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For Palestine, it’s BDS or Bust

Omar Barghouti

We sit down with Omar Barghouti – co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – to discuss why justice for Palestinians can only be won through isolating Israel on the world stage.

Protestors demand support for the BDS movement in 2014. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Ronan Burtenshaw

In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in South Africa, Palestine was in the midst of an uprising. It had started three years earlier, on the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Six Day War, a conflict that was supposed to have settled the international borders of the new Palestinian state. Two decades later, Palestinians could see that the Israeli state had no intention of respecting that agreement — settlements continued across nominally Palestinian territory, alongside waves of violence and dispossession.

Mandela would become president a few years later and make clear that he saw the Palestinian cause deeply intertwined with the struggle of black South Africans. ‘Our freedom,’ he said, ‘is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ Shortly before he took office, things seemed to be moving in a more positive direction for the Palestinian people. The Oslo Peace Accords, which promised to fulfil their right to self-determination, were signed in 1993 and 1995. The international media heralded the beginning of a new era of peace.

But early critics of these treaties, such as writer Edward Said, who dubbed them a ‘Palestinian Versailles’, were to prove tragically prescient. By giving up their claim to 78 percent of historic Palestine, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) believed that it would win a state in the other 22 percent. They were mistaken. The settlements continued, as did the violence, dispossession, and discrimination. Soon, the Oslo Accords would collapse into a Second Intifada of resistance, which continued across the Palestinian Territories until 2005.

Out of the ruins of this failure emerged another chapter of the struggle. Across Palestine, civil society organisations came together to call for an international campaign to isolate Israel like the apartheid South African regime had been decades earlier. Its tactics were summed up by the name: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The movement’s demands were clear: to end the occupation and colonisation of all Palestinian lands and dismantle the apartheid wall; to recognise the rights of Palestinians in Israel itself to full equality; and to support the right of Palestinian refugees exiled from their homelands to return.

In the nearly two decades since, BDS has become the pre-eminent strategy of the global Palestine solidarity movement. It has targeted a range of multinational companies — from Veolia and G4S to Woolworths, Puma, and Hewlett Packard — as well as investment funds, cultural events, and sports competitions, securing a number of landmark victories. Its existence has also prompted a backlash from the Israel lobby, which recently secured the support of the British government for an ‘Anti-Boycott Bill’ after succeeding with similar efforts in the United States.

As the situation on the ground in Palestine deteriorates, Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw sits down with BDS campaign co-founder Omar Barghouti to discuss the movement’s prospects and the war to criminalise it — and how struggles somehow see dark days just before new dawns.


The far-right government in Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is increasingly saying the quiet part loud when it comes to apartheid. It is talking about the desire to make the occupation permanent, to erase the previously agreed international borders, to ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem and make Jerusalem the singular capital of an Israeli state. What has the response of Palestinian civil society and the BDS movement been to this development?


This is indeed the most far-right government in Israel’s history. It’s also the most fundamentalist, homophobic, and sexist government in Israel’s history. So what has been said with hesitancy is now being said openly, and Israel has lost the mask that has covered its ugly regime of oppression with a semblance of liberalism and democracy. You cannot have democracy with apartheid: of course, it’s a democracy for settlers and for Israelis, while it’s apartheid and settler colonialism for the Palestinians.

This government does not represent a totally new phase in the struggle for Palestinian rights. It’s a continuation of seventy-five years of oppression, with a difference in degree. Previous governments have committed the same acts — from building illegal settlements to the siege of Gaza — whether they’re so-called left or so-called right. These are relative terms in Israeli politics. The Left in Israel makes the far-right in Europe look liberal. But this government is unabashedly open about its plans.

But for Israeli society, it’s a difference in kind, not in degree, with this government. They’ve never had a government that is ready to undermine even the settler democracy [and] the rule of law for settlers [or] take such hard lines on women’s rights, LGBT rights, or trade union rights. This government is planning radical changes in Israeli society beyond the Palestinians. It is a horrible challenge, but [it is] also an unprecedented opportunity to further isolate this regime of oppression as was done with apartheid South Africa.


