Columnists

Jooneed Khan
Fighting Israeli apartheid by 'besieging the siege'

| October 29, 2010
Photo: Paul Di Stefano

The worldwide campaign to boycott Israel as an apartheid state took a giant Canadian leap forward last weekend with a three-day BDS Conference in Montreal (boycott, divestment and sanctions) that saw the coming together of separate and diverse initiatives into what a South African trade union delegate called "an unstoppable movement."

At a time when the old western-dominated colonialist-militarist world order is in decline, when the loot-and-run, slash-and-burn, bomb-and-rebuild capitalist model is in crisis, when western civil societies are clamoring for a more participative democracy to combat corruption, secrecy and the lies of their security-obsessed states, and mobilizing globally to save the planet, has the Palestinian cause become a symbol of the struggle for human values for a new generation and a new century?

It would seem so, judging from the confident enthusiasm and the thoughtful resolve of hundreds of delegates from across Quebec, Canada, and the world who crammed into auditoriums to listen to guest speakers, reflect on global strategies and devise local tactics, and to deliberate in a closing plenary on an agenda that includes keeping the BDS momentum going on the ground, a projected Canadian ship for a forthcoming Flotilla for Gaza, and a follow-up conference on the issue in October 2011 in Montreal.

Omar Barghouti thanks the Mohawks

After thanking the Mohawk Nation for allowing him to speak in Montreal, "the capital of the BDS campaign in the Francophone world," as he put it, Palestinian thinker and human rights activist Omar Barghouti, founder of the Boycott National Committee (BNC) and keynoter at the inaugural plenary, said:

"The Old Order is going. BDS is skyrocketing, well-anchored in international law and in the universal principles of freedom, justice and equal rights. We are absolutely anti-racist and we reject anti-Semitism. We believe in ourselves, in our heritage, in our roots. The once "invincible" US-Israeli axis is now shaking. You'd think Netanyahu and Lieberman were working for the BDS movement!"

The BDS Movement was born of a call made on July 9, 2005, on the first anniversary of the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague condemning the Israeli separation wall and calling for its removal. That was a real SOS launched by nearly 200 Palestinian civil society organizations for global support and solidarity with their BDS campaign as a peaceful and legitimate means of ending the now 43-year-old Israeli occupation, and bringing about a peaceful settlement to the 62-year-old conflict born of the 1948 Partition of Palestine.

"Since the unified Palestinian call, BDS, launched in 2005, BDS initiatives have been multiplying all over the world. Building and strengthening a global BDS movement has become a core aim for many involved in today's solidarity work for Palestine. As well as the growth of diverse actions on the ground, an increasing number of websites are taking up the issue. This site aims to give an overview of the Palestinian calls for BDS, the myriad local initiatives and resources online, related background information and analysis to inform and guide visitors and activists", says the Global BDS Movement

BDS targets Israeli products world-wide

BDS activism now targets Israeli products world-wide, whether from Israel proper or from the Zionist settlements in the Palestinian Territories, foreign firms (including Canadian ones) doing business for the illegal settlements, foreign investments in such firms, cultural, academic and sporting contacts with Israel. It also facilitates suits launched by Palestinians in foreign courts (again including Canadian ones), under the universality principle of international law, to sanction firms from third countries involved in the ongoing illegal colonization of Palestine by Israel, and to seek redress -- something which they are denied by Israeli courts.

This is a far cry from the days when Montreal campuses were battlegrounds in a struggle for legitimacy between promoters of Palestinian human rights and strident advocates of the "Israel-is-above-criticism" and the "To-criticize-Israel-is-to-be-anti-Semitic" dogmas. The campus struggle goes on, but the balance is shifting against the Zionist camp. The weekly Friday noontime vigils before the Israeli consulate in downtown Montreal have given way to pickets in front of Indigo-Chapters bookstores -- as the consulate moved to a less conspicuous location. More significantly, the humanitarian Viva Palestina convoys and Freedom Flotillas to break the siege of Gaza have converged with the boycott campaign targeting more than 120 brands and labels linked to Israel, Coca Cola and Estee Lauder among many others.

Omar Barghouti went on: "‘Besiege your siege,' the cry of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, acquires a new meaning in this context. Since convincing a colonial power to heed moral pleas for justice is, at best, delusional, many now understand the need to ‘besiege' Israel though boycotts, raising the price of its oppression."

"In just a few years the Palestinian campaign to boycott Israeli goods has become truly global. Despite Israel's siege of Gaza, and the escalating displacement in the Negev and East Jerusalem, Palestinians have some reason to celebrate. In Washington a food co-op has passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli products, confirming that the boycott movement has finally crossed the Atlantic. Support for the move came from prominent figures including Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Máiread Maguire, and Richard Falk, the UN's special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories", writes Barghouti.

COSATU, trade-unions and global coalition building 

The global coalition-building behind the BDS campaign has been impressive. Starting with Israeli human rights groups, Students for Palestinian Human Rights in Canada, the Quebec trade-union Conseil central de Montreal-CSN, of the late Michel Chartrand and Rezeq Faraj, and the Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) in Canada, BDS has garnered support from the 2.1 million-member Congress of South African trade unions (COSATU), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Ligue des Droits et Libertes, the Federation des femmes du Quebec, the Federation des enseignantes et enseignants du Quebec (FNEEQ-CSN), the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Québec Solidaire political party, and the US feminist organization Codepink as well as queer communities across Canada.

