It is seventy-three years since the 1948 Naqba, and fifty-three years since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. In its surface manifestations, the Israeli state appears as strong as ever, this whether you take seventy-three or fifty-three years as your preferred metric.
Israel acts with impunity. It seems that no matter how egregious its actions, how contrary to international and humanitarian law, how ethically barren its actions are, there is no calling it to account. Key state actors– for example, USA, UK, EU – at present have no interest in meaningfully challenging Israel’s state machine of systematised oppression. This perhaps is especially true of those states which, were they to exert themselves, have potential leverage with Israel.
But this is only one side of the story.
No longer impregnable
Over recent months there has been the growth of a unified Palestinian political consciousness, one that transcends and counters the structured-in impediments to unity that Israel has so assiduously cultivated.
What perhaps was previously experienced as separate, or if not separate, then at least distant and loosely connected bonds of affiliation – between Palestinian Israelis and East Jerusalem Palestinians, between Gaza Palestinians and West Bank Palestinians, between the Israeli contrived Palestinian fragmented Bantustans of the West Bank, and all these with the wider Palestinian diaspora – has over recent months metamorphosised into nascent, connected political expression. George Zeidan and Miran Khwais expressed this in their article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
‘Now, we as Palestinians are rediscovering our common aspirations, our common goal of freedom, rejecting the artificial borders imposed and sustained by force and discrimination. We will be faced with critical questions and positions that we need to navigate together: finding common ground between political cultures, from Islamists to secularists.’
The Palestinian Policy Network, al-Shabaka, had a similar perspective:
‘Over the last two months, Palestinians across colonized Palestine have been protesting in shared struggle with Sheikh Jarrah [in East Jerusalem], including Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in cities like Haifa, Jaffa, and Lydd. These protests and demonstrations were met with violent repression from the Israeli regime, a reaction that is neither unprecedented nor unexpected.’
As both quotes underscore, there is no point in underestimating the difficulties that lie ahead, not least those spawned by the deeply corrupt Israeli helpmate, and USA and EU funded, Palestinian Authority.
However, the overarching political analysis is almost mathematical: Palestinian fragmentation = Israeli state dominance. The obverse is also likely to be true: Palestinian unity = Israeli dominance weakened.
National and international civil society
International state actors have made no meaningful effort to pressurise Israel, this for decades, with Ireland being a recent exception (see below). But the same is not true of national and international civil society which, partly as a result of Israel’s recent actions, not least in Gaza and East Jerusalem, appears as a gathering force.
Civil society has a key role to play in changing the terms of debate about Palestine/Israel, and pressurising their own national governments to change their positions. Naivety, however, is not on display here, the enormity of the task is not to be downplayed. Equally, there has been positive movement at various levels, movement that would be unthinkable had national and international civil society not exerted itself, and strenuously. Thus:
- This June, activists and dockworkers responded to an international call to action and successfully prevented an Israel-owned vessel from unloading its cargo at Oakland in California on Friday. At around 6pm, the Volans, a cargo vessel owned and operated by the ZIM shipping corporation, pulled out of port with its cargo intact.
- Hundreds of thousands of people from over 150 cities have participated in protests in solidarity with Palestinians. (For list go to Al Jazeera)
- Norway pension fund disinvests from 16 Israeli firms over settlement ties. The fund sold shares and bonds in these firms worth $32 million, based on the blacklist of companies compiled last year by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- UK ministers wanted to limit the possibility of Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) divesting from companies involved in, or profiting from, Israel’s activities in places such as the West Bank. In a landmark verdict, the court ruled in favour of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in a legal case viewed as a major defeat for the UK government.
- Ireland’s Parliament voted unanimously last week to condemn Israel’s “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land in the occupied territories – the first European Union member state to do so. The following day, the Irish flag was hoisted above Ramallah’s city hall, a video of which spread quickly on social media.
- July 2021: Ben & Jerry’s has said it will stop selling its ice cream in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem…. Israeli politicians reacted furiously to the announcement.
The Ben and Jerry decision, itself not coming into effect for another year and a half (at the end of a franchise agreement with an Israeli firm), has provoked a furious reaction, along with the by now standard accusation that Ben and Jerry’s decision was an antisemitic act. Gideon Levy in Haaretz is eloquent and forceful in his analysis:
Ice cream succeeded where the deaths of 67 children in Gaza failed – to remind Israelis of the occupation. Still, the madness remains: The occupation is a victim, the only victim. It boggles the mind that whenever someone dares remind Israelis that something is still wrong, the issue immediately becomes how Israel is the victim. Headlines, endless talk, and the only thing no one asks is – why?
Why would any reasonable person want to boycott Israel? Well, maybe because of the pressure exerted by BDS. Only because of such pressure. Otherwise, there’s no way an ice cream company might come to the conclusion on its own that it no longer wants to sweeten the lives of the settlers. There’s no chance of there being business people with values. It’s just the consequence of pressure. The mechanisms of repression and denial that Israeli society has developed won’t drink from the cup of Chubby Hubby. It’s society’s Iron Dome – it can’t be abandoned.
Therefore, the situation demands nothing less than a real boycott of Israel, of all Israelis, everywhere – a painful, costly, destructive one. Not a boycott-lite on the ice cream sold at the Rami Levy supermarket at the Etzion Junction, but one that all of Israel will feel in its pocket. Only one that can relieve Israel of its blindness and expose the lie it has been feeding itself for so many years.‘
What can we do?
I’ve briefly highlighted the significant role that national and international civil society can and does play in changing the balance of power between Israel and Palestinians. The focus is twofold: one, to affect our own governments – a slow, arduous but indispensable objective; two, to demonstrate to Palestinians that they have committed international support. The latter perhaps more significant than one might suppose.
Notwithstanding hesitancies one may have about aspects of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, for example the call for academic and cultural boycotts – aimed at institutions not individuals – it is perhaps one of the foremost ways practical, politically orientated solidarity can be instrumentalised, as the Gordon Levy quote above suggests.
For the most part Jewish Israelis are insulated, or have insulated themselves, against the consequences of their state’s policies towards Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. Many appear to live in a manufactured, consequence-free dream world.
It may be one of the ironies of our time that the boycott by Ben and Jerry’s ice cream may have more psychological and political impact than one could have imagined.