A few years ago, after I spoke at a conference in South Africa, Ronnie Kasrils, then the country’s Minister for Intelligence Services, leaned towards me and said, “I agree with everything you said, but in order for the boycott of Israel to become adopted by world governments, the call has to be initiated by those who represent the Palestinian people in Palestine, not outside groups.”
I was not actually purporting to represent any group, inside or outside Palestine. A few days later I received more counsel from a leading South African official. “A representative from Mahmoud Abbas’s office was here few days ago,” he said. “He seemed to have different priorities from yours. He asked me to ensure that the South African government continues to isolate Hamas, not Israel.”
Kasrils, a legendary member of the African National Congress (ANC), was, of course, right. It was the decisive call of academic boycott made by the ANC in the 1960s which started a process that eventually succeeded in isolating the apartheid regime and speeding up its demise.
Alas, those who are recognised as the representatives of the Palestinians stand on the wrong side of history. Their political fate is now intrinsically linked to that of the very Israeli occupation that continues to torment Palestinians. Ensuring dominion over an occupied nation has proved to be more urgent to them than isolating Israel for its crimes.
The leadership vacuum goes back even prior to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. Since then millions of Palestinians have been left alone to fend against Israel’s violent occupation. In fact, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has itself become a liability in the mission of obtaining freedom for Palestinians.
In the Occupied Territories, Hamas grew in its political significance as a viable alternative to the PNA’s failings. This led to further US-Israeli punishment of Palestinians. It also challenged the traditional gatekeepers of Palestinian rights, culminating in a destructive conflict which continues to this day.
Palestinian communities in the diaspora are also struggling with the new reality. When Iraq-based Palestinian refugees became an easy target for militias after the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, hardly anyone spoke on their behalf. The Palestinian leadership had obviously more pressing matters than tending to hurting refugees — some of whom were hauled away from their dismal refugee camps at the Jordan and Syrian borders to start new lives in South America.
The political vacuum created by the self-seeking ‘leadership’ has indeed devastated Palestinians, both politically and intellectually. The physical fragmentation of the Palestinian collective has never been more urgent an issue than it is today. Previously there had been a cohesive narrative and a shared sense of political identify.
In its heyday, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had succeeded in galvanising a degree of political and cultural unity. Although camaraderie among Palestinians will still survive despite all the hurdles, there is now an undoubted feeling of loss.
One of the strongest retorts to the PNA’s tragic failures was the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Its unquestionable success is a testament to the growing global consensus that Israeli practices are unacceptable. The BDS opened up a channel where solidarity with Palestinians could be translated into action.
Not a political organisation per se, the BDS is rather a manifestation of numerous collectives in uncountable cities and towns around the world. The decentralisation of the BDS is one of its greatest assets and also challenges. On the one hand, it cannot be easily thwarted. On the other hand, the efforts of a movement of this scope cannot be summoned into action through a single call by one or a small group of individuals. Its unity is not based on any political treatise or ideological framework. In a way, it is a parliament for world solidarity based on universally recognised principles of justice, peace and human rights.
The BDS cannot be controlled, nor, in my opinion, should it be. It is not a political platform as such, but a reservoir of multitudes of energies. It is obliged to no one but the growing community of justice activists who work to convey the harsh reality in Palestine, along with the message of the Palestinians.
Its success is embedded in the model itself: democratic, yet decentralised, global, yet responsive to local reality. Most importantly, it operates as a basis of solidarity, not a hub for political dictation — for that right and responsibility is completely reserved for the Palestinian people. It is their land, their struggle, and their future on the line.
Unfortunately, it is easy to overlook such facts. The sense of dejection caused by disunity, and the action of the quisling Palestinian ‘leadership’ might inspire some to overstep their boundaries. They speak on behalf of Palestinians and the ‘solidarity movement’ as a whole and liberally theorise in a way that could actually divide the movement.
In a recent interview with Haaretz, long-time pro-Palestinian rights author and intellectual, Norman Finkelstein claimed he had decided to “switch … hats from a critic of Israel to a diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict”.
Intellectuals may switch hats as they find suitable, but they should not do so at the expense of a global movement whose messages need to be guarded. The solidarity movement cannot afford to be used as a vehicle for individuals’ intellectual realisations. It belongs to no one, though is inspired by the suffering and heroism of the Palestinians people.
In the case of Palestine, a movement of this nature is even more indispensable than it would have been in South Africa in the 1960s, due to the political and moral bankruptcy of the PNA. And it should remain united around the principles of humanity and human rights set clearly by the Palestinian people themselves.
Ramzy Baroud is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle and “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).
(This article was first published in Gulf News)