regime.

Like every year the “Oscar Goody Bag” is filled with especially exclusive gifts. Actors nominated for an Academy Award 2016 are getting presents worth 180.000 Euros. Companies like to invest in stars. If Michael Fassbender puts a toe in the pool of their hotel or Alicia Vikander appears in their bikini – the advertising effect is guaranteed.

Israel's Tourism minister Yariv Levin therefore added a trip to the Holy Land to the gift bag worth 48.000 Euro. For ten days stars would stroll through Jerusalem’s Old City or enjoy life in the temples of the 21st century in Tel Aviv – innovative, hip restaurants. Levin is looking forward to the visits of Hollywood stars: “If they accept the invitation, their visit will have enormous response, also in social media.”

Alas, the PR-gag could have the opposite effect. Before the bags reached the actors the battle over the image has already begun: “There are no Hunger Games in Gaza but there is real hunger, and it is induced by years of Israeli occupation and siege”, says Omar Barghouti, spokesman of the Palestinian Boycott movement BDS. (see also interview): “We hope Oscar nominees will take the moral path of rejecting this free propaganda gift from Capitol while its brutal troops and settlers burn and colonize our District 12.”

The fight between Palestinians and Israelis has entered a new stage and found a new battlefield: the sensitive terrain of Public Relations. Peace negotiations are frozen for the past 16 years. Both parties are exhausted from senseless wars. Israel's image is getting worse within Israel and abroad. The attack of the Boycott movement BDS (“Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”) is so effective that Israels Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a “broad front” against it last June. Part of the defence strategy is slander: Netanyahu likes to call the BDS activists “Anti-Semites in modern garb”.

The movement “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” wants to achieve what the anti Apartheid campaign managed to do in South Africa – it wants to bring the regime to its knees by peaceful means. When it was founded by Palestinians in 2005 it was a small grass roots movement. They called on everyone in Israel, in the Palestinian territories and all over the world to step up the pressure against Israel. In the United States, Great Britain and France the movement gaining strength. Activists bombard boards of companies and media outlets with protest letters, when they learn that a company is participating in an infrastructure project which leads through the West bank, which Israel occupied in 1967. In August 2015 the French company Veolia retreated from building a light rail system in the Jerusalem area; the Dutch pharmacy chain Alphega stopped selling products of Ahava because they produce their body and face creams from minerals of the Dead Sea in a kibbutz which is located in the West bank.

In Germany and Austria the boycott movement is very little known. Almost no-one wants to publicly boycott Israeli companies, not to speak of the whole state – it would be impossible for historic reasons. But behind the curtains things have started to move: Deutsche Bahn International pulled its tender for a fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem because the tracks lead seven kilometers through the West bank. The Israeli company SodaStream has delivered many soda water producing machines to European countries including Austria. After loud protests the company moved its production facility last year to the Israel desert Negev. RAND corporation believes BDS could cost Israel one to two percent of its GDP in the coming years.

So far BDS is bad for Israel’s image, not for the economy. In its first decades after 1948 Israel was seen as a pioneer project of persecuted Jews who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust only to bring the desert to bloom in the Middle East. Now Israel’s image is changing, it is seen as a state which suppresses millions of Palestinians without civil rights by building settlements which make a peaceful solution more and more unrealistic.

Even friends outside find it difficult not to be critical of this development. A boycott of Israel, however, is out of the question for European governments. The EU does not want to de-legitimize Israel. Brussels decided last fall to label settlement products because it deems the occupation illegal. Those products are a tiny part of Israel’s exports to the EU, around one percent only. Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz still critized the measure as “hidden anti-Semitism", which reminded him of the Nazis. The EU counters that it does not boycott those products, it simply gives buyers the chance to decide for themselves if they want to support illegal settlements by buying their products or not.

For BDS activists the labeling of settler products is by far not enough. They do not only fight the occupation. They want an end of discrimination of Israeli Arabs and the right of return for all Palestinian refugees since 1948. The refugees and their descendants are about five million people today.

Even some fellow travelers think this is excessive. Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery was one of the first people to call for a boycott of Israeli settlement products. The Israeli government then passed a law which criminalized the call for a boycott of Israeli products. Avnery had to censure his own website in order to avoid trials and fines. The 91 year old author and politician thinks it wrong of BDS to call for a boycott of the whole of Israel: “It is better to separate settlers from Israelis”, he says in conversation with profil: “If you boycott the whole of Israel, there is no one left to make peace with.”