Recently, a Labour MP, Kim Johnson, used the term ‘apartheid’ to describe what was happening in Israel and Palestine. She was forced to apologise by the Labour leadership. Given that context, I think it’s important to set out what we mean by apartheid. How would you define it?


Today, there is almost a consensus in the human rights community that Israel is an apartheid state. So it’s not just the BDS movement that is saying it, it’s UN experts and human rights organisations such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem. So it’s really quite laughable that certain leaders of opposition parties consider that designation to be unspeakable. That is McCarthyism, pure and simple. It’s repression of freedom of expression. Israel is guilty of apartheid and should be treated as such. As Amnesty says, Israel treats Palestinian as an inferior racial group, and that’s [been] a fact for seventy-five years.

Is it identical to South African apartheid? Of course not. No two systems of oppression are identical. Was British colonialism equivalent to French colonialism? They were different, but they were both colonialism. They’re part of the same family despite the differences. Israeli apartheid is more sophisticated than the South African version. But, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, it’s a worse system of apartheid. He said, ‘We did not have F16s bombing our Bantustans in South Africa.’

So what is the international response? If it’s an apartheid system then it has to be met with targeted lawful sanctions, sports boycotts, academic and cultural boycotts, [and] economic and financial ones. Israel should be expelled from international forums, as South Africa was. That is how you respond to states that perpetrate the crime of apartheid against humanity.


In Britain, the government is considering legislation to crack down on exactly those activities, the Anti-Boycott Bill. What do you think the response should be to that piece of legislation, and how should we defend our rights to stand up for Palestinians against the occupation?


This is not simply an attack on Palestinian rights or [the] anti-BDS legislation. What the British government is trying to do is to take away democratic rights from local governments in particular. They’re saying that local governments cannot decide where to invest or divest — for example, their pension funds — if the central government does not agree. What does the central government have to do with that? Taking that democratic right away is only the beginning.

If the British government gets away with passing this anti-boycott legislation and controlling local governments’ pension funds, no justice movement will be safe in this country. They’ll go after the trade unions and they’ll go after Black Lives Matter; they’ll go after women’s rights and they’ll go after every progressive struggle. Already, democracy is shrinking in the UK, with the right to strike and protest under threat. But this hypocritical government talks about its support for ‘freedom of speech’ and other freedoms. Every liberal, let alone socialist or progressive, should be up in arms against these kinds of legislation. And they must know that they are next.

It was the same with the first iteration of McCarthyism in the US. It wasn’t just anti-communist; every liberal person opposed to government overreach and control was targeted. They only started with the communists. Similarly, they’re starting with us.


This legislation is part of a much broader ‘chilling effect’ that is being applied to the Palestine solidarity movement. In the wake of growing public support for Palestinian rights in the past decade, since Cast Lead and Protective Edge, Israel has waged a pretty effective public relations campaign against its critics. One part of this is the attempt to criminalise the BDS movement, but the overarching theme is the association of anyone who campaigns for justice in Palestine with antisemitism. This accusation has been levelled at every major left-wing movement of recent times, from Jeremy Corbyn in the UK to Podemos in Spain and Mélenchon in France — and even to Bernie Sanders, the most high-profile Jewish politician in the US. Just how damaging do you think that campaign has been, and how can we fight back effectively against it?


The chilling effect is real and the weaponisation of antisemitism to suppress Palestinian advocacy is very serious. One example is the so-called IHRA definition and its examples. But we are not alone in fighting that: dozens of progressive Jewish groups across the world, including in this country, have issued statements saying this definition conflates opposition to Israel’s oppression, system of racism, and the ideology of Zionism with hatred against Jews.

This conflation is terrible for the real struggle against antisemitism. Trying to protect Israel from criticism and accountability by expanding this definition to say that an attack on Israel is an attack on Jews is equating Israel with all Jews. That is wrong. Anyone who says that all Jews are responsible for whatever Israel does is making an antisemitic statement. We must be clear on separating out these two issues. Many Jewish groups have reached that conclusion. This is bad for Palestinians and bad for Jews.

But for the chilling effect to work, it means the person accepting it. I was at the Labour conference in Liverpool and spoke at the PSC [Palestine Solidarity Campaign] fringe. I was shocked at how many people are practising self-censorship. People are afraid to speak their mind on justice issues, on evidence-based issues, in case they are accused of antisemitism. That is totally wrong and unsustainable.

