For four years the Guardian never missed an opportunity to tar Jeremy Corbyn with the brush of antisemitism until a confused and suspicious public turned against him at the polls, thus opening the way for the zealously pro-Israel Sir Keir Starmer to replace him as leader of the Labour Party. The effect of this campaign was to undermine the Party’s potential to highlight Israel’s policies of Apartheid and more recently ts genocidal assault on Gaza. Now that there is no longer any prospect of a progressive Labour government, the Guardian is prepared to report accurately on the catastrophic situation Israel has created in Gaza, and even publish a vigorous call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) by the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein. The original article can be found here.

We have a tool to stop Israel’s war crimes: BDS

Naomi Klein

In 2005, Palestinians called on the world to boycott Israel until it complied with international law. What if we had listened?

Exactly 15 years ago this week, I published an article in the Guardian. It began like this:

It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa. In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on ‘people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era’. The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was born.

Back in January 2009, Israel had unleashed a shocking new stage of mass killing in the Gaza Strip, calling its ferocious bombing campaign Operation Cast Lead. It killed 1,400 Palestinians in 22 days; the number of casualties on the Israeli side was 13. That was the last straw for me, and after years of reticence I came out publicly in support of the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights, known as BDS.

Though BDS had broad support from more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, internationally the movement remained small. During Operation Cast Lead, that began to shift, and a growing number of student groups and trade unions outside Palestine were signing on.

a 'boycott israel' mural in Bethlehem, June 2015.
BDS: how a controversial non-violent movement has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian debate
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Still, many wouldn’t go there. I understood why the tactic felt fraught. There is a long and painful history of Jewish businesses and institutions being targeted by antisemites. The communications experts who lobby on Israel’s behalf know how to weaponize this trauma, so they invariably cast campaigns designed to challenge Israel’s discriminatory and violent policies as hateful attacks on Jews as an identity group.

For two decades, widespread fear stemming from that false equation has shielded Israel from facing the full potential of a BDS movement – and now, as the international court of justice hears South Africa’s devastating compendium of evidence of Israel committing the crime of genocide in Gaza, it truly is enough.

From bus boycotts to fossil fuel divestment, BDS tactics have a well-documented history as the most potent weapons in the nonviolent arsenal. Picking them up and using them at this turning point for humanity is a moral obligation.

The responsibility is particularly acute for those of us whose governments continue to actively aid Israel with deadly weapons, lucrative trade deals and vetoes at the United Nations. As BDS reminds us, we do not have to let those bankrupt agreements speak for us unchallenged.

Groups of organized consumers have the power to boycott companies that invest in illegal settlements, or power Israeli weapons. Trade unions can push their pension funds to divest from those firms. Municipal governments can select contractors based on ethical criteria that forbid these relationships. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founders and leaders of the BDS movement, reminds us: “The most profound ethical obligation in these times is to act to end complicity. Only thus can we truly hope to end oppression and violence.”

In these ways, BDS deserves to be seen as a people’s foreign policy, or diplomacy from below – and if it gets strong enough, it will eventually force governments to impose sanctions from above, as South Africa is attempting to do. Which is clearly the only force that can get Israel off its current path.

Barghouti stresses that, just as some white South Africans supported the anti-apartheid campaigns during that long struggle, Jewish Israelis who oppose their country’s systemic violations of international law are welcome to join BDS. During Operation Cast Lead, a group of roughly 500 Israelis, many of them prominent artists and scholars, did just that, eventually naming their group Boycott from Within.

In my 2009 article, I quoted their first lobbying letter, which called for “the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions” against their own country and drew direct parallels with the South African anti-apartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa was effective,” they pointed out, saying it helped end the legalization of discrimination and ghettoization in that country, adding: “But Israel is handled with kid gloves … This international backing must stop.”

That was true 15 years ago; it is calamitously so today.

The price of impunity

Reading BDS documents from the mid- and late 2000s, I am most struck by the extent to which the political and human terrain has deteriorated. In the intervening years, Israel has built more walls, erected more checkpoints, unleashed more illegal settlers and launched far deadlier wars. Everything has gotten worse: the vitriol, the rage, the righteousness. Clearly, impunity – the sense of imperviousness and untouchability that underpins Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – is not a static force. It behaves more like an oil spill: once released, it seeps outwards, poisoning everything and everyone in its path. It spreads wide and sinks in deep.

Since the original call for BDS was made in July 2005, the number of settlers living illegally in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has exploded, reaching an estimated 700,000 – close to the number of Palestinians expelled in the 1948 Nakba. As settler outposts have expanded, so has the violence of settler attacks on Palestinians, all while the ideology of Jewish supremacy and even overt fascism have moved to the center of the political culture in Israel.

When I wrote my original BDS column, the overwhelming mainstream consensus was that the South African analogy was inappropriate and that the word “apartheid”, which was being used by Palestinian legal scholars, activists and human rights organizations, was needlessly inflammatory. Now, everyone from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International to the leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have done their own careful studies and come to the inescapable conclusion that apartheid is indeed the correct legal term to describe the conditions under which Israelis and Palestinians lead starkly unequal and segregated lives. Even Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, conceded the point: “There is an apartheid state here,” he said in September. “In a territory where two people are judged under two legal systems, that is an apartheid state.”

Moreover, many also now understand that apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories, but inside Israel’s 1948 borders, a case laid out in a major 2022 report from a coalition of Palestinian human rights groups convened by Al-Haq. It’s hard to argue otherwise when Israel’s current far-right government came to power under a coalition agreement that states: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel … the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.”

When impunity reigns, everything shifts and moves, including the colonial frontier. Nothing stays static.

Then there is Gaza. The numbers of Palestinians killed in Operation Cast Lead felt unfathomable at the time. We soon learned that it was not a one-off. Instead, it ushered in a murderous new policy that Israeli military officials casually referred to as “mowing the grass”: every couple of years brought a fresh bombing campaign, killing hundreds of Palestinians or, in the case of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, more than 2,000, including 526 children.

Those numbers shocked again, and sparked a new wave of protests. It still wasn’t enough to strip Israel of its impunity, which continued to be protected by the US’s reliable UN veto, plus the steady flow of arms. More corrosive than the lack of international sanctions have been the rewards: in recent years, alongside all of this lawlessness, Washington has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moved its embassy there. It also brokered the so-called Abraham accords, which ushered in lucrative normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Under a clear blue sky, men walk on the top of the rubble of buildings.
Palestinians inspect ruins in Khan Younis after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on 8 July 2014. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

It was Donald Trump who began showering Israel with these latest, long-sought-after gifts, but the process carried on seamlessly under Joe Biden. So, on the eve of 7 October, Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of signing what had been giddily hailed as the “deal of the century”.

Where were Palestinian rights and aspirations in all these deals? Absolutely nowhere. Because the other thing that had shifted during these years of impunity was any pretext that Israel intended to return to the negotiating table. The clear goal was crushing the Palestinian movement for self-determination through force, alongside physical and political isolation and fragmentation.

We know how the next chapters of this story go. Hamas’s horrific 7 October attack. Israel’s furious determination to exploit those crimes to do what some of the government’s senior leaders had long wanted to do anyway: depopulate Gaza of Palestinians, which they currently appear to be attempting through the combination of direct killing; mass home demolition (“domicide”); the spread of starvation, thirst and infectious disease; and eventually mass expulsion.

Make no mistake: this is what it means to allow a state to go rogue, to let impunity reign unchecked for decades, using the real collective traumas suffered by the Jewish people as the bottomless excuse and cover story. Impunity like that will swallow not only one country but every country with which it is allied. It will swallow the entire international architecture of humanitarian law forged in the flames of the Nazi holocaust. If we let it.

Which raises something else that has not stayed stable over the past two decades: Israel’s escalating obsession with crushing BDS, no matter the cost to hard-won political rights. Back in 2009, there were many arguments being made by BDS’s critics about why it was a bad idea. Some worried that cultural and academic boycotts would shut down much-needed engagement with progressive Israelis, and feared it would veer into censorship. Others maintained that punitive measures would create a backlash and move Israel further to the right.

So it is striking, looking back now, that those early debates have pretty much disappeared from the public sphere, and not because one side won the argument. They disappeared because the entire idea of having a debate was displaced by one all-consuming strategy: using legal and institutional intimidation to put BDS tactics out of reach and shut the movement down.

To date in the United States, a total of 293 anti-BDS bills have been introduced across the country, and they have been enacted in 38 states, according to Palestine Legal, which has closely tracked this surge. It explains that some legislation targets university funding, some requires that anyone receiving a contract with a state or working for a state sign a contract pledging they will not boycott Israel, and “some call on the state to compile public blacklists of entities that boycott for Palestinian rights or support BDS”. In Germany, meanwhile, support for any form of BDS is enough to get awards revoked, funding pulled, and shows and lectures cancelled (something I have experienced first-hand).

This strategy is, unsurprisingly, most aggressive inside Israel itself. In 2011, the country enacted the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott, effectively nipping the nascent Boycott from Within movement in the bud. The Adalah legal center, an organization working for Arab minority rights in Israel, explains that the law “prohibits the public promotion of academic, economic or cultural boycott by Israeli citizens and organizations against Israeli institutions or illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It enables the filing of civil lawsuits against anyone who calls for boycott.” Like the state-level laws in the US, “it also prohibits a person who calls for boycott from participating in any public tender”. In 2017, Israel began openly barring pro-BDS activists from entering Israel; 20 international groups were placed on the so-called BDS blacklist, including the anti-war stalwart Jewish Voice for Peace.

Meanwhile, across the US, lobbyists for oil and gas companies and gun manufacturers are taking a page from the anti-BDS legal offensive and pushing copycat legislation to restrict divestment campaigns that take aim at their clients. “It points to why it’s so dangerous to permit this kind of Palestine exception to speech,” Meera Shah, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told the magazine Jewish Currents. “Because not only is it harmful to the Palestinian rights movement – it eventually comes to harm other social movements.” Once again, nothing stays static, impunity expands, and when the rights to boycott and divest are stripped away for Palestinian solidarity, the right to use these same tools to push for climate action, gun control and LGBTQ+ rights are stripped away as well.

In a way, this is an advantage, because it presents an opportunity to deepen alliances across movements. Every major progressive organization and union has a stake in protecting the right to boycott and divest as core tenets of free expression and critical tools of social transformation. The small team at Palestine Legal has been leading the pushback in the US in extraordinary ways – filing court cases that challenge anti-BDS laws as unconstitutional and supporting the cases of others. They deserve far more backup.

Is it finally the BDS moment?