Has the BDS movement been sidetracked?

I recently received an email from a thoughtful Palestinian/Canadian friend, who raised concerns about what he thinks is a worrying trend concerning the BDS campaign. (See his email is at the end of this post).

He is concerned that the BDS call from Palestinian civil society is being sidetracked – or in his words “hijacked” – by those who focus primarily on “ending the occupation” and minimise (or even ignore)  the other 2 demands articulated in the 2005 call (i.e. “right of return for refugees”, and “civic rights” for Palestinians inside Israel).

As a bit of background, my friend is a Palestinian refugee who now lives in Canada. He was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. His family was expelled from Safed in northern Israel in 1948 and he still has relatives who live in the camp.

His concern arises out of the fact that Israel’s policies over the last 40 years or more have divided the approximately 11 million Palestinians into different groups, each with different problems and different priorities. In broad strokes, these are:

  • The refugees, for whom the right to return to their homes and for compensation for the suffering they have endured, is the #1 goal. (about 60% of the total population).
  • Those in the occupied territories for whom the end of the occupation is the #1 goal. (about 25% of the Palestinian population)
  • Those inside Israel, for whom civic equality is the #1 goal  (about 15% of the total population).

The 2005 BDS Call from Palestinian Society, with its 3 key demands, was designed to promote the UNITY of the Palestinian people, by supporting the claims of each group.

Unity among Palestinians is particularly important at this point in time, as the so called “peace process” moves forward. Many fear that that in order to get a Palestinian “state” on 22% of historic Palestine, Abbas and the current PLO leadership might be willing to recognize Israel “as a Jewish State”, and to give up the rights of refugees.

My friend’s concern is that some Canadian supporters of Palestinian human rights have fallen into the habit of focusing exclusively on the occupation and basically ignoring the other issues. In his view, this promotes division and disunity among Palestinians. It is particularly demobilizing for the Palestinians in Canada, many of whom are refugees, to see that their needs are all but ignored.

I think there are several reasons why this sidetracking is tempting:

  • The occupation is the “easiest” case to explain to Canadians. It is much easier to talk about “the occupation” than about legal discrimination against non-Jews in the Jewish State of Israel. Palestinians fighting the “wall” makes for exciting copy, discrimination in land ownership does not.
  • The photos of Israeli tanks and fanatic settlers in Hebron attacking peasants are dramatic, while the never ending non-violent poverty of the millions in refugee camps is not very photogenic.
  • The focus on the “occupation” echoes the current PLO leadership’s focus on borders, so it feels like we are supporting Palestinians, (though ironically it comes at a time when that leadership has diminishing legitimacy in Palestinian society).

I suspect that few Canadians realize that when they focus on the occupation, they are actually taking sides in an internal Palestinian debate and favouring one group of Palestinians over another.  And few realize that by doing so, they are implicitly supporting the “liberal Zionist” position (Peter Beinhart, Thomas Friedman, etc. ) which argues Israel is a liberal democracy, whose problems started in 1967 and can be resolved by ending the occupation.

Here is my friend’s letter:

Dear friends,

 The original Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) call in 2005 defined 3 objectives:

 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

 Full call is here: http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1801

Since then, the BDS language has been “hijacked” and we have now 3 “BDS languages” with 3 different objectives:

1- Palestinian BDS: Objectives mentioned above

2- Liberal Zionist BDS: The objective is to “protect Israel from itself” by removing occupation of West Bank.  However, this language is OK with Israel as a “Jewish State” (discrimination against non-Jewish citizens), and would like to see refugees staying outside Israel/Palestine.

3- John Kerry ‘s BDS: The objective, as many analysts believe, is to use the separation wall in West Bank as a border between Israel and the “Palestinian state” (remove international law from the formula forever!), recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” and resettle Palestinian refugees outside Israel/Palestine. This version of BDS is fully supported by the European Union.

Human rights activists should be clear on which BDS they talk about!

This is especially important at this crucial time with the Palestinian refugees and the “Jewish State” questions are put on the table as we speak today!

Human rights activists should make it clear that they defend the Palestinian human rights and not just part of them! Talking about part of the rights, at this critical time, is a first step to divide Palestinians into various groups without a common national identity. This is very dangerous!

One people, same rights, one Palestinian BDS language!

In solidarity,

(Name withheld)


  1. Hi Peter,

    Here is your post!  Congrats!! Everything is working fine! 

    I remember that when I followed your blog first time (not yesterday), I was requested to select how frequently I would like to receive notification emails from your blog. Others shoud get directed to the same page once they follow..