Stick to anti-racist principles. Say, ‘We are categorically opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism,’ and don’t be afraid. That is the best response to this chilling effect. Continue the campaigning on the ground and build people’s power to speak up.


To what extent do you see the anti-apartheid movement, which was so big in the 1980s in Britain, as a model for the BDS movement for Palestinian rights?



It’s worth remembering that movement only got big in the 1980s. For a long time, it was very small. When the South Africans first called for a boycott in the 1950s, hardly anyone backed the call. It was very gradual and took thirty years to build that movement. People remember the glory days of the late eighties when it was massive. I was personally part of the anti-apartheid movement in New York where I went to school. It took forever to build the movement; let’s remember that these processes take time.


If you are speaking to people in Britain who are concerned about human rights, they have plenty to be worried about at home — from attacks on the rights to protest and strike to draconian anti-immigrant legislation. That is before even considering those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. How would you communicate to people in those positions why the fight for Palestinian rights is so important?


This is an important dimension, because the average person in this country would exactly ask that question. We have a cost-of-living crisis, austerity, neoliberalism, they’re taking away our basic rights, they’re threatening our pensions, why should I care? Well, there are several answers.

First, because all systems of injustice are connected. This is a fact, and this drive towards authoritarianism and militarisation in the UK is connected to its foreign policy. They’re not disconnected. Second, when we call on people in this country to stand with us, what we’re basically calling for is to end complicity. So if you’re a worker striking, if you’re a driver, a nurse, an emergency worker, a teacher, we’re not asking you to leave your strike and come join the garrisons for Palestinian rights. But, in addition to your strike, could you pressure your union, your city council, your institution to divest from companies that are perpetuating apartheid against Palestinians?

For example, if I’m part of a union and my pension invests in companies like JCB or Barclays Bank or Elbit Systems, military companies that are killing Palestinians or financing settlements or throwing us off our land, it’s not too much to ask that you stop that complicity. If your money, your pension, your institution is doing harm, you have a moral obligation to stop that.


In May 2021, London saw the largest Palestinian solidarity demonstration in British history. It was the largest demonstration of any kind that I’ve seen here since the TUC demos back in 2011. But there is this challenge with the Palestinian movement where mass engagement happens at moments where people see atrocities on the television, and then the movement tends to wane in the aftermath while apartheid carries on. How can that be overcome? Can we get to a situation where there is more regular mass engagement in the solidarity movement?


The thing about BDS — and the reason why it’s effective — is that it doesn’t involve just one form of solidarity. It doesn’t just call for demonstrations, for example. The PSC is our most important strategic partner in the UK and one of the most important in the world. It organises those mass protests at the right moment, as you said, in reaction to horrible atrocities and massacres. But it’s a year-round campaign, and a large part of that is campaigning against companies that are complicit in apartheid.

We mentioned Barclays Bank, JCB, Puma too, and there’re so many other companies that are deeply implicated in Israel’s system of oppression. BDS takes ongoing institutional forms, like pushing church funds, union funds, city council funds to divest. People might think that this is theoretical, so I’ll give a few examples.

The largest sovereign fund in the world, the Norwegian Sovereign Fund, worth some $1.2 trillion, has divested from Israeli banks, from international companies implicated in Israel settlement industries, and from the occupation. After a lot of struggle from trade unions, particularly the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), we got this over the line. LO has one-fifth of the population of Norway, by the way, that’s how organised the Norwegians are. LO helped tremendously to pressure the sovereign fund of Norway to divest.

Pension funds in New Zealand, in the Netherlands, in Belgium have divested. The largest protestant churches in the US, the Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, have divested from companies and banks involved in Israel’s occupation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has divested from G4S, the biggest security company involved in Israeli prisons at that time.

Major funds have withdrawn from Israel’s occupation under pressure from campaigners. The UK played the most important role in the campaign against Veolia, a French company that was involved in many illegal projects in Israel. One city council after another excluded Veolia from public contracts in Sweden, in Ireland, in the UK, in the US, in Kuwait. Veolia lost over $20 billion over a seven-year period. It withdrew totally from the Israeli economy in 2015.

