Recently I have been witnessing a growing number of discussions around the BDS (Boycott-Divestiture-Sanctions) movement. Emotions are usually running high in these discussions, and you hear passionate arguments for and against the support of BDS. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get one of two polarized answers. The pro-BDS camp claims it is the only way left for forcing Israel to restore justice to the Palestinian people, after everything else failed. The anti-BDS camp claims it is yet another attempt on behalf of Arabs to destroy Israel – the one and only Jewish state. So who’s right and who’s wrong? The truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated. If live outside of Israel and continue reading beyond this point, I guarantee you will know more than 99% of your friends and neighbors. So here we go:

Let’s start with the popular message BDS promotes: a) Israel discriminates against Palestinians/Arabs. b) The situation is very much like the Apartheid that existed in South Africa. c) Sanctions were instrumental in the struggle to vanquish Apartheid in South Africa and restoring rights to black people. d) If we apply similar tactics to the situation in Israel, justice will prevail. Sounds simple and compelling, right? Well, let’s dig a bit deeper before we form an opinion…Anti-BDS-2

We start with examining the officially stated goals on the BDS movement website. For that, you have to look beyond their home page that contains slogans like “Freedom Justice Equality” or “A truly global movement against Israeli Apartheid”. When you go through a few extra clicks, you get to the BDS formal set of goals:

  1. Ending Israel occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194

OK, so let’s zoom into these goals:

  • “Ending occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”: what are those Arab lands exactly? Are they talking about territories captured by Israel in it’s 1967 Six-Day War? Or about territories captured in the 1948 Israel Independence War? This is a very important distinction, since referring to the latter means essentially the destruction of the state of Israel. Now one may claim this is “just a typo”, or an unintended omission. But if you continue further down the goal list, it becomes rather clear that blurring the distinction isn’t really a coincidence. As far as the milder interpretation, which relates to the 1967 territories, let’s get to that a bit later…
  • “Dismantling the Wall”: walls aren’t a good thing in general. The immediate association is with the notorious “Berlin Wall”, that separated East and West Germany. Indeed, dismantling that wall was a triumph of democracy, freedom and led to the demise of an oppressive regime. But the actual wall referenced here isn’t at all like the Berlin Wall. It is a reference to the Israeli West Bank barrier that was erected by Israel to block countless waves of suicide bombers who infiltrated Israel and caused hundreds of casualties among innocent civilians.
  • “Recognizing the rights of Arab-Palestinians citizens of Israel”: citizens’ rights are obviously important. But the term here is again purposely confusing. Are the people referred to Arab, Palestinians or Israeli citizens? Well, the proper term is “Arab citizens of Israel”. It refers to Arabs who live in Israel and are citizens of the state. There are over 1.5M of them, and they enjoy full citizenship rights. As a matter of fact, they enjoy more citizen rights than all other Arabs who live in “Arab states”. Not really an “oppressed minority” that needs to be liberated. Now don’t get me wrong, there are other Arabs who live in the territories captured in 1967, and they indeed lack some citizen rights. I will elaborate more as I get back to the “territories” topic.
  • “Promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees”: again, sounds very humane, but what does it really mean? And what is that UN resolution 194 that BDS champions? That resolution, published in 1948, called for final settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict, recognizing the state of Israel and resolving the refugees’ situation. All Arab states at the time rejected the resolution; they simply would not accept Israel right to exist. But even if we ignore that minor piece of trivia, the reality today is that letting Palestinian refugees “return to their homes” means the abolition of Israel as a Jewish state -as simple as that. Perhaps that helps explain why the distinction between 1948 and 1967 territories is missing from the BDS stated goals…

Let’s get back to the territories question as I promised earlier:

Clearly, if you accept that “territories” include those captured in 1948, you support the abolition of Israel. If you’re fine with that – read no further. But if you are in favor of freedom, equality and justice, I am sure you’d agree that the discussion should revolve only around the 1967 territories. Perhaps you want to let the next BDS representative you meet know that they should clarify that “fine point” in their officially stated goals.

So what are the territories captured in 1967? You may remember that in 1967 Israel fought against the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, plus supplemental troops that came from Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even Pakistan… And no, Israel didn’t “start the war” as some may try to lead you to believe. In a miraculous turn of events, Israel wasn’t destroyed, but managed to emerge victorious and even capture the following territories: Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Each one of these territories has its own unique circumstances:

  • The Golan Heights: used to be controlled by Syria, and served as a launching pad for attacks against Jewish towns in the valley below. The vast majority of non-Jewish residents within the Golan Heights are Druze, not exactly Arabs or Palestinians. The Golan Heights were annexed to Israel in 1981, and all its residents are entitled to full citizenship rights. The dispute about the ownership of the territory should be settled between Israel and Syria, or whatever is left of it. It is not a BDS issue.
  • The Sinai Peninsula: was captured from Egypt, but since then returned to Egypt as part of the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty that was signed in 1979. Incidentally, many of the residents in the Sinai Peninsula are Bedouin, and unfortunately a large number of them align themselves with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) now days. Again, this isn’t a BDS concern.
  • The Gaza Strip: a strip of land, on the north-east portion of the Sinai Peninsula. Its residents are mostly Arabs (not Bedouin). As part of the Israel-Egypt treaty, and for reasons that extend beyond the scope of this blog, the Gaza Strip was divided between Egypt and Israel. Several years later, in 2005, Israel decided to unilaterally disengage from Gaza, evicted all the Jewish residents who lived there, and transferred full control to the Palestinian Authority. Barely two years later, the Hamas overtook Gaza in a military coup and started using it as a base for its campaign towards establishing an ‘Islamic Caliphate’ throughout the land of Palestine. Now if that sounds a bit like some ISIS statements, you’re not completely off base… The Hamas takeover of Gaza, and the series of armed clashes with Israel that ensued, lead to the Gaza Blockade which is enforced by both Israel and Egypt (yes Egypt!). The purpose of the blockade was to limit the Hamas ability to acquire weapons and ammunition. Removing the blockade depends on the Hamas willingness to recognize Israel right to exist, and to cease its armed/terror tactics. Again, this isn’t exactly a BDS concern.
  • The West Bank: refers to the west bank of the Jordan river, which lays east of Israel. In 1948, it was captured by Jordan, who ruled it till 1967. Prior to that, it was part of the British Mandate for Palestine, and before that – part of the Ottoman Empire. In the whole history of the region, there was never a “Palestinian State” there. The status of the territory, according to international law, was not finalized. It was left for the “final settlement” of the Israeli-Arab conflict. As part of the Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that controls parts of the West Bank as an interim step towards a final settlement, which obviously hasn’t been reached yet.
  • East Jerusalem: As the name implies, it is the eastern part of the city of Jerusalem that was split-up during the 1948 war. To complicate things further, this isn’t just about territory, since the Old City of Jerusalem contains holy places for Jews: Temple Mount and the Western Wall; Muslims: Haram el Sheriff (their name for Temple Mount) and the Al Aqsa Mosque built on top of it; and Christians: Church of the Holly Sepulcher, etc. In 1948, Jordan captured East Jerusalem and the Old City, taking hostage and later deporting its Jewish residents. Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, and was semi-annexed to Israel. I call it semi-annexed, because the annexation was done at the municipal level, giving the resident Arabs municipal rights and Israeli IDs, but no voting rights for the Israeli parliament. I know, it’s complicated…

OK, let’s summarize the “territories” issue: The Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula should be out of the BDS question. The status of the Gaza Strip is best settled through an agreement between Israel, Egypt and the Hamas. Some claim that the PA should be part of such settlement; that’s fine, but it requires that Hamas and the PA come to terms first and stop fighting each other… So we’re really left with “only” the West Bank and East Jerusalem – including the Old City. Elementary my dear Watson…

Back to the BDS “simple” call for support, remember it? 1) “Israel is like South Africa” 2) “Arabs live under Apartheid” therefore 3) “Sanctions are the answer”. If by now you still buy into this model of the conflict, I am sorry, there isn’t much more I can do… But the fact the BDS model is wrong, clearly doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem to be solved.

So let’s forget the nice and cozy “South African solution” model that BDS tries to promote, and talk about some potential solutions. And more importantly – what you could do to really help.

There are basically three main “solutions” here:

  1. The two-state solution: simply divide the territory and create a Palestinian state next to Israel. Sounds easy, but that’s what we’ve been trying to accomplish for over twenty years now… There are many obstacles to overcome: religious, cultural, geo-political, etc. And unfortunately a good number of them reside on the Arab side. I know it sounds jaded, but just look at Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the recent events of the “Arab Spring” and you may perhaps agree that just getting folks into a meeting room and signing an “agreement” is way more complicated than it sounds.
  2. The one-state solution: simply annex all the “territories in dispute” into a single state, create one combined multi-national state and may we all live happily ever after. Sorry, but Disney is half a world away. All previous attempts to create a multi-ethnic state in the Middle East resulted in either a ruthless dictatorship, or a bloody civil war. Don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a happy-end to me.
  3. The muddle-along solution: unfortunately, that has been the default one so far. It isn’t pretty, but at least it didn’t result in a genocide either… But clearly a “sit and do nothing” approach isn’t really a solution.

Now you could claim there’s a 4th option: have Israel simply pull out of the territories in dispute and let the Arabs handle their own affairs. Most Israelis would support a withdrawal that is part of a peaceful settlement IF (and that’s a big if) they could rest assured about their own safety. Unfortunately, past examples of yielding control of a territory to Arabs didn’t end too well: pulling out of Southern Lebanon brought in Hezbollah who was quick to stage over 100,000 rockets aimed at Israeli cities. They even used some of them in 2006, not too long ago. Pulling out of Gaza resulted in the Hamas taking over, and rockets raining on Tel Aviv and other major cities. Even returning Sinai to Egypt resulted in Al Qaeda/ISIS building a stronghold in the region. So what is Israel to do when it comes to the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are merely a stone-throw away from many Israeli homes? Simply pulling out isn’t an option…

So what can, or should you do?

Well, the reality is that placing sanctions on Israel wouldn’t really help – quite the contrary. Most Israelis view BDS as “yet another attempt” by the Arabs to abolish Israel. Supporters of BDS are viewed by most Israelis as either naïve, ill-informed liberals, or malicious anti-Semites. The more vocal BDS becomes, the more defensive Israelis get. A siege mentality that suggests “the whole world is against us” simply fuels political support for the extreme right, and encourages even more animosity towards the other side. Didn’t I say it was counter productive?

What’s needed is more encouragement and support for moderates on both sides; and applying carefully guided pressure to the more extreme factions. We need more opportunities for open dialogue between those who seek a peaceful settlement. And we must fiercely defend peace advocates – mostly on the Arab, but lately also on the Israeli side – from persecution by their own people.

The so called “peace process” will take many more years. And the volatile situation in the Middle East certainly doesn’t help. Perhaps the best investment we all can make, is to educate the young. Narratives that demonize the other side and victimize your own just keep the violence merry-go-round spinning. Rather than spend energy on demonstrating and rioting against Israel as a whole, individuals and organizations should invest in nurturing dialog and promoting non-violent education.

To BDS or not to BDS”
If that’s indeed your question –
Simply know that sanctions,
Rarely bear the answers…