The BDS campaign is making headway in various walks of life in the US as well as in the labour movement in the UK and Ireland. Links with Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation, remain strong however, and resistance to BDS continues. At its second world congress held in June 2010 in Vancouver, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) rejected calls to support BDS and elected Ofer Eini, head of Histadrut, as one of its vice presidents.

"COSATU lost a few friends in Canada when it raised the BDS issue at the ITUC conference. Its international officer was even threatened with the withdrawal of his Canadian visa! But the attack has only strengthened world solidarity behind the BDS campaign. We have asked the ANC government not to allow any Israeli-related vessel in any South African port. Our 287 municipalities are fully behind BDS. We are mobilizing our neighboring countries as well to enforce BDS and boycott Israel," said Steve Faulkner, International officer for the South African Municipal Workers' Union.

Faulkner was another keynoter. Just as he had electrified the opening plenary, he concluded the three-day meeting proclaiming: "There is an urgency to the task before us. The Israeli regime is going to get desperate. I am convinced that when we work together in an inclusive and non sectarian way, admit our weaknesses and recognize that a lot of work lies ahead, we are unstoppable and we have to be unstoppable. BDS is a beacon for people who want to act, to do something, to do the right thing, when governments don't."

Focusing on basic human rights, beyond sectarianism

Faulkner said there is no "identical parallel" between Israeli apartheid and South African apartheid, but also that there was not the least doubt as to the "apartheid reality" of Israeli occupation versus its Palestinian victims. "It took us 30 years after Sharpeville to bring apartheid to its knees. We made mistakes. And still apartheid runs our economic and social lives. We have a long struggle ahead of us. The same applies to BDS. We are on a roll but victory is not around the corner. Let's build the hope we need to keep us going, let's build the new leadership we need for the new, inclusive Palestine, and for the new, inclusive world community we all dream of."

Incisive but soft-spoken, armed with facts and ideas while shirking emotion and demagogy, a text-devouring and global networking product of the web age, the 46-year-old Omar Barghouti refers to the changing World Order, and quotes Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo to call for "decolonizing the minds" as "more important than decolonizing the lands."

"Canada kept it quiet, but it did refuse, with many other countries, to attend the OECD Tourism conference held this very week in Jerusalem," he said, adding: "At the 2009 AIPAC conference (the U.S.-Israeli lobby), it was stressed that the BDS campaign was becoming mainstream, and Israel's Hasbara campaign (Propaganda) was failing". "The Knesset is now looking to criminalize Jewish support for BDS inside Israel", he added.

Barghouti heralds a new Palestinian leadership, rooted in the legitimate national struggle of his people yet humanistic and global in a clear and articulate way. So does Areej Jaafari, a young woman activist from the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. Her testimony at the Montreal BDS conference was all the more forceful for its being soft-spoken and from the grassroots. "Boycott of Zionism is nothing new for us, she said. It goes back 100 years. We have Gandhi, the US civil rights movement and South Africa on our side. Our relations with our Israeli occupiers are not normal and we cannot talk of normalization when our plight keeps getting worse," she said.

First Nations, Canadian apartheid and Norman Finkelstein

Her work with the Palestine Freedom Project consists in raising awareness about the situation and acting on the ground against Israeli apartheid. "We take the children from the camps to see the home villages and towns of their families. I myself come from Deir Rafat. Just getting water at the Dheisheh camp is a day-long struggle. Our work is spreading to campuses, to free them of all Israeli goods. The Palestinian Authority is formally trying to normalize with Israel, and many NGOs are offered funds if they take on an Israeli NGO as partner! We have Arab-Israeli NGO partners! We are done with the old leadership. We need new leaders, mostly women leaders. For us, boycott of Israel is a Palestinian tool, peaceful and legitimate. For you, let it be a goal!"

The new vital link between local and global, and the search for cohesion in the struggle for universal human rights, was reflected in the strong presence of Canadian First Nations issues at the BDS conference. Canadian apartheid was condemned alongside Israeli apartheid. Judy Dassylva, of the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario, made a moving video presentation on the deadly contamination of traditional lands from clear-cutting, the lumber industry and mercury. "To us, apartheid is one and the same whether in South Africa, Israel or Canada, she said. Our kids were brainwashed in residence schools. Our women raped. It's a miracle I am alive and sitting here in front of you. But we are not as powerful as you, we need our own BDS campaign", she said to thunderous applause.

Within days of the BDS conference, Norman Finkelstein, the U.S. academic, author and uncompromising critic of Zionism, packed another auditorium in Montreal and delivered, to a paying public, a similar message of non sectarian coalition politics to restore basic, legitimate Palestinian national rights and "save Israel from itself." He hinted ominously at a pending new Israeli war on Lebanon "which will be easy enough to start but very, very difficult to end." But while many in the BDS campaign have given up on the Two-State Solution formula, Dr Finkelstein would rather the two peoples decide for themselves. Although he does stress that the so-called "peace process" is just a "façade for an ongoing annexation process".