We’re doing the same with Hewlett Packard. Orange Telecommunications withdrew completely from Israel under pressure from the movement. Now with the turn to the far-right, it should be easier because credit ratings agencies are already debating whether, if Israel goes ahead with its plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary, they will downgrade Israel from a credit ratings perspective.

Those aspects of BDS — not to mention the cultural boycott, the sports boycott, the academic boycott — are continuing. Many academics in the UK are boycotting silently. Because of the chilling effect they don’t speak out, but they’re boycotting in silence. When a conference is organised in Tel Aviv University, the majority of British academics in whatever field do not go. All those aspects of BDS are continuing under the radar, so to speak. So you might not see thousands of activists going to the supermarket to do actions every week — but the campaign is growing well.


A lot of people look at the situation in Palestine today and see ever-growing numbers of settlements in the West Bank, the continued dispossession of the people of East Jerusalem, worsening conditions in the siege of Gaza — and they would say, it seems that things are getting far worse. But at the same time, you’re saying there’s been real progress in terms of the solidarity movement. There are successes that you might not necessarily see, but which are structurally important for putting pressure on the Israeli government.


We cannot take a snapshot and see how atrocious it is and say, oh, it’s hopeless. Those of us who were active in the South African anti-apartheid movement know that the darkest moment was just before apartheid collapsed.

In fact, it was a quiet system of oppression for many years. But then the massacres committed by the South African regime became a trigger for a bigger movement. You never can tell when the tipping point will come. As we know in trade union struggles, as we know in every justice struggle, we never know when the tipping point will come. That’s the nature of struggles, you keep building. But we never fool ourselves with the view that victory is going to happen no matter what. No, it’s not guaranteed. It’s never an eventuality if you don’t do the work. You need to build power. If we restrict ourselves to within the circles that already support us, we will never be able to change anything.

So, yes, the movement is growing, and yet repression, violence, and colonialism continue at a much higher pace. You have major fascist tendencies in this government, and this is the F-word being used by analysts across the Israeli media, not to mention pro-Israel forces that are terrified of what might happen to Israel with the rise of the far-right. Palestinians will be at the receiving end of horrific racism and violence. But Israel’s system of oppression cannot continue without state, corporate, and institutional complicity. You cut those links and Palestinians can do the rest to undermine the whole system of oppression.


Israel’s new government certainly does close off space for those who argued — without much evidence in recent decades — that change could come from the inside. It’s pretty obvious that the Israeli state is not a partner for a peace process. But at the same time, we seem a long way from governments like the UK taking steps to sanction or isolate them.


If one had looked at Latin America just a couple of years ago, it looked totally hopeless. Take Bolsonaro, what he did to the average Brazilian, the impoverishment, the racism, the anti-indigenous atrocities, the Amazon, the authoritarian tendencies. And [in] Colombia, it had been going on for decades. But look what’s happening now: progressive governments, increasingly with socialist tendencies, are winning across Latin America. So it’s not fate. Palestinians for seventy-five years have said: we will never accept being under a settler colonial apartheid system.

We will not just exist, we will resist; we will have life with dignity, with freedom, with justice and full equality. Otherwise, it’s not worth living. We need everyone to have that patience and perseverance and a strategic, goal-oriented method of working. Principles alone do not bring results. We’ve got to be ethical, first and foremost, but we’ve got to be strategic too. We’ve got to know how to pick our battles, what to target, what not to target, when to let go, when to intensify the struggle. And that’s what we do in the Palestinian movement. We don’t believe in long lists for boycotts. Who’s going to boycott 100 companies at the supermarket? Six Che Guevaras in London? That’s ineffective.

But you go after a JCB, a Barclays and make them pay the price for their complicity. It’s that balance between ethical action and strategic effectiveness. Without it, you cannot build power. As you rightly said, no government will just deliver justice to us. We’ve got to struggle to win it from them.

Join the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Nakba Day march in London on Saturday, May 13. Find the full details here.

About the Author

Omar Barghouti is a co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He is the author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket, 2011).

About the Interviewer

Ronan Burtenshaw is the editor of Tribune.