Why has Israel arrested the leading spokesperson for the BDS movement?

2015 group with BDS 2

Omar Barghouti, (front row, light jacket) is one of the founders of the movement to boycott Israel for its abuses of Palestinian human rights (BDS). Here he is meeting with a group of Canadians in Ramallah in 2015. He was arrested last week by Israeli authorities. Read more…

March 22, 2017 — On the morning of Sunday, March 19, Israeli tax authorities barged into the home of Omar Barghouti, the prominent Palestinian human rights defender and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for the freedom, justice and equality of the Palestinian people. They detained and interrogated Omar and his wife Safa for 16 hours that first day. Omar has subsequently undergone at least four more days of interrogation.

The charge against him is “tax evasion”. Israeli authorities claim he has accumulated over $700,000 over the last decade and “hidden it in a Ramallah” bank. It’s hard for an outsider to know whether there is any basis for this, although it would seem surprising that Ramallah banks are not under close surveillance by Israeli authorities. Some commentators have suggested that arresting Barghouti for tax evasion is a safer route for Israel than an outright arrest for political activity.

However, what is known is that for the last 24 months Israel has been ramping up its threats and legal action against the BDS movement and against Barghouti in particular. In the past few weeks, Israel has arrested (and released) one prominent Jewish Israeli proponent of BDS and deported a British BDS activist.

(We are) concerned for the safety and liberty of Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti, and other Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists…

Amnesty International, April 2016

Last year Amnesty International expressed grave concerns “for the safety and liberty of Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti, and other Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists, following calls alluding to threats, including of physical harm and deprivation of basic rights, made by Israeli ministers at an anti-Boycott Divestment and Sanction conference in Jerusalem on March 28, 2016.”

Details of Barghouti’s arrest are still scanty and he is apparently under a “gag” order. In a strongly worded statement, the BDS National Committee claims that the arrest of Barghouti is yet another step in a campaign of harassment and intimidation. Barghouti could be forced to spend a lot of time and money over the next few years defending himself in court even if the charges are completely groundless.

Canadians who share Amnesty’s concern for Barghouti’s safety and liberty, could write a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (chrystia.freeland@international.gc.ca) encouraging her to review the situation. Alternatively it would be possible to write to His Excellency Rafael Barak, Ambassador of Israel to Canada (at ambassador-sec@Ottawa.mfa.gov.il).


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue. If you support our educational mission, why not join? Or make a donation? Or learn more about what we do?  Contact us at: membership.ctip@gmail.com.




  1. Many Zionists describe the BDS effort as a total failure and a waste of effort. If that were true, why would they try so hard to stop it?

    1. @Dr. Parnas, Economically the BDS is meaningless, just look at the +50% rally the Shekel did against the Canadian dollar in less than four years.
      But for center and right parties the BDS is a perfect issue for the upcoming elections, and they will use it as much as they can

      1. Hey Ahik, my sense is that the Israeli government is concerned about BDS, not for its economic impact, but for its reputational impact. In a similar vein, the campaign to boycott South Africa did not really have a significant economic impact, but it did raise the question of South African apartheid, especially in Europe and North America.

        The 3 demands of the BDS movement pose a challenge to the very idea of Zionism. I think a better metric for the impact of BDS would be “how many people are talking about it”. I have no hard data on that, but I think it has gained considerable recognition over the last few years.

    2. @David

      Anti-zionism has a long history of failing to do much to influence Israeli policy it also has a long history of successfully creating an antisemetic atmosphere and thus ethnically cleansing the Jewish population of the countries in which it arises. The fight against BDS is unifying for the foreign Jewish community (especially USA’s Jewish community) while the fight against more direct threats to Israel (especially Iran) is divisive. To pick a Canadian example consider the fight at Concordia college (technically this was pre-BDS / Palestine solidarity). Netanyahu was unpopular among the students at Concordia. Not letting him speak was also unpopular. Jewish activists were able to convert the attacks from the pro-Palestinian student government from focusing primarily on Israel / the Israeli right to attacks on Hillel (and thus Judaism). The result was the Jewish population got politicized, the broad student population unified with Jewish population and Concordia ended up with an Israeli institute further expanding official ties. All huge positives for Israel.

      BTW this also plays out nicely in Israel itself. Settlement / annexation are divisive issues among Israelis while hating BDS is unifying.