BDS wants even more than this. It calls for a cultural and academic embargo. Artists should not come to Israel when invited by the culture minister and Israeli academics should not be invited in their official function as representatives of an Israeli institution to universities abroad. Officially not one university has called for a boycott. But the calls for it changes the mood. “I certainly do not want to hurt the feelings of any of my Arab friends here in London”, says a British author to profil, “that’s why I will not accept an invitation to go to Israel.” The president of the technical university Technion in Haifa, Peretz Lavie, said in a meeting with the president of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin: “We can maybe stop the snow ball but we are in the eleventh hour.” In Britain a group of Jewish and non-Jewish artists and art lovers wrote an open letter to the British daily newspaper “The Guardian” to speak out against a cultural boycott. Harry Potter author JK Rowling signed the letter, as did British-Israeli businessman Yigal Elstein. “Cultural exchange builds bridges”, he says, “and I want to support this, not boycott it.”

The mood in the Israeli embassy in London is not too bad. Cultural and academic exchange between Israel and Great Britain is growing, says spokesman Yiftah Curiel: “Trade has doubled in the past four years.” But in Israeli ministries there are already special departments to tackle BDS. Information minister Gilad Erdan got 23 million Euro and ten new positions extra for the war against BDS in 2015.

Even Israelis president Reuven Rivlin sees himself as “soldier” in the fight against the boycott movement.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of BDS  © Gerald Gregori

Omar Barghout, co-founder of BDS

„Israeli officials are war criminals.“
Omar Barghouti, Co-founder of the Palestinian-led, global Boycott movement BDS, about how to force Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.

Omar Barghouti, 51, is a Palestinian refugee who was born in Qatar. He went to school in Egypt, graduated with a Master’s in electrical engineering from Columbia University in New York and lives today with his wife, who is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship in Acre in Israel. Barghouti is a founding member of the Boycott, divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, started by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

Profil: You are calling for a cultural, academic and economic boycott of the State of Israel until Israel ends its occupation in the Palestinian territories, is that correct?

Barghouti: Not only that. When we launched the BDS movement in 2005 the main point was that the international community under US hegemony was unable or unwilling to bring about an end to Israel’s violation of international law. So we decided that we Palestinians should stop relying on governments and start asking international civil society to put pressure on Israel in various forms – cultural, academic, military embargoes as was done against the apartheid regime in South Africa. We want to achieve three basic rights granted to us by international law: An end to the occupation of 1967 – West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights; an end to the system of inequality in Israel which amounts to apartheid, according to the UN definition. Israel is not just imposing racist policies, it has racist laws. More than 50. It discriminates between Jewish and non Jewish citizens of the state based on religion and ethnicity. Our third aim is to achieve the right of refugees to return, in accordance with UN resolution 194.

Profil: These are very ambitious goals.

Barghouti: It boils down to equality. If Palestinians are equal to all humans, all Palestinians, no matter where they are are entitled to human rights under international law. BDS is a nonviolent human rights movement that targets Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.

Profil: You are receiving a lot of support around the world for your cause. The pressure seems to work. The Israeli company SodaStream, which produces bubbly water cartridges, moved its production facility from a settlement in the West Bank to Israel. Was this your biggest success so far?

Barghouti: It is a success, but it is not enough. They moved from Ma’ale Adumim to the Naqab (Negev), as part of a government-funded project explicitly designed to ethnically cleanse Palestinian Bedouins, who are citizens of Israel, from their ancestral land. SodaStream is openly participating in this project and we say: As long as they are violating human rights we will boycott them.

Profil: What are your other recent successes?

Barghouti: The most important one was that foreign direct investment in Israel dropped by 46 percent in 2014 in comparison to 2013. This is according to the 25th World Investment Report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). One of the Israeli authors of this report said there were two factors behind this sharp drop in investment: the Israeli assault on Gaza and the growth of BDS. So she gave us credit for this. A study by RAND Corporation expects BDS to cost Israel in the coming 10 years between one and two percent of GDP annually, that’s 28 to 56 billion dollars. This is bigger than the entire US aid to Israel. This is why BDS is no longer viewed by Israel as merely symbolic. We have passed into big business. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, said BDS is not yet affecting Israeli economy significantly, but if it grows it will present a serious risk to Israel’s economy. SodaStream is peanuts in this larger picture of BDS impact.

Profil: The EU decided to label products from the Israeli settlements. Do you welcome this decision?

Barghouti: It is a tiny little step and does not amount to anything serious on the ground. The European Union chose a symbolic measure to slap Israel on the wrist. But that’s about it. The EU will continue its massive military trade with Israel, including military research. Hundreds of millions of Euros are coming from EU states to fund military research in Israeli universities that help create weapons that Israel uses in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and Lebanon. EU citizens are therefore indirectly implicated in funding Israel’s war machine. And: If something is illegal, like Israel’s colonial settlements, which are illegal under international law, why does the European Union still agree to import their products? To label them is one thing, but why not ban them? These are stolen products produced on stolen land using stolen resources. Stop the hypocrisy and ban them!

