Nausherwan Hafeez, Op-Ed
At what point does a citizen-led boycott of a state become morally justified?
This question has been raised with regards to the growing academic, cultural, and economic boycott of Israel. In 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)—a coalition of more than 50 Palestinian civil society organizations—called for a program of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in response to Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories. This movement has gained support from trade unions, churches, and academic institutions based in the US, Canada, Europe, and South Africa. In reaction, a growing number of American academic institutions have come out against the boycott. This leads one to question: Why was the boycott called? Is there merit to a boycott? And what is the way forward?
The boycott was called in response to Israeli policies of illegal annexation and colonization of territories, extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and the restriction of movement of native Palestinians throughout the region. In addition, America has a unique relationship with Israel that requires us to analyze the logic of a boycott critically. Each of these areas deserves further explanation.
Israel has instituted a concerted effort of colonization and expulsion in the West Bank. The most visceral example of this is the “apartheid” wall that has been built throughout the West Bank in violation of the International Court of Justice’s ruling that its construction is illegal. Former President Jimmy Carter noted in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid that, “[The Wall] is projected to be at least three and a half times as long as Israel’s internationally recognized border and already cuts directly through Palestinian villages, divides families from their gardens and farmland, and includes 375,000 Palestinians on the “Israeli” side of the wall, 175,000 of whom are outside Jerusalem.” This land grab has allowed for the ghettoization of the Palestinian people in violation of international law.
Israel has used the tactic of extrajudicial killings to eliminate those it deems a threat. One of the most heinous cases of such killings occurred in March of 2004, when an American-supplied Israeli Helicopter gunship bombed and killed the quadriplegic Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The “collateral” damage from this bombing was 9 innocent bystanders, including 6 children. The assassinations of alleged criminals are a gross violation of the rule of law.
Israeli policies in Gaza exemplify the idea of collective punishment. Israel has blockaded most imports and exports in Gaza by declaring it a “hostile territory”. Consequently, about 70% of Gaza’s workforce is now unemployed or without pay, according the United Nations, and about 80% of its residents live in harsh poverty. About 1.2 million of them are dependent for their day-to-day survival on food handouts from the UN or other international agencies, without which the population would starve. This deliberate attempt to destroy Gazan livelihood is in direct violation of the Geneva Convention—which Israel is a signatory to—which obliges an occupational force to ensure the well-being of the occupied peoples.
Israel has set up over 500 different checkpoints throughout the West Bank. These checkpoints prevent Palestinians from moving freely within their own territory. To add insult to injury, there are numerous “Jew-only” roads throughout the West Bank that the native Palestinians are denied access to. This process of restricting Palestinian movement and access to roads throughout their territory is chillingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s policy towards their Jewish population during the early part of the 1930’s.
These Israeli policies have incited widespread international disapproval and formal criticism from many countries and international organizations. These policies have significantly isolated and discredited Israel in the global political arena. American policies, however, directly support and aid Israel in its transgressions in the Occupied Territories. Our unique relationship with Israel thus makes the idea of boycott more relevant. The American-Israeli alliance has benefited Israel tremendously. The US has given Israel more than $140 billion in direct economic and military assistance. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance annually and is exempt from accounting for how this aid money is spent. Funds are often siphoned off to build Jewish colonies in the West Bank and provide funding for the “apartheid” wall. The fact that we, as American taxpayers, fund Israeli programs that actively oppress the Palestinians is something that needs to be questioned.
Just as in the 1970’s when boycott campaigns were mounted against Apartheid South Africa, it seems that the actions of Israel meet the criteria of a boycott. Yet, the opposite has occurred. Academic institutions—led by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger—have launched a counter-boycott to show solidarity with their Israeli counterparts. However, this action deflects the point of the boycott, which is an attempt to protest the inhumane policies carried out by Israel against the Palestinian peoples and to change these policies toward ones in line with international law. The American Jewish Committee—which is notorious for attacking anyone critical of Israel—has provided funds for the counter-boycott. Ultimately, this action is not helpful. Instead, what is desperately needed is an active debate on how we should approach our relationship with Israel. The knee-jerk defense that most American institutions give towards Israel is both unhealthy and counterproductive in the sense that it deters from the long-term objectives of pressuring Israel to modify its unjust actions.
I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the great moral issues of the twenty-first century. America’s unconditional support for Israeli actions has directly led to an increase in international terrorism in addition to an increase in anti-Americanism across the world. The American population, who I believe is reasonable and compassionate, lacks a holistic understanding of the complexities of this conflict due to misinformation and political spin. Thus, we have allowed our government to implement policies that exacerbate the tensions in the Middle East and hurt the cause of peace. We, as a democratic society, need to debate our special relationship with Israel and decide upon a just action for the future. Hopefully, our act of civic engagement can prevent the powder keg in the Middle East from erupting into what would most certainly be a cataclysmic explosion.
This post was originally posted by me on facebook on Thursday, Oct 11, 2007