      It also creates a nice distraction PR wise. Settlement activity is widely disliked in the west. If the discussion is about settlements and “the occupation” Israel has diplomatic problems. BDS goes way beyond merely disagreeing with Israeli settlement in its policies, goals and tactics. Debating those puts Israel on a much firmer footing. Take for example the frequent pushes in Ireland regarding expelling the Israeli ambassador for accurately representing the position of the Israeli government’s position in areas where the Catholic Irish population largely disagrees with Israel. What BDS is effectively advocating here is forcing Israel’s ambassador to Ireland to either lie about Israel’s positions, or that Ireland sever diplomatic relations with Israel. Both those positions would be unpopular (and arguably a clear cut violation of the Vienna conventions). Debating that puts Israel on a much firmer footing then say the debating the blockade of Gaza which Ireland hates since it is so reminiscent of British policy towards Ireland. More broadly the rise of Islamic sectarian extremism is a huge positive for Israel, it is a huge negative for the west more generally.

      A good analogy here is how the rise of Hamas has destroyed the PLO and probably ended up giving the West Bank to Israel, while isolating the Palestinians in Gaza politically. The fight against BDS is likely to destroy the western consensus regarding Israeli settlements.

  2. Omar Bargouti is a resident of Israel who have a substantial income from his gainful employment as a CEO of an internet company.
    It’s one of two options: either he pays his taxes in Israel and in that case he is not really true to his cause of boycotting Israel, or, as it appears, he avoid paying taxes and then he should face the law. Tax evasion of 700,000 is a serious crime, recently a famous Israeli singer was sentenced to a jail for less than that

    1. @Ahik

      Great point. Tax evasion is often a nice charge to get people who distance themselves from other crimes. To pick the most famous example in the USA ever the federal government, Illinois government and to some extent Chicago government spent years trying to tie Al Capone to the various murders, extortion rackets, bootlegging and vice crimes he was responsible for but with little luck. Between murdering prosecutors and witnesses, as well as bribing / intimidating the local police, and his general carefulness that only a few very close associates ever discussed anything substantial with him, there was no just no way to make a case. Everyone in America knew he was America’s foremost crime kingpin but the government couldn’t prove it in court. What they were able to prove though was that he had about $100m ($1.2b in today’s money) in assets he had never paid taxes on.

      Barghouti is an Israeli who spends his life coordinating with Israel’s enemies to weaken the state and build alliances with enemies of that state. Everyone knows this. They can’t prove treason and espionage but they likely can prove tax evasion associated with these activities.

      1. “They can’t prove treason and espionage” so anything else will have to do, especially if your intent is to GET this man for something even if it’s a sad farce that any thinking person knows is a shallow political move.

        Let me ask you, how many Israelis spend their entire professional lives wrapped in military clothing and armament while focussing entirely on the efforts of one man willing to stand up to the abuse of his people by the state of Israel? The world continues to witness this!

      2. @allan

        A difficult question to answer Allan.

        There is of course an entire ministry dedicated to the task of opposing BDS.

        In addition there is a special unit within military intelligence similarly dedicated.
        That was revealed through many sources but here is one.


        That meets your wrapped in uniform criteria

        Israel is secretive about this but tyrannies aren’t known for transparency.

        So make your best guess. Based on budget I would say no less than 500 (regardless of uniform) which is not a large number in a country that size.

    2. Ahik, I have heard this point raised before – namely that if Palestinians don’t boycott Israel, then why should we? Or alternatively put: Barghouti is a hypocrite because he went to an Israeli University while he calls for a boycott, etc..

      My understanding is that the BDS call is a call for international support. Palestinians living in Israel, or under Israeli occupation have few options but to consume Israeli items (or pay Israeli taxes even if they wish they didn’t have to). If those in Gaza didn’t consume stuff from Israel, as long as Israel’s blockade lasts, they would starve. Isn’t that right?

      As for his income, I have no idea. He is a smart guy, but I think he spends a lot of time on the BDS campaign. Not so sure how much time he has to make money.

  3. @allan

    Let me ask you, how many Israelis spend their entire professional lives wrapped in military clothing and armament while focussing entirely on the efforts of one man [Omar Barghouti] willing to stand up to the abuse of his people by the state of Israel?

    The the best of my knowledge the answer to that is 0 people. There is a political anti-BDS movement but not a military one and I don’t know that’s anyone’s full time job in Israel, much less something that would consume an entire professional lifetime, much less focusing on Barghouti. If the military were actually worried about Barghouti he’d be dead not arrested.

