Israel turns up heat on activist group

Israel and some of its key international supporters have sharply ratcheted up their campaign against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which some senior Israeli officials have declared is a strategic threat.

Senior figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a key backer of the country in the United States, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, have attacked the movement, which is prominent on university campuses and among international trade unions, with the kind of language the Israeli government usually reserves for the likes of Hamas or Iran’s nuclear programme.

This follows the vote this week by the British National Union of Students to formally ally itself with the aims of BDS. Hebrew media reported later that Israeli MPs would hold a special session in the Knesset to discuss the issue.

The nonviolent grassroots movement, founded by journalist Ali Abunimah and activist Omar Barghouti, is modelled on the anti-apartheid campaigns and calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and for a resolution for the Palestinian refugees of 1948.

Critics of the BDS describe the call for the refugees’ right to return and the opposition of some leaders of the movement to a two-state solution, which they have described as a mistake, as evidence that BDS is anti-Semitic.

No longer loftily dismissed
For years, Israeli officials and commentators have loftily dismissed the impact of BDS, which seeks to persuade businesses, artists, governments and academic institutions to boycott Israel over its lengthy occupation of the Palestinian territories. But, in recent days, Israel’s new right-wing government has singled out the movement for criticism.

The issue appears to have been given added impetus since Palestinian efforts to have Israel suspended from the scandal-ridden world football organisation Fifa failed.

Comments by senior Israeli politicians during the past week have been endorsed by sympathetic columnists in the Hebrew media. Among those who have allied themselves with the state’s latest efforts are the mass circulation Israeli paper Yedioth Ahoronoth, which earlier this week declared its support on its front page with an article, “Fighting the boycott”, and its right-wing columnist, Ben-Dror Yemini, who has echoed the comments of officials.

“The success of BDS,” Yemini wrote earlier this week, “is particularly impressive because it is a movement that uses the language of rights, but deals in practice with denying Israel’s right to exist. The result is a major deception.”

The rhetoric has coincided with growing evidence of pro-Israeli activism over BDS, not least in the US. Last week, a new website emerged whose aim was to identify US college students active in the BDS movement, with the explicit aim of letting employers know who they were. It is not clear who is behind the site.

Adelson is reportedly convening a meeting of super-wealthy pro-Israel donors for a summit in Las Vegas on June 6 and 7 on countering the influence of BDS and similar movements on US campuses.

On Sunday, Netanyahu explicitly attempted to link the boycott movement to historic anti-Semitism, echoing remarks that he made in his keynote address to the US pro-Israel lobby group, Aipac, last year, when he described BDS as being on the “wrong side of the moral divide”. He predicted it would fail.

The latest round of attacks was condemned by Barghouti, who dismissed them as a “panic-driven, racist and patently propagandistic Israeli attack on the movement”.

He said: “Placing a nonviolent human rights movement that seeks freedom, justice and equality on a par with the so-called Iranian ‘nuclear capacity’ as a ‘first-rate strategic threat’ – as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin announced a few days ago, or as the new minister of strategic affairs and public security in the far-right Israeli government, Gilad Erdan, tweeted on his first day on the job – reflects Israel’s failure in hindering the fast growth of BDS.

“It also betrays Israel’s inherent inability to face such popular, anti-racist, human rights-based and nonviolent challenges to its regime of oppression.”

Israeli officials said the sudden focus on BDS was not an acknowledgement of its success but rather an expression of moral outrage, both over the recent move by the British National Union of Students and by efforts to have Israel suspended from Fifa.

But that has led to accusations by critics that Israel is deliberately trying to link the BDS movement to efforts by Palestinian diplomats to gain international support for the end to the occupation and for the creation of a Palestinian state in global forums.

Israel is facing growing warnings of international isolation if an agreement cannot be reached with the Palestinians and if it continues to build settlements in the occupied territories.

One Palestinian official familiar with the international efforts said he believed the latest effort was aimed not only at BDS but also at the wider Palestinian effort to promote its case in the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and Fifa.

“They are trying to combine all the efforts to hold Israel accountable into creating a monster that is not there yet,” the official said.

“If you ask the Palestinian leadership, some love BDS as a movement, others hate it. I think what Netanyahu is trying to do is create an idea that, even if you believe Palestinian moves in international forums are legitimate, they are undermined, because BDS, in the Israelis’ argument, seeks to destroy the state of Israel.” – © Guardian News and Media 2015

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