South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils whispered to me as I sat down following a most enthusiastic speech I gave at a recent conference in Cape Town: "if you want the world to heed to your call for boycotting Israel, the call has to originate from the Palestinian leadership itself."
Kasrils is obviously right. The call for boycotting the racist Apartheid government was an exclusively South African endeavour, made resonantly and repeatedly by the African National Council (ANC) and backed by the various liberation movements in the country and in exile. It took years for the dedicated campaign to be effective. The message communicated to the international community was clear and simply persuasive: put an end to Apartheid. It was but only a facet of various methods of struggle, notwithstanding the armed struggle which spread to Namibia, Angola and other African countries. Nonetheless it was a committed strategy. One of the architects of the campaign which boycotted banks involved in investing in South Africa, presented me with an elaborate plan to involve civil societies in holding to account banks that facilitate the Israeli occupation economically and thereby help to facilitate its existence. It comprised a clear strategy, a straightforward plan of action and non-negotiable demands.
Is a similar campaign possible in the Palestinian case? Many people seem to think so. In fact, calls for boycotting Israel have dotted the political landscape of the Arab-Israeli and later Palestinian-Israeli conflict for years. The main obstacle to utilising civil societies in compelling Israel to end its brutal policies against the Palestinians is that these efforts are neither centralised nor do they emanate from a respected Palestinian authority and leadership. Despite their good intentions, and their sincere solidarity, they remain uncoordinated and lack a clear set of objectives.
A young Indian activist, who spent days on end urging shoppers at Britain’s Marks and Spencer, to boycott the store for contributing to the Israeli occupation, recalled her utter frustration with the fact that many of the store’s customers were Arabs from the Gulf. While nothing beats a good deal, she failed to understand why a wealthy Arab would find it morally permissible to patronise a company that contributed to the occupation. Needless to say, the same scenario is repeated at many Starbucks branches, despite the corporate management’s unabashed support of Israel.
I called Ahmed Youssef, the chief political advisor to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to ask him whether such a call for a boycott was feasible, especially prior to the forthcoming mass rallies to be held in London and other major cities on 9 June — on the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation. Youssef was clearly distressed; the infighting between Palestinians had taken its toll on his often optimistic attitude. "How can one expect a unified leadership position on a boycott while Palestinians are fighting on two fronts; against one another and against Israel?"
I am certain that large numbers of conscientious people around the world would refuse to purchase Israeli products if they understood exactly how Israel has maintained its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. But how can we ascertain this fact without a professional and well organised boycott which would provide figures and statistics as part of the campaign to pressure companies that do business with Israel?
Should we wait for the Palestinian leadership, some of whom are in the process of complete capitulation, while others are struggling for basic survival and limited to an exclusivist political ideology, to cease their infighting, unify their ranks, rehabilitate their political institutions and only then call for boycott? The wait might be too long and arduous.
One of the main objectives of my frequent travelling has been to try and build a bridge between various proactive organisations, linked to change and liberation, and the Palestinian struggle. In some ways, these efforts have been successful. I believe that by creating a wider, well coordinated platform for the struggle against injustice, with Palestine being one of several central points of focus, civil society can be both effective and relevant. To achieve this, one must not dwell on specifics (in the Palestinian case, the debate of one versus two states, armed struggle versus passive resistance, Hamas verses Fatah, are cases in point) but search for unifying themes, leaving the more divisive issues for Palestinians to sort out.
The conflict in Palestine is at a very critical juncture. Israel, brazenly aided by the two remaining imperialist countries, the US and the UK, is in the final stages of planning its Bantustanisation of the disconnected pockets that remain of historic Palestine. Martin Luther King Jr once said "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". An Israeli victory against the Palestinian people is indeed a defeat for every struggle for justice, rights and equality everywhere. It simply must not be allowed. But how to prevent this is a debate that should immediately commence without reverting to dogmatic approaches and language, political or religious sensitivities, and most importantly without any sense of ownership over the discourse, which is sadly creeping up in Palestinian circles everywhere.
* The writer is an Arab-American journalist.