Profil: It sounds a little harsh. International politics is always about compromise. The EU is a collective of states that have different policies in the Middle East, so they are trying to balance it out. The labeling of settlement products was a step they could find consensus on and they took it. The German or Austrian public would not support more drastic action against Israel.

Barghouti: We distinguish between governments and the public. Governments don’t give a damn about human rights at all. But European citizens do, they honestly do. They act accordingly. If you convince German citizens that a company is involved in violating human rights, they will stop buying its products. People act. Germany is the most difficult case for BDS in the World. More difficult than Tel Aviv perhaps. But the mood is changing. The BBC GlobeScan, an authoritative international public opinion poll, has shown a two thirds majority across Europe that view Israel negatively. In Germany, the 2014 GlobeScan shows, 67 percent viewed Israel negatively. Imagine that.

Profil: Do you make any difference between settlement products or products of Israel?

Barghouti: No, we do not, except tactically. If someone gets raped you fight not only the act of rape, you punish the rapist as well. In this case of only boycotting settlement products the rapist gets off the hook. Israel is responsible for the occupation, the settlements, the massacres, etc. So we call for a full boycott of Israel until it recognizes our human rights. That’s the ultimate goal.

Profil: As an Austrian I must say the idea to boycott Israel makes me feel very uncomfortable. A total and general boycott of Israel invokes images of the boycott of Jewish shops the Nazis called for.

Barghouti: A key principle that guides the BDS movement is context sensitivity. We don’t tell our German or Austrian partners you have to go for a full boycott of Israel. It does not make sense in their respective contexts at this time at least. It would be political suicide. But in general there is this confusion between boycotting Jews and boycotting Israel. They are not the same.

Profil: Some people might happily confuse the two. Does your BDS movement not invite anti-Semites all over the world to unite against Israel?

Brghouti: There is no antisemitism in the BDS movement, period. We do not tolerate it. BDS categorically and consistently rejects all forms of racism – including antisemitism and islamophobia. This is why we have so much support from progressive Jewish groups and prominent Jewish intellectuals and artists. In the US, for instance, Jewish Voice for Peace, a BDS partner, has more than 200.000 supporters. Clearly, this is one indicator that BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist movement.

Profil: Would you sit down for a debate with an Israeli ambassador?

Barghouti: No. I would legitimize them as normal diplomats. Israeli officials are war criminals. They should be in The Hague facing trials for being responsible for massacres and war crimes. But we have no problem debating the most vocal Zionist on Earth. Journalists, academics, whoever. But not officials.

Profil: Some of your supporters argue that BDS is a radical, but non-violent movement. It’s better to engage Palestinian youth in a fight for human rights than in a violent third intifada.

Barghouti: It is also important to remember that it is an inclusive movement. We have many Jewish activists. And it is growing very fast. The movement is not based on ethnicity or religion, it is based on complicity. We don’t make a distinction if someone is Jewish or Muslim or Hindu. This is not about „Arabs and Jews fighting for the same piece of land.“ It is not. It is people of conscience, including Arabs, Jews, seculars, Christians and other, fighting together for human rights for all, irrespective of identity.

Profil: Sounds good, but does not seem to be in reach here.

Barghouti: If one side beats the other into submission, there will never be a just peace. It has to be just and sustainable.

Profil: The idea of two states came out of the founding principle of Israel that it should be a state for the Jews. And the international community supported this because of the Holocaust. You might not be able to convince the Israelis to accept your principles.

Barghouti: It was flawed from the beginning. And we don’t want to convince Israel. We will force Israel’s regime of oppression to accept human rights for all of us. Pre-BDS solidarity mostly took the form of demonstrations, waving Paestinian flags, burning Israeli ones and trying to educate the mass public. But it was not very effective. Israel could not care less. Israel grew economically. Now, Israel considers BDS as a „strategic threat“ to its entire regime of injustice. Imagine! A non-violent movement that is only 10 years old, this is real soft power. Athough it is soft power, it is very effective because Israel is not designed to fight nonviolent challenges. We know Israel is a very, very powerful country supported by the most powerful country, the United States. But now they are allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to fight BDS. When the Presbytarian Church in the US passed divestment against HP, Motorola and Caterpillar because of their involvement in the occupation, what could Israel do? Bomb the Presbytarian Church? So that is the limit of Israel’s power to fight BDS.

Profil: Would it be the end of BDS, if there would be Israel along side a Palestinians state with both states having proper laws for the protection of minorities?

Barghouti: The end of BDS would be ending the occupation, giving equal rights to Palestinians in Israel, abrogating Israel’s more than 50 racist laws and allowing the indigenous Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz