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Palestinian campaigner Omar Barghouti talks to Jonny Jones about the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel
Could you give us a brief introduction to the boycott divestment sanctions (BDS) campaign and why you think it is so important?
The BDS campaign is the largest global campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people. It came in response to a call from the great majority of Palestinian civil society in 2005.
It calls for the basic rights of the three communities of the Palestinian people: those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, those in Israel—Palestinian citizens of Israel—as well as the exile refugee community, which is the largest part of the Palestinian people.
We’re calling for ending the occupation, ending the system of racial discrimination or apartheid within Israel itself, and recognising and enabling the right of return of refugees.
As such it is a rights-based approach that is opposed to all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-semitism.
Could you tell me about the academic side of the boycott? In Britain people in the UCU lecturers’ union have fought to push this forward.
The academic boycott, it’s important to mention, is an institutional boycott. It’s not against individual Israeli academics—it’s against Israeli institutions due to their complicity in Israel’s war economy, occupation, apartheid and so on.
Israeli academic institutions are partners in Israel’s crimes—in violating international law, in planning, justifying and whitewashing Israel’s crimes. It’s extremely important and significant to challenge this complicity.
What has been the international impact of the BDS campaign so far?
BDS has achieved much more in five years than we imagined when we first launched it. Even when we compare it with the South African anti-apartheid campaign, we’re going much faster, our South African comrades tell us.
People forget that the South Africa anti-apartheid boycott took 20 to 30 years to start becoming really effective in the West. In comparison, in five years the BDS campaign has already reached the ivory tower of Western academia. Main cultural groups are already boycotting Israel—Tel Aviv is looking more like Sun City [a resort located in a supposedly independent country just outside South Africa for rich white South African’s and tourists].
In the trade unions—the TUC in Britain, in South Africa, in Ireland, some unions in Canada, France, Belgium and so many other countries have already adopted resolutions supporting BDS. Faith-based groups, conscientious Jewish groups, liberal groups, have joined the boycott and are very active in the boycott.
It’s important to remember that applying the boycott depends on the creativity and initiative of local activists everywhere. They get to decide what to target, and how to target it in the most creative way.
You’ve mentioned the links and parallels between the situation in Palestine and South Africa. Could you say a bit more about that?
There are many parallels but also many differences.
We call Israel an apartheid state as it’s practicing occupation and colonialism—settler colonialism specifically—and apartheid. But we are not saying it’s identical to South Africa.
Apartheid is a universal crime. It’s defined very well under international law in the Convention for the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, which went into effect in 1976.
There are several criteria that apply to Israel’s system of discrimination. Israel has more than 20 laws that racially discriminate against its Palestinian citizens, simply because they are not Jewish. This makes racism in Israel, racial discrimination, not just policy, but institutionalised and legalised. And that’s why Israel is practicing apartheid.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many South African anti-apartheid leaders, when they visit the Occupied Territories, they say publicly: this is much worse than anything we had in South Africa.
Even the Bantustans did not have walls—even the Bantustans were not bombed by F-16 bombers. So our conditions are even harsher than those suffered by the black majority under South African apartheid.
[These were territories, also known as “homelands,” set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa as part of the policy of apartheid with the aim of eventually creating racially divided nation states for different black ethnic groups.]
What do you think the leaked Palestine Papers say about the present state of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority?
I think it shows two things. First, that unelected and unrepresentative Palestinian officials have gone way too far in conceding our basic rights—without any mandate to do so.
Even if they had reached an agreement with Israel it wouldn’t be worth the ink it was written with, because it has no legitimacy from the majority of the Palestinian people.
The second important issue that people miss sometimes is that the Palestine Papers show that even with those massive, tremendous, unprincipled concessions, Israel said no.
Israel rejected any attempt to reach anything close to a just peace, even a very partial peace.
Israel is proving again that it’s a belligerent, aggressive state that wants to continue expanding and acting as a hegemonic power that suppresses popular revolution in the Arab world—or tries to.
Clearly it is no longer working as Arab revolutions are happening anyway, and Palestinian revolution is ongoing. Palestinians are not surrendering.
What do you think the impact will be between what’s happening in Egypt and the Palestinian struggle?
I think it will deprive Israel of its Arab protective complicity net.
Egypt was central among Arab governments that are complicit in protecting Israel’s crimes—and in a way, in allowing the Palestinian unelected leadership not to take a position of resisting this oppression.
So I think with Egypt’s complicity gone off the map, or on the way off the map, Israel will have a much more difficult time. So we see the struggle for Palestinian self-determination as being greatly emboldened and enhanced by the people’s revolutions in the Arab world.