Interview with Omar Barghouti
The movement for Palestinian rights is very often a subject of various misleading assumptions. This is especially valid when it comes to the global, Palestinian-led struggle by means of calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the regime of apartheid imposed over Palestinians by the state of Israel. In a quest to get things clear, we talked to Omar Barghouti, recognised Palestinian human rights defender, strategist and co-founder of the BDS movement. He explains the background in which the movement emerged and keeps steadily growing, as well as adversities and paradoxes, which activists of the nonviolent struggle for freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians encounter – in Palestine and abroad.
What led the Palestinian civil society to issue the BDS calls against Israel 15 years ago? Where have you found inspiration?
Begun in 2005 by the broadest coalition in Palestinian society, BDS has become a key part of Palestinian popular resistance and the most effective form of international solidarity with the struggle of the Indigenous people of Palestine for freedom, justice and equality. It calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ending its institutionalized and legalized system of racial domination and discrimination, which meets the UN definition of apartheid, and upholding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were uprooted and dispossessed since the 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, or the Nakba.
The BDS movement is deeply rooted in decades of Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance and is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the US Civil Rights movement and, to a lesser extent, the Indian and Irish anti-colonial struggles. Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement has consistently and categorically opposed all forms of racism and discrimination, including antisemitism. One’s identity, the movement upholds, should never diminish or restrict one’s entitlement to rights. Our movement targets complicity, not identity.
It is crucial to emphasize that since there is nothing Jewish about the regime of occupation, siege, ethnic cleansing and apartheid imposed by the state of Israel, there is nothing inherently anti-Jewish, then, about a nonviolent, morally consistent human rights struggle to end this system of oppression.
What are the values the BDS movement is based on? Who are the allies you are looking for?
Based on its inclusive, anti-racist principles, BDS nourishes bonds of mutual solidarity with movements defending the rights of refugees, immigrants, Blacks, women, workers, indigenous nations, LGBTIQ communities, ethnic and religious minorities, etc. A growing number of anti-colonial Jewish-Israeli BDS supporters play a significant role in exposing Israel’s regime of oppression and advocating for isolating it.
As Israel shifts steadily to the far right, forging alliances with xenophobic, racist and patently anti-semitic forces in the U.S., Europe, Brazil and elsewhere, and, simultaneously, as the impact of BDS rises, Israel’s popularity is declining worldwide. In defense of the Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu partnering with antisemitic far right leaders around the world, Likud member of parliament Anat Berko said, “They might be anti-Semites, but they’re on our side.”
BDS, on the other hand, is increasingly being recognized as a significant partner in a growing international progressive wave fighting for global justice against the forces of fascism, xenophobia and savage neoliberalism.
The list of BDS achievements seems to grow annually. What do you consider the campaign’s biggest success so far?
In the last few decades, no other form of solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation has been as effective and impactful as BDS. The impact of BDS is felt among major investment funds, corporations, churches, trade unions, university campuses, artists, and social movements worldwide.
But above all, the BDS movement has succeeded in unifying Palestinian demands to the world, integrating Palestinian justice with various international justice struggles, and charting a path to ending complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights as the most consequential form of solidarity.
BDS has transformed solidarity with Palestine from mostly symbolic gestures that had little impact on Israel’s regime of oppression to strategic campaigns that are increasingly isolating this regime and exacting a substantial price from corporations and institutions that are complicit in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.
Internal popular resistance and effective external solidarity, especially in the form of BDS, must work hand in hand to muster the power needed to undermine Israel’s regime of oppression and achieve Palestinian liberation.
Respecting international law, UN resolutions and Palestinian human rights would require Israel to replace its ethnocracy with democratic rule. Why should it be done and what would it mean?
Throughout history oppressive regimes have never given up their oppression and privileges that come with it voluntarily. They had to be compelled to do so by those struggling to end oppression. From apartheid South Africa to French settler-colonial rule in Algeria to British colonization of India to the racist Jim Crow South in the US last century, only through effective, strategic resistance were these oppressive regimes brought to an end.
In the BDS movement we believe that nonviolent resistance, in association with international solidarity in the form of strategic pressure, can bring about an end to Israeli occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
But the BDS movement does not take a position on the political outcome of this colonial conflict. Whether a one-state solution, with justice and democratic rights for all, or a two-state solution based on the full implementation of international law, the three basic Palestinian rights stated in the BDS Call of 2005 must be respected for a sustainable and just peace to flourish.
In Israel, there is a general agreement among political parties on the exclusively Zionist character of the state. What say do Palestinian citizens of Israel have in the society? Under what conditions can they be politically active?
Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer from a system of racial domination and discrimination that is institutionalized and enforced through dozens of racist laws. They are banned or restricted from owning or leasing land on 93% of the land controlled by the state. They are relegated to a separate, segregated and inferior education system and denied equal rights in every domain.
While there are Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament (Knesset), their membership is strictly conditioned upon accepting Israel as a Jewish state, effectively surrendering their national rights and accepting their exclusion, as an indigenous national minority, from the very definition of the state. In fact, a 2018 Knesset bill demanding equality for Palestinian and Jewish citizens of the state was disqualified. That same year, Israel’s parliament passed the so-called “Jewish nation-state” law, which constitutionally enshrines an apartheid reality that has existed for many years. Israel, in fact, does not recognize the principle of equality in its Basic Laws, which have constitutional power. It is the only state on earth that does not belong to its citizens but only to an ethnic-religious subset of the citizenry.
A UN report co-authored by the prominent international law expert, Prof. Richard Falk, reached the conclusion that Israel has imposed a regime of apartheid on the Palestinian people as a whole, wherever they may be – including Palestinian citizens of Israel.
How does the state of Israel persecute BDS activists? What is your personal experience like?
Since 2014, Israel has fought the BDS movement as a “strategic threat,” allocating massive financial, legal and political resources for fighting the movement, in response to its huge impact globally. Israel and its allies worldwide have declared a global war on the BDS movement, including extensive propaganda, legal warfare and espionage. Israel’s dedicated anti-BDS government ministry has desperately established a “tarnishing unit” to smear Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights defenders in the BDS movement.
As a co-founder of this movement, I have my share of this smearing and repression. Israel has imposed “arbitrary travel bans” on me over the last five years, including in 2018 when I was prevented from traveling to Jordan to accompany my late mother during cancer surgery. Israel’s intelligence minister threatened me in 2016 with “targeted civil elimination,” drawing condemnation from Amnesty International.
Through intimidation, spying, and weaponizing claims of antisemitism, Israel’s lobby groups and anti-Palestinian supporters are trying to keep Israel “on a pedestal,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, above accountability and beyond censure.
Most states in the US have introduced anti-BDS legislation. Numerous EU countries (including Slovakia) and organizations have adopted the IHRA definition in a form that conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism with Jew-hatred. What to do in face of such smears and attempts to silence voices of Palestinian resistance and international solidarity?
At the root of the mushrooming false claims of antisemitism flying about is a desperate attempt by Israel and its supporters to promote a new, anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism that “serves to shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law,” as stated last year by more than 40 international Jewish groups, led by Jewish Voice for Peace.
While Israel is drunk with power and celebrating its relative success in passing anti-BDS legislation or resolutions in 27 states across the US, in the German Bundestag and elsewhere, it is missing the growing undercurrent of resentment and apprehension that its McCarthyite tactics are creating. Three federal courts have already frozen the respective anti-BDS legislation of the states of Kansas, Texas and Arizona, citing their incompatibility with the first amendment of the US Constitution.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is playing a decisive role in exposing the unconstitutionality of Israel’s legal warfare, or lawfare, against BDS, has condemned anti-BDS legislation as “reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths.” A recent poll shows that 72% of all Americans “oppose laws that penalize people who boycott Israel because these laws infringe on the Constitutional right to free speech and peaceful protest.”
In May 2019, when the German Bundestag accepted Israel’s fraudulent IHRA definition and adopted a resolution that smears BDS as “antisemitic,” it drew strong condemnation from more than 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, including world authorities on antisemitism and history of the Holocaust. Crucially, their statement accused the “deceitful” resolution of doing nothing to “advance the urgent fight against anti-Semitism” and of ignoring the BDS movement’s explicit condemnation of “all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.”
Despite the massive investment, Israel’s anti-BDS strategy appears to be failing, as some major Israeli and Israel lobby groups have lately admitted. In a major setback for Israel’s legal war on BDS, for example, since 2016, the European Union, the governments of Sweden, Ireland and Netherlands, as well as leading international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the American Civil Liberties Union, have all defended the right to boycott Israel as a matter of freedom of speech.
Some BDS supporters or activists for human rights of Palestinians in general display some anti-semitic views at times (like Jews own the media, 911 was a Jewish conspiracy, etc.). How should this phenomenon be addressed?
The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest Palestinian civil society coalition that leads the global BDS movement for Palestinian rights, categorically rejects any expression of racism, including antisemitism. It prominently displays on its website its guidelines for groups that use the BDS acronym or claim to be part of the movement. These guidelines state that BDS partners are expected to “abide by the BDS movement’s commitment to nonviolence as well as its ethical and anti-racist principles.”
The guidelines also state: “Any group that propagates or tolerates forms of expression or activities that conflict with the movement’s principles of anti-racism and non-violence or undermines the Palestinian rights stated in the BDS Call cannot be part of the BDS movement and will be considered outside the BDS movement and will be asked, by the BNC, to no longer use the BDS acronym or claim any affiliation to the movement.”
Over the last 15 years since BDS was launched, such infringements have been extremely rare. Regardless, whenever detected, the BNC acted swiftly and resolutely to condemn and sanction groups and individuals who claim to support BDS while expressing racist views, including against Jews for being Jews.
At the same time, the BDS call specifically encourages Israeli Jews to join the campaign for Palestinian rights. How has the Israeli public reacted to this initiative?
Since BDS targets complicity, not identity, it has consistently worked with progressive, anti-Zionist Jewish-Israelis who support Palestinian rights under international law. Our main Israeli partner is Boycott from Within, a group of Jewish Israeli academics, feminists, LGBTIQ activists, students, artists and others who in 2009 endorsed BDS. Boycott from Within, despite its relatively small size, has played a significant role in advancing BDS campaigns globally, particularly in the cultural sphere.
The BDS movement is calling for an arms embargo on Israel, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. What does Palestine solidarity look like today in the Arab world (both popular and official one)?
While the most despotic Arab regimes are cozying up to Israel, buying its espionage and surveillance tools and weapons, the absolute majority of Arabs still consider Israel the Arab World’s number one enemy. The question of Palestine is still the central cause for Arabs. BDS is in fact growing in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and to an extent Egypt.
Our largest success in the boycott of complicit corporations was against Veolia, which in 2015 pulled out completely from Israel after losing billions of dollars worldwide due to BDS pressure. BDS Kuwait played a very significant role in this campaign, as Veolia lost in Kuwait alone tenders worth $2.25 billion in the aftermath of Israel’s 2014 massacre in Gaza.
BDS Egypt played the decisive role in pushing the telecommunications giant Orange to end its complicit relationship with Israel.
What about the positions taken in the international community in general – are state actors consistent in their stance regarding using sanctions in order to help countries to comply with the international law, especially when continuous, deliberate and systemic serious mass violations of human rights are involved?
The EU has imposed substantial sanctions against Russia after its takeover of the Crimea. European countries, including Germany, have imposed arms embargoes and other sanctions against the despotic Saudi regime for its brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, though not for its crimes against humanity in Yemen. In fact, over the last few decades, the EU has imposed sanctions on the US, China, even Austria, among many other countries, but never on Israel, despite its seven decades of apartheid and colonial oppression of the Palestinians and its escalating crimes. This is the definition of double standard, isn’t it?
With the US administration shielding it from censure and sanctions, Israel enjoys a high level of impunity. For decades, it literally got away with murder, ethnic cleansing, occupation and apartheid.
In February, the UN released a list of 112 companies complicit in Israeli war crimes by operating in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Do you appreciate this step, or are you rather sceptical about it’s impact?
Palestinian civil society, including the BNC, have welcomed this long-awaited UN list of companies that are complicit in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, which constitutes a war crime under international law. We see the release of this database as a first significant and concrete step by any UN entity towards holding to account Israeli and international corporations that enable and profit from Israel’s grave violations of Palestinian rights.
Nonetheless, as the Palestinian civil society statement stated, “numerous companies and banks involved in direct or indirect business activities in or with settlements are not yet included in the database. G4S, Hewlett Packard companies, Elbit Systems, Caterpillar, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Volvo, Heidelberg Cement, and Cemex are among many other high-profile companies that are irrefutably implicated in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, as meticulously documented by human rights groups, the independent Israeli research group WhoProfits and the US project of the American Friends Service Committee Investigate. Yet they are missing from the UN list.”
The BDS movement has called for more civil society pressure on the OHCHR to comply with the Human Rights Council Resolution 31/36 by resisting political pressure, whether from the US, European states or Israel, and committing to constantly updating the public list.
The Palestinian statement concluded: “No international or Israeli company that is complicit in enabling, facilitating and profiting from Israel’s regime of oppression should enjoy impunity. It is high time for all public institutions, city councils, churches, trade unions, cultural organizations, universities, investment funds, and others to stop contracting, procuring from or investing in any of the companies on the UN list of shame, to avoid complicity in Israel’s settlement enterprise.”
The interview was conducted by Elena Teplanová and Barbora Weberová, who are active in the Slovak Initiative for a Just Peace in the Middle East