    Thanks for opening a discussion about the BDS. Here are 2 quick notes:

    – My father passed away many years ago and does not live in a camp. Some of my relatives and friends do. – I suggest to remove the name and the note about the person who wrote the letter. Again, we do not want to send the wrong message to some people that their participation may lead to bad consequences. You may want to keep it without a name simply..

    What do you think?



  2. I strongly agree with your friend’s take on all this.

    There is a growing recognition that Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and its throttling of Gaza are outrageous violations of both international law and rudimentary norms of human decency. Only expansionist Zionists and their Israel-right-or-wrong brethren, continue to insist on the legitimacy of the occupation. Some go so far as to reject the notion that it is an occupation, insisting that it’s merely a reclamation of Biblical Israel by returned members of the tribe.

    It is this intransigent position that is being attacked by the mounting international BDS campaign, which is having growing success through campaigns on university campuses and consumer boycotts. It is about the threat posed by these campaigns that John Kerry is warning the Israeli government in an attempt to motivate it to accept the American plan.

    The terrible fact is that if the Israeli government can be bribed and threatened to accept Kerry’s plan, it would be a catastrophe for the Palestinians. Writing in Haaretz March 12, liberal Zionist Peter Beinart explained the fundamental problems with Kerry’s plan:

    — It offers the Palestinians substantially less than what Bill Clinton offered them in December 2000 and what Ehud Olmert offered them in 2008.
    Clinton called for Israeli troops to leave the Jordan Valley within three years of a peace deal. Olmert was willing to withdraw them even faster. Abbas is reportedly calling for a transition of three to five years. According to different accounts, Netanyahu insists that Israeli troops must remain for ten or even forty years. Kerry appears to have endorsed Netanyahu’s ten-year timetable.
    — When it comes to Jerusalem, Kerry is reported to have offered to locate the Palestinian capital in a relatively remote neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Recently, Kerry suggested that they relocate their capital outside of Jerusalem altogether, to the town of Beit Hanina.
    — On the highly charged subject of refugees, it appears that Kerry is agreeing with Netanyahu, taking the position that none should be allowed to return.
    — According to a number of leaks, Kerry has made Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” demand — with all of the negative implications this has with regard to refugees’ right of return and the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel – as his own.

    As Beinart explains, even before these latest talks began, Abbas had already recognized Israel’s right to exist; renounced violence; accepted Israeli control over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; accepted the continued existence of some Israeli West Bank settlements in return for land swaps; given up the idea of a real Palestinian army; and declared that the number of Palestinian refugees allowed to return would not be allowed to threaten Israel’s “social composition.” In short, Abbas has abjectly capitulated to Israel’s ever-expanding list of demands.

    It is not clear whether Palestinian acceptance or rejection of Kerry’s plan would be more disastrous. Acceptance would invite an explosion of popular outrage, with the potential for civil war among Palestinians. Rejection would invite condemnation from the U.S. and Israel and the resurrection of the specious argument that Israel has no partner for peace.

    In the context of these fundamentally flawed negotiations and Israel’s ever-expanding West Bank settlements, the BDS movement — focused overwhelmingly on Israel’s continuing occupation — is gaining strength and numbers of adherents. If the Israelis and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement on the fundamentally flawed terms that Kerry is promoting, described above, it could easily be seen as a victory for the BDS movement.

    Under such circumstances, the movement will be faced with a fateful choice: will it redefine its goals to include the issues it has largely avoided to date – the plight of Palestinian refugees as well as the institutional discrimination experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel? Or will it be satisfied with a settlement on terms dictated by Netanyahu that leaves these fundamental injustices unaddressed?

  3. Sid Shniad lists those things that, according to Peter Beinhart, Abbas has accepted, and Sid concludes that Abbas has “abjectly capitulated to Israel’s ever-expanding list of demands.” “Abjectly capitulated” are definitely not Beinhart’s words, and that particular list does not represent an “ever-expanding list” but rather those things that have always formed part of the various proposed agreements. That list leaves Palestinians the pre-’67 borders with mutually-accepted land swaps, a capital in East Jerusalem, recognition of the rights of, and acceptance of a certain number of refugees, plus compensation — in short, all those things which most Palestinians have for 20 years defined as victory. (To that list, Netanyahu has added recognition as a Jewish state, the retention of a great many settlements and all of Jerusalem, keeping the Jordan Valley, and accepting not a single refugee. That list, were Abbas to accept it, would in fact represent abject capitulation.) Peter Larson suggests that focusing on the demand for a Palestinian state is being “sidetracked.” Others might consider it a good place to start.

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