After decades of suffering from the label of terrorism that was unfairly stuck to most of their freedom fighters, Palestinians finally managed to deploy peaceful alternatives to make their pleas for an independent state heard. But commendable as it is, Palestinian peaceful activism still commits mistakes reminiscent of the recent past, when demands were maximalist and goals ambiguous.
Describing the holiday-home website Airbnb’s delisting of houses offered in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a “partial victory,” the Palestinian group Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) said in a statement that it recognized Airbnb’s role in “undermining housing rights and unionized work in the hospitality industry.” BDS added that it stood in solidarity with those organizing to hold Airbnb “accountable on these grounds.”
BDS presents itself as a “movement for Palestinian rights.” Thus, how the act of siding with “housing rights” and unions can serve “Palestinian rights” must seem puzzling. But this has in fact been a staple of a group whose goals desperately need focus, and whose activism must align with its true aspirations.
BDS’s activism also recently reached the American University of Beirut, where Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, was heckled as he tried to give a lecture. Supporters of BDS and partisans of radical groups, such as Hezbollah, said they sabotaged the event because of McMahan’s affiliation with Hebrew University.
That the American academic had been the subject of attacks from pro-Israel writers, who paint him as an enemy of Israel because of his criticism of its policies and wars, did not register with BDS and Hezbollah. They were angry that McMahan said he recognized the existence of Israel, as do most world governments, including two of the biggest countries with Muslim majorities, Egypt and Turkey, as well as Jordan.
Among BDS’s goals is to end the Israeli “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the [separation] wall.” Arab lands are defined as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Gaza is also described as living under a “medieval siege.” But occupation and siege are two opposite concepts. If Gaza is under siege, then it cannot be occupied. At the very least, BDS needs to sharpen its language.
Another of the group’s goals is to force Israel to grant its non-Jewish citizens rights equal to those of their Jewish compatriots, a demand that Arab-Israeli members of Knesset do in fact already fight for. Indeed, when Arab-Israelis run for office and vote, they signal that their community has chosen to fight for its rights from inside Israeli institutions, rather than boycott them. BDS needs to find a way of working with Arab-Israelis, rather than undermine their efforts – for they need all the help they can get that is both effective and reasoned.
BDS wants to replicate how South Africa ended the Apartheid regime, but sadly it has no Nelson Mandela, a man whose goal was to avoid revenge and to seek peace between the oppressed black majority and the then-ruling white minority. Had BDS made peace – rather than simply punishing Israel – its goal, it might today be a more effective advocate for Palestinians seeking the justice that is universally declared as the rights of all men and women, but which is sadly so much lacking for them on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Indeed, there is even a note of fantasy attached to the group, which also wants to expel Israel from the United Nations. For as much as they would want that, does anyone seriously believe that is even a goal that is remotely achievable and thus worth exerting any amount of effort toward?
Peaceful activism is designed to arrive at compromise and solutions. BDS is commendably peaceful. It has also forced the Israeli authorities to be concerned about how they appear to the rest of the world, and highlighted to Israelis the unfair practices against Palestinians. But it can do more for the cause if it makes the enabling of peace between Israel and the Palestinians its overt centerpiece. If it does this, more of the world will have no alternative but to listen, just like it was forced to listen to Mandela, even while still in his prison cell. Injustice, after all, can suppress bodies, but can never suppress ideas. BDS needs to sharpen its ideas.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.
AFP PHOTO/KENZO TRIBOUILLARD