Arab governments should join the BDS movement

Arab governments should join the BDS movement
Most Arab governments have become complacent about Palestine, but they have many - nonviolent - avenues to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation, argues Karim Traboulsi.
6 min read
11 Aug, 2015
It is difficult for Palestinians under occupation to observe the boycott [THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images]
More and more individuals, groups and institutions in the West and around the world are signing up every day to the movement calling for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Artists are cancelling performances in Israel; world-class scientists are endorsing the boycott; and countless academicians and student unions have decided to boycott universities and academic institutions in Israel, which is enforcing a racist South-African style apartheid in the territories it occupies in Palestine, imposing an illegal blockade on the people of Gaza when it is not massacring them, and treating its Arab citizens as second-tier subjects.

BDS is slowly going mainstream. Recently, even the Labour Party frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities involved in arms research.

The BDS threat to Israel has sent the far-right government in Tel Aviv into panic mode. Israel's closest ally, as usual, has rushed to the rescue, passing an anti-BDS law to crack down on rising support for the movement in the United States.

BDS is threatening to create the same kind of international climate that ultimately endorsed the struggle of black South Africans against the White apartheid regime, leading to its demise.

Arab government out of the picture

Some of the least enthusiastic supporters of BDS seem to be Arab governments and Arab elites, even as the cause of Palestine and her decolonisation should concern them directly.

Instead of joining the growing international momentum behind the BDS movement, a non-violent way to help the Palestinian people in their struggle to end the occupation and and resolve the question of Palestine refugees, many Arab governments are stepping up cooperation and relations with Israel.

It has done little to deter them that the sitting prime minister of Israel is opposed to the two-state solution and has often been accused of singlehandedly destroying the so-called peace process.

Arab officials and even parts of the public opinion often complain that there is little they can do to pressure Israel, in the post-armed resistance world we live in today.
     BDS is threatening to create the same kind of international climate that ultimately endorsed the struggle of black South Africans against the White apartheid regime.

The demise of the USSR and its Arab leftist allies has eroded international legitimacy for armed struggle against Israel.

Iranian support for resistance groups, most of which are Islamic, is controversial to many, while others believe low-level asymmetrical armed resistance is too costly and its rewards are too slow to come.

Regardless of the pros and cons of armed resistance, and whether BDS is an alternative, Arab governments and the Arab public can do a lot more to pressure Israel short of waging war, and BDS is an ideal and almost uncontroversial tactic - outside the Knesset and Capitol Hill.

Even Arab governments that have peace treaties with Israel have ways to put pressure on Israel short of abolishing those treaties, from downgrading diplomatic relations to terminating business contracts with Israeli companies, or even by merely threatening to do so.

Of course, they choose not to, or even partake in the blockade of Palestinians, as is the case with the Egyptian regime. For these governments, including the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli atrocities in Palestine are not bad enough to warrant antagonizing the United States, losing out on lucrative business opportunities with Israel or paying the price associated with challenging the Oslo status quo.

Most Arab countries that have no borders with Israel and no full diplomatic relations or peace treaties with Tel Aviv have relaxed the Arab League-endorsed policy of boycotting Israel that dates back to the 1950s, perhaps with the exception of Syria and Lebanon.

Some of the old laws that enforced primary, secondary, and tertiary boycott in relation to Israel are ineffective and embarrassing, but the international momentum behind BDS requires these to be revised, not repealed.

Realistically speaking, it is hard to expect Arab governments to do this out of principle. For one thing, the United States and other Western patrons of Tel Aviv have passed laws criminalizing the boycott of Israel, even though BDS is fully in line with international law as a nonviolent form of legitimate resistance and activism.
     Arab governments and the Arab public can do a lot more to pressure Israel short of waging war, and BDS is an ideal and almost uncontroversial tactic.

Yet the Arab public can act on at least two different levels here. One, to put pressure on their governments to reactivate multilevel boycott of Israel, that is boycott of both Israeli-linked businesses and people (primary) and businesses and people who invest in Israel, promote Israel, donate to Israel or even perform in Israel in the case of artists (secondary and tertiary boycott).

The Arabic Spring and the call for BDS

During the early days of the Arab Spring, Arab activists included such demands in their slogans, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. This has borne some fruit in Tunisia with the constitution containing clauses discouraging normalised relations with Israel, but the counter-revolution in Egypt has succeeded in marginalising early calls for a reconsideration of Camp David.

The same can be said about Jordan, with the demands of early protests in 2011 there in this regard now all but forgotten.

Political fatigue has indeed relegated Palestine to the bottom of the list of Arabs' priorities, but the pathologically brutal actions of Israel are sure to revive Arab pro-Palestinian interest, solidarity, and action.

The second level is personal and collective civilian boycott of Israel. Organised campaigns to boycott Israeli products and products of companies that conduct business with the state of Israel as well as figures seen as promoting Israel already exist but they need to be replicated and encouraged.

One of these is the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon, which has managed to help put pressure on artists to cancel performances in Israel or on artists who performed in Israel to cancel their concerts in Lebanon. The Campaign also publishes a regularly updated database of companies and individuals that have close links to Israel for people to boycott individually, as these products can legally enter Arab countries without restrictions.

However, there are boycott laws that are indeed outdated and counter-productive. For instance, Lebanon, like several other Arab countries, stringently bans the entry even of non-Israelis whose passports contain Israeli or Palestinian Authority stamps.

While these measures are justified to prevent dual (non-Arab) Israeli citizens from entering Lebanon as well as in the context of counter-espionage, it unfairly affects Arab citizens and pro-Palestinian activists and figures who travel to Palestine.

These laws should be modernized, for example using background checks rather than banning people outright for having Israeli and Palestinian stamps.

Arguably as well, Arabs should not boycott international events attended by Israelis, contact with whom is illegal in some Arab countries. Rather, Arabs should use these platforms to emphasise Arab and Palestinian rights and condemn the Israeli government's actions.

At a time when Westerners are waking up to the plight of Palestine and increasingly participating in Palestine solidarity- some to atone for their nations' original sin in the creation of Israel and the ensuing Nakba - the least Arabs can do is join the boycott and push for smarter, more creative, and more modern boycott tactics and laws in their countries.

Israel must be made to know that Arabs are not complacent, and that its occupation and oppression of Palestine has a very high cost.

Karim Traboulsi is a translator and writer based in Amman and Beirut.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.