As we write this there is an ongoing massacre in the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the operation on July 8, which the Israeli Occupation Forces are calling ‘Protective Edge’, 620 Palestinians have been killed and 3,752 injured according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Over 70% are estimated to be civilians. By the time you read this those figures will be higher and Israel’s bombardment shows no sign of slowing down.
The increasingly big protests that havetaken place around the worldprove that solidarity with Palestine is growing and that people are ready to stand up to Israeli war crimes. But big demonstrations are not enough. This is the time to intensify action. One way for internationals to do that is to join the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel. The BDS National Committee (BNC) has issued an urgent call for people to take actionfor Gaza, as well as a renewed call for an immediate arms embargo on Israel.
A lot of the noise about the boycott is coming out of the West Bank, where Israeli businesses operate out of illegal settlements and Western companies are complicit in construction on occupied land, creating clear cut targets for solidarity activists. When Corporate Watch visited the Gaza Strip at the end of 2013, we wanted to get the perspective from there and we talked to Ayah Bashir, a member of the Gaza based organising committee for BDS and supporter of the One Democratic State Group, about BDS and its role in Gaza’s resistance.
A place to resist
Ayah first got involved with the BDS movement at university in 2009 when she joined the Palestinian Students Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI). It was just after Operation Cast Lead, a brutal three week attack by Israel during which over 1,400 Palestinians died. “I was feeling really powerless about the situation in Gaza at that time”, Ayah said. “I did not feel like there was any way for me to fight for my freedom at all, so when I learned more about BDS I felt very interested and inspired. By being involved in BDS I would be able to do something. I wanted to work to make BDS known to more people in Gaza”.
In 2009 Ayah was involved in holding the first Israeli Apartheid Week in Gaza, an event that takes place in campuses around the world each year. “That experience really made me and the other students feel more powerful, like we were able to do something against the occupation”, said Ayah. “It is the one thing we can do”.
In Gaza it makes a lot of sense to work on the call for an academic boycott as students in the strip are heavily affected by the siege. Every year students lose out on university places abroad, and sometimes even scholarships, as a result if not getting permits to leave Gaza via Israel’s Eretz crossing, or being stuck behind the frequently closed border with Egypt at Rafah and hence missing enrolment dates. During our visit to universities in Gaza, numerous students told us of dreams crushed in this way. Our translator, Maher Azzam, lost out on a university place in America as he would have to go to Jerusalem for his interview, but was not granted a permit by Israel to get there.
“Like a prison”
The lack of freedom of movement is a major issue in Gaza and, Ayah said, also harms the interaction between internationals and Palestinians. A few years ago she had a chance to study abroad and completed a masters degree in economics and political science at the London School of Economics. “When I got out of Gaza it felt like I had gotten out of prison, and the time in London was very inspiring for me. I met a lot of solidarity activists and began to see how BDS works internationally and the kind of impact boycott actions could have on Palestine. I believe more Palestinians need a chance to study abroad and experience this”.
Gaza boycott success
The biggest boycott related success Ayah has experienced inside Gaza was when the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) made it there for the first time in 2012. Ayah said it was a big step for them: the culture festival had made two attempts to enter during previous years but been denied so just getting them there was a triumph. “We then succeeded in getting PalFest to endorse the BDS call, which was a really big step for them”.
Ayah also emphasised how the messages sent by people in Gaza can be used effectively to make a strong case for a boycott. “After Mahmoud Sarsak [a Palestinian footballer who was on hunger strike for three months whilst held without charge under administrative detention in an Israeli prison] joined BDS he did this interview where he was standing in the football stadium that had been targeted by Israel and this sends a powerful message in support of the sports boycott.”
When it comes to Gaza all boycott actions need to be done in conjunction with the overall aim to break the siege and give the people of Gaza back their freedom of movement and right to an independent economy. Two years ago Ayah participated in the world social forum, where she met a lot of Palestinians from outside of Gaza. “I want to experience freedom. I want to be able to see Jerusalem, see my friends in Haifa” she said. “I thought I knew Palestine so well but meeting these people from 48 [what is now Israel] and the West Bank made me realise I didn’t know their experience. Now when people ask me where I would like to travel I say Palestine”.
During our time in Gaza, we talked to everyone we met about BDS: Health Workers, Farmersand fisher folk, students at several different universities, community groups, unions and victims of Israeli attacks. The answer from everyone was clear: living under siege they do not have the privilege or choice of always being able to boycott, but we do, and they need us to intensify our campaigns. Over and over again we heard from the younger generations that they no longer have any faith in foreign governments, but they do have faith in the people. That is why BDS needs to be a world wide solidarity movement.
One of the strengths of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is that it easily lends itself to the use of a diversity if tactics. Direct action, picketing, researching, letter writing, lobbying and outreach all play a role in BDS successes. So there is a space for everyone.