The Guardian / November 19, 2021
Boycott, divestment and sanctions is a peaceful movement. If it’s banned, how do we press for an end to human rights abuses?
Palestinians are not just denied a state of their own, they are largely exiled from a debate about their own future. This was made clear this week in Keir Starmer’s address to Labour Friends of Israel. The Labour leader was right to use the speech to condemn the evil of antisemitism, embedded as it is in western culture and society, including among people on the left who – however unrepresentative – have caused hurt and distress to Britain’s Jews. This is one reason, after all, why many Jews see Israel as a lifeboat; across millennia, supposed social acceptance has given way to renewed persecution.
Rightly condemning antisemitism is not incompatible with a passionate critique of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine – Starmer addressed both subjects in his speech. He dismissed a “Manichean view of the conflict”, saying he is a “friend of Israel and of Palestine”. This would make sense, given both Labour’s long history of supporting a two-state solution (even if that has too often been in word not deed) and the loss of trust in the Labour party among many British Jews. Starmer is trying to build bridges, but his strategy is misguided. His position may sound eminently reasonable, but there is a huge gulf in power between an impoverished, besieged and militarily occupied territory and a powerful state with a hi-tech military that is backed by a superpower.
By trying to find equivalence, he downplayed the human rights issues at hand. He mentioned the killing of Israeli citizens in terror attacks, but only the “daily humiliations, constraints and restrictions” endured by Palestinians, even though 22 times as many Palestinians were killed between 2008 and 2020. The 54-year-old occupation was only fleetingly mentioned. He quoted a previous Labour leader, Harold Wilson, lauding the “social democrats who made the desert flower” – but did not mention that the “desert” was the home of Palestinians, 700,000 of whom were ethnically cleansed in the Nakba of 1948.
Starmer also stated his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, did not support it either, but his condemnation of the global campaign for “targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state” should be challenged, echoing as it does claims from Benjamin Netanyahu to the Trump administration that BDS is antisemitic.
BDS is a strategy called for by Palestinians that seeks to end the occupation, grant the fifth of Israeli society who are Palestinian equal rights, and achieve justice for Palestinian refugees. This strategy is not unique to Israel, given that Britain has imposed sanctions against multiple human-rights-abusing states from Belarus to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem recently published landmark reports that affirmed the accuracy of using the term “apartheid” to describe what Israel is doing; boycotting the South African apartheid state played a significant role in bringing about change. At the time, detractors asked why similar boycotts were not placed against other repressive states as a way to derail the debate, a position that looks ill-judged with the benefit of hindsight.
Starmer suggests Israel is held “to standards to which no other country is subjected”, but many condemn British involvement in the crimes committed by Saudi Arabia – not least in plunging Yemen into humanitarian calamity – or indeed Turkey or Egypt. In all cases, British diplomatic support and arms sales render our government complicit, and activists have demanded an end to trade with these states too.
BDS is an entirely peaceful strategy and yet it is still dismissed as beyond the pale, raising the question: what exactly is a legitimate form of Palestinian resistance? Moral pressure by western governments has achieved nothing: a 2018 “nation state” law enshrined the inferior rights of Palestinian citizens, while last month the Israeli government approved another 3,000 homes in illegal settlements on the West Bank. The west tuts as the vice around Palestine tightens.
Indeed, this refusal to listen to Palestinian voices poses a serious question: if people support a Palestinian homeland, what does the path to it look like? Would a future Labour government tut a little louder about annexations as it continues to arm and back Israel and, if so, what incentive would there be for Israel’s rulers to change course?
And so the Palestinian tragedy remains: as marginalised in the debate about its future as its people are in their own land.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist