Building a Just Peace: Boycotting Israeli Apartheid, Promoting Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance


Ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 through the ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their homeland and the destruction of Palestinian society, many “peace plans” have been put forth to resolve the “conflict.”  But virtually all these plans have had one factor in common: They have sought to impose a settlement based on “facts on the ground,” or the existing vast power asymmetries that leave one side - the Palestinians - humiliated, excluded, and unequal.  They have been unjust; hence they have failed.  In a relationship involving colonial oppression, a just peace entails, first and foremost, ending the central aspects of this oppression. Advocating peace without justice is tantamount to institutionalizing injustice and therefore to perpetuating the oppressive status quo.

The path to justice and peace must take into account the particularities of the colonial reality, its origins, and its international context.  At its core, Israel’s oppression of the people of Palestine encompasses three major dimensions: denial of Palestinian refugee rights, including their right to return to their homes; military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), with massive colonization of the latter; and a system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, partially resembling South African apartheid.  A just peace would have to ethically and practically redress all three injustices as a minimal requirement.

Almost 60 years after the creation of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian society and in the face of Israel’s 40 years of military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the international community has entirely failed to bring about Israeli compliance with international law or respect for fundamental principles of human rights.  In such a situation of severe, systematic, and persistent oppression, silence amounts to complicity, and may even indicate a deeply engrained colonial view of the Palestinians - and Arabs in general - as lesser humans, or what I call relative humans.

The latest political developments in Israel, particularly the last parliamentary election, which brought to power an overtly fascist party, have unequivocally exposed that an overwhelming majority of Jewish-Israelis stand fervently behind their state’s racist adn colonial policies and its persistent violations of international law.  For instance, a July 2006 Israeli poll found that almost the entire Jewish-Israeli public supported bombing Lebanese civilians and their infrastructure, despite knowing the level of destruction and civilian casualities that resulted.

Following Israel’s precedent-setting widely reoognized defeat in Lebanon, which bashed its deterrence doctrine, the military-security Israeli establishment, backed by the entire Zionist political spectrum, intensified the already bloody campaign of death and destruction against Palestinian civilians under occupation, particularly in the Gaza Strip. As a result, many more people of conscience have started paying more attention to the Palestinian civil society’s call for nonviolent resistance in the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, against Israel until it ends its three-tiered oppression of the Palestinian people.

From prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe to Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish minister in the South African government, an increasing number of influential international figures have drawn parallels between Israeli apartheid and its South African predecessor and, consequently, are advocating a South African-style treatment in the form of BDS.

Even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and current U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian territory John Dugard, while not endorsing boycott yet, have accused Israel of practicing apartheid against Palestinians. Given the long-standing U.N. resolutions intended to counter the crimes of apartheid, Dugard’s position, specifically, should not be taken lightly. It may well be the first step - in a very long march - toward engaging the United Nations in identifying Israel as an apartheid state and adopting sanctions in response.

Other developments on the international scene have underlined the importance of such a resistance strategy.  Starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the premature end of the first Palestinian intifada through the launching of the Madrid-Oslo “peace process” in the early 1990s, the question of Palestine has been progressively marginalized, if not relegated to a mere nuisance factor, by the powers that be in the new unipolar world.

The U.N. General Assembly’s 1991 repeal, under U.S. pressure, of its 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution removed a major obstacle to Zionist and Israeli rehabilitation in the international community.  This was followed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) formal recognition of Israel under the Oslo accords, which furthered the transformation of Israel’s image from that of a colonial and inherently apartheid state into a normal state engaged in a territorial dispute.  After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), primarily to relieve Israel’s colonial burdens in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel embarked on an ambitious public relations campaign in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, establishing diplomatic ties and opening new markets for its growing industries.  Meanwhile, the election of George W. Bush and the rise of his neoconservative associates (former advisors to the far-right Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu) brought Zionist influence in the White House to unprecedented heights, finally matching its decades-old, almost unparalleled influence on Capitol Hill.

But in September 2000, after years of a “quiet” Isreli occupation and the enormous growth of its colonies in the occupied territories, the second Palestinian intifada broke out.  As the uprising intensified, Israel’s brutal attempts to crush it, through means described by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations as amounting to war crimes, reopened - at least in intellectual circles - long-forgotten questions about whether a just peace can indeed be achieved with an exclusive, ethnocentric and expansionist Zionist state.  Despite the West’s unwillingness to hold Israel to account, for instance, the NGO Forum of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 condemned Zionism as a form of racism and apartheid, expressing the views of thousands of civil society organizations and networks from across the globe.  Durban confirmed that grassroots support, even in the West, for the justness of the Palestinian cause was still robust, if not yet channeled into effective forms of solidarity.

Soon after, campaigns calling for divestment from companies supporting Israel’s occupation spread across U.S. campuses. Across the Atlantic, particularly in the United Kingdom, calls for various forms of boycott against Israel started to be heard among intellectuals and trade unionists. These efforts intensified with the massive Israeli military reoccupation of Palestinian cities in spring 2002, with all the destruction and casualties it left behind, particularly the atrocities against the Jenin refugee camp.