  4. @ Peter, you don’t really understand the mindset of the Israelis, they don’t care much about Omar Bargouti, not many people in Israel will recognize his face if they see him in the street. More than anything, for Israelis the BDS is an insult (not a threat). Israelis are very proud in the achievement of state and its people. They see themselves as a model and a beacon to the world. They like to see themselves ranked at the top of any world-anything-good-index, the fact that the BDS is trying to portray Israel like it does is a pure insult, and Israelis are reacting accordingly.

    1. Then Israelis need a better mirror with which to see themselves. A state based on ethnic cleansing, denial of human rights, denying other peoples national aspirations, etc is nkt a beacon to anyone.

      The time for pandering to their deluded self image is long gone. There are good things of note that Israel has accomplished but that doesn’t justify their brutal and barbaric behaviour towards others.

    2. Hey Ahik, I think you don’t really understand the objective of the BDS movement.

      I am not privy to the thinking of the BDS leadership, but I think the real objective of the BDS movement is to change the mindset of the international community, and particularly Americans, I don’t think it hopes to change Israeli thinking.

      Based on my reading of the American “Jewish press”, (Forward, CJN, Haaretz English version) that strategy is working.

      Until 4 or 5 years ago, there was a bipartisan consensus on Israel in the US congress. That does not seem to be the case today. How much of that is due to BDS, and how much to the rightward slide of the Israeli government, I don’t know.

      1. @Peter

        Congress there is almost no change, if anything the policies in both parties are slowly shifting more to the right. Neither is there much popular change in the USA: ://img.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/files/2017/01/PewForeign2.png&w=1484

        You see a pretty dramatic drop off among self identified liberal Democrats and gains everywhere else. There is no point in the Democratic party adopting policies the base likes and everyone else hates. The problem with BDS in the USA is the activists come from the hard left. And most of the country doesn’t like the hard left on most issues. BDS is too extreme to appeal to moderate dems so it mostly stagnates.

        Netanyahu is often thought of and treated like essentially “the Republican Senator from Israel”. So as America gets more partisan that hurts Israel with Dems and helps with Republicans.

        But more importantly… the most important group of voters likely to shift their votes on the Israel / Palestine issue are Jews. Jews are an affluent group of white voters, who lean liberal donate and volunteer way above their percentage in the population. Republicans would like nothing better than for Israel to be a partisan issue, and mainstream Democrats know how much of a loser it would be under current conditions. It would still be a loser even if the attitude shifted 30 points away from Israel or more. You want to change American policy, you have to change Jewish opinion. BDS takes a nasty hateful tone towards Israel. I just don’t see how that strategy can ever hope to work.

  5. We can argue and speculate about why Israel arrested Omar Barghouti. The reality Israel is escalating its attack on the Palestinian people as a whole in all forms. They believe that their good friend Trump offers a historic opportunity to steal more land and force more Palestinians outside historic Palestine. It is true that Israel has a very powerful and sophisticated military technology. However, Israel and its supporters should know that Palestinians as a people will remain and will resist ethnic cleansing and occupation. Palestinians have no other place to go. They have only one homeland: Palestine. I hope that as part of their struggle for equality and freedom, Palestinians will be able to liberate not only themselves, but also many Israelis and their supporters from their racist and violent views.

    1. @New Canadian
      The reality Israel is escalating its attack on the Palestinian people as a whole in all forms.

      What activities is Israel engaging in say 2008-7 that it didn’t engage in 1998-2007?

      They [the Palestinians] have only one homeland:

      I find it so ironic that you don’t see how this applies to both people.

  6. Peter do you have any contacts to obtain some clarifications on this issue?

    At the time of the arrest the GoI described him as having his “center of life” (an Israeli euphemism and pretext for stealing property and possessions) in Ramallah.

    If he is living in Ramallah what is the basis for him owing Israel any taxes in the first instance? They clearly don’t even consider him as having residency in Israel.

  7. Thanks… both.

    it is not surprising that a gag order is in place although it seems inappropiate in a simple tax case. Typically a defendant might request one to keep their financial issues private. The GoI seems to always work out of the public view. Hardly the hallmarks of a fair justice system. Yes all courts issue gag orders from time to time but it seems standard practice when prosecuting/persecuting either Palestinians or non-Jewish Israelis.

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