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BDS opponents still don't get it

With the recent Scarlett Johansen affair, mainstream media coverage of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement reached new heights around the world.

The Hollywood actor was backed into the position of having to choose between the high-profile charity Oxfam and her lucrative new advertising contract with SodaStream – an Israeli company with a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement. The cash won out, perhaps unsurprisingly.


In the process, Johansen was forced to take a side, and to drop the "humanitarian" mask. Which side are you on, campaigners demanded. Are you against Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights or not? In very explicitly siding with SodaStream, Johansen chose to back Israeli colonies in the West Bank. As well as being illegal under international law, the settlements mean the continued displacement of the Palestinian people from that minority of the land of Palestine now left to them.

In the course of events, BDS campaigners won an important victory, one which supporters of Israeli war crimes and apartheid still simply just don't get: a large amount of awareness was raised in the general public. This sounds like a simple thing, but for a long term campaign like BDS, it is crucial. This in turn can, and is starting to, feed through to a real economic cost for the occupation.

My colleague Ali Abunimah at The Electronic Intifada relentlessly covered the issue, until Johansen was forced to step down from her position at Oxfam. Our coverage, and also that of other websites like Mondoweiss, helped force the issue onto the agenda of the mainstream media.

This coverage meant that more people than ever now understand the issues around settlements. More people now realise that SodaStream, is manufactured in an Israeli settlement. And this increased awareness in turn feeds back to campaigners on the ground, such as those leafleting outside John Lewis in Oxford Street on weekends.

An issue the BDS movement will face at some point in the future is the issue of settlement boycott, and what happens in the event of a US-Israeli-Palestinian Authority deal to make a pretence of "ending the conflict".

BDS is a broad based campaign for boycott of Israel on all levels. It is by no means limited to boycotting settlement goods. Its demands are clear and simple: the end of the occupation, the implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and full equality under the law.

But some of the most high-profile coverage of BDS has come about due to support for the principle of the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This was demonstrated in the Johansen case. Oxfam's official and stated position is that the settlements are illegal and it supports a "two state" agreement. But it does not back the BDS movement per se. Nonetheless, as a broad movement, BDS campaigners welcome support for any aspect of the campaign – which very much includes settlement boycott (as I have argued elsewhere).

In fact, the role of Oxfam was craven. According the sources we at The Electronic Intifada were in touch with, there was an internal split within Oxfam, on transatlantic lines. Despite Oxfam's official position that the settlements are illegal, Oxfam US did not want to be seen as making any "anti-Israel" move.

In the still (in my opinion) unlikely event the Palestinian Authority feels able to sign away Palestinian rights, and make a deal with the US and Israel declaring an "end" to the conflict, there's not doubt the dynamics of BDS would change. Some of the indirect support from more timid and mainstream groups like Oxfam may slip away.

But the demands of the movement would remain the the same. The Kerry "peace deal" reportedly being discussed right now would certainly not bring full equality for all people living between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. It would actually strike a blow against the right of return, declaring an end to the conflict with no Palestinian refugees allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel.

And it would not even end the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – except to declare on paper that it is ended. So BDS would continue. Whatever the future dynamics, whatever the political solutions on the ground, the three principles that underline the BDS movement are those of basic human rights and are as old as the Palestinian cause itself.

What Israel's apologists still don't get is that, much like the Palestinian cause itself, BDS is a popular, grass-roots and humanist campaign.

So here is some free advice for them: you can't make the "BDS threat" go away by throwing money at the problem. Previously the Israeli government seems to have tried ignoring the problem, but that didn't work, so now they are trying a different tack: freaking out about it.

But that won't work either. BDS is a long term strategy for basic human rights. The only way it will go away is by fulfilling those rights.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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