By 2004, academic associations, trade unions and solidarity organizations in the United States and Europe calling for boycott had been joined by mainstream churches, which began to study divestment and other forms of pressure against Israel, similar in nature to those applied to South Africa durng apartheid rule.  The most significant development at that stage was the precedent-setting decision of the Presbyterian Church USA in July 2004 calling for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.”  Unlike similar declarations adopted by student and faculty groups, the Presbyterian move could not be dismissed as “symbolic” or economically ineffective.  Indeed, it inspired many other denominations in the West to consider halting their investments in Israel as well.

A development of signal importance for these efforts was the historic Advisory Opinion issued by th International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague on July 9, 2004, condemning as illegal both Israel’s wall, a 400-plus-mile barrier of concrete, trenches, and fencing constructed on or around the West Bank, and the colonies built on occupied Palestinian land.  Ironically, the PLO scored this momentous victory at a time when it was least prepared to build on it.  A similar advisory opinion by the ICJ in 1971, denouncing South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, triggered what became the world’s largest and most concerted campaign of boycotts and sanctions directed against the apartheid regime, eventually contributing to its demise.  Though the ICJ ruling on the wall did not prompt similar reaction, chiefly due to Palestinian structural and political powerlessness, it did fuel a revival of principled opposition to Israeli oppression around the world.

Just before the ICJ ruling, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, formed in April 2004, issued a statement of principles endorsed by some 60 unions, organizations and associations in the occupied territories urging the international community to boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a “contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.”  This call was amplified on the first anniversary of the ICJ ruling, when more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and unions, including the main political parties, issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel “until it fully complies with international law.”

Thus, after 15 years of the so-called “peace process,” Palestinian civil society started to reclaim the initiative, articulating Palestinian demands as part of the international struggle for justice long obscured by deceptive “negotiations.”  In a noteworthy precedent, the BDS call was issued by representatives of the three segments of the Palestinian people - the refugees, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and those under occupation.  It also directly invited conscientious Israelis to support its demands.

Civil resistance has always been a component of Palestinian struggle against colonial rule.  Throughout modern Palestinian history, resistance to Zionist settler-colonialism mostly took nonviolent forms; mass demonstrations; grassroots mobilizations; worker strikes; boycotts of Zionist projects; and the often-ignored cultural resistance, in poetry, literature, music, theater, and dance.  The first Palestinian intifada (1987-93) was a uniquely rich laboratory of civil resistance, whereby activists organized at the neighborhood level, promoting self-reliance and boycott, to various degrees, of Israeli goods as well as of the military authorities.

In Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, a famed tax revolt presented the Israeli occupation with one of its toughest challenges during the intifada.  BDS, therefore, is rooted in a genuinely Palestinian culture of civil struggle, while its main inspiration comes from the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

But can BDS change anything on the ground, though, given Israel’s formidable influence over Congress, the White House and, by extension, the European Union?  That the young Palestinian BDS campaign has already shown evidence that it has every potential of unifying Palestinians and international solidarity movements in a resistance strategy that is moral, effective, adn sustainable is a significant indicator of the prospect of this struggle in challenging Israel’s colonial oppression.

In the last few years alone, many mainstream and influential groups and institutions have heeded Palestinian boycott calls and started to consider or apply diverse forms of effective pressure on Israel.

These include the two largest British trade unions, UNISON and the Transport and General Workers Union; the British University and College Union; Aosdana, the Irish state-sponsored academy of artists; the Church of England; the Presbyterian Church USA; top British architects; the National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom; the Congress of South African Trade Unions; the World Council of Churches (representing 500 million Christians); the South African Council of Churches; the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ontario; and dozens of celebrated authors, artists, and intellectuals led by John Berger, among many others.  Film festivals in several countries in Europe have started to reject the participation of any film receiving official Israeli funding. Many Europeans and other academics are shunning conferences and meetings in Israel without announcing their support for boycott, practicing a “silent boycott” that has alarmed the Israeli academy.

For cynics who still consider the above too little progress for the given timeframe, I can only reiterate what our South African comrades told us when the British academic boycott was first passed in 2005 and then reversed after 34 days.  “The ANC issued its academic boycott call in the 1950s,” they reminded us, “whereas the international community started to heed it almost three decades later! So you guys are doing much better than us.”

Rallying Palestinians behind civil resistance in general and a strategy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions in particular has significant potential to empower and mobilize the entire community in the resistance movement, as witnessed during the first intifada.  The present reduction of Palestinian resistance to primarily the armed form, regardless of all legal and moral considerations, has hijacked the resistance process from the grassroots, where it always belonged, depriving most sectors of the Palestinian people of their role and consequently their democratic say in the resistance.

Finally, it is worth noting that, by inviging conscientious Israelis to participate in this civil struggle for freedom adn equality, the Palestinian BDS movement has prudently planted a seed of joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle toward ethical decolonization of historic Palestine, ending all oppression and re-imagining, re-inventing, and rehabilitating the dream of a shared future in equality, justice, and harmony.


Omar Barghouti

Omar Barghouti, an independent political and cultural analyst, has published essays on the rise of empire, the Palestinian question and art of the oppressed.  He contributed to the book, The New Intifada: Resisting Israeli’s Apartheid (Verso Books, 2001).  He is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (