As Israel's occupation drags on, boycotts are one way forward
During a visit to Lebanon in 2000, I asked Amal, a Palestinian child in the Ain Al Hilweh refugee camp, "What do you wish the most?"
Without hesitation, she said: "To slip into your suitcase when you head back to Palestine, to go home."
Her sense of deep nostalgia for a place she'd never visited except in her dreams and her grandparents' tales was quite pervasive among her peers. But Amal's fertile imagination about how to overcome barriers to go home was a piercing reminder that the 1948 Nakba, the planned and systematic ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous Palestinians to create a Jewish majority state in Palestine, is not forgotten. Nor will it be forgiven until the Palestinian people can exercise their inalienable right to self determination, with the refugees' right to return at its core.
Anyone who supports Palestinian self-determination while calling only for ending the 46-year-old Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is actually upholding most of the rights of only 38 per cent of Palestinians, while expecting the rest to accept injustice as their fate.
According to 2011 statistics, of the 11 million Palestinians, 50 per cent live in exile, mostly denied their UN-stipulated right to return to their homes of origin, and 12 per cent are Palestinian citizens of Israel who live under a system of "institutional, legal and societal discrimination", according to a 2010 US State Department report. More than two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.
Equal rights for Palestinians means, at a minimum, ending Israel's 1967 occupation and colonisation; ending Israel's system of racial discrimination; and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were uprooted and expelled during the 1948 Nakba and ever since. The 2005 Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) call was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians because it upholds all three rights.
Given his unparalleled standing among world academics, Stephen Hawking's recent decision to support the boycott propelled the BDS once again to the centre of public opinion. It is one of the starkest indicators yet that the tide is changing, even in the western mainstream, against Israel's occupation, colonisation and apartheid and that BDS is fast reaching its South Africa moment of maturity and impact.
Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Roger Waters, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, Judith Butler, John Berger, Aijaz Ahmed and now Prof Hawking have all reached the conclusion that, like South Africa's, Israel's system of oppression cannot be brought to an end without ending international complicity and intensifying global solidarity, particularly in the form of BDS.
Rooted in a decades-long tradition of Palestinian Arab popular resistance against settler colonialism, and inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the BDS movement for Palestinian rights takes to heart the words of Archbishop Tutu: "We do not want our chains comfortable. We want them removed."
By appealing to people of conscience around the world to help end Israel's three-tiered system of oppression, the BDS movement is not asking for anything heroic, but for fulfilling a profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in oppression. Given the billions of dollars lavished on Israel annually by western states, particularly the United States and Germany, taxpayers in those countries are in effect subsidising Israel's violations of international law at a time when social programmes are undergoing severe cuts, unemployment is rising, and the environment is being devastated.
Striving to end western complicity in Israel's violations of international law is not only good for the Palestinians; it is certainly good for those around the world struggling for social justice and against perpetual war.
Building on its global ascendance, the BDS movement - led by the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, the BDS National Committee - is spreading, and scoring significant victories.
Multimillion dollar campaigns by Israel's foreign ministry to counter the BDS by "rebranding" through art and science have largely failed. With impressive successes in the economic and cultural fields, and with the increasing impact of its Israeli supporters, BDS is viewed by Israel's establishment as a "strategic threat" to its system of oppression. This explains the Israeli Knesset's passage of a draconian anti-boycott law last year that drops the last mask of Israel's supposed democracy.
Reflecting the devastating deterioration in Israel's standing in the world, a BBC poll last year showed Israel competing with North Korea as the third-worst-perceived country in the world in the opinion of large majorities in Europe and elsewhere.
The African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, voiced support for BDS in December. The Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, becoming the first professional academic association in the world to do so. The Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students, representing 100,000 members, adopted the boycott of Israeli academic institutions a few weeks ago, and so did the Teachers' Union of Ireland.
Student councils at several North American universities, including University of California Berkeley, are pressuring administrators to divest from companies profiting from Israel's occupation.
The University of Johannesburg in 2011 severed links with Ben Gurion University over human-rights violations.
Trade union federations with millions of members have also endorsed BDS - in South Africa, Britain, Ireland, India, Brazil, Norway, Canada, Italy, France, Belgium and Turkey, among others.
Veolia and Alstom, two European corporations involved in Israeli projects in violation of international law, have lost contracts worth billions of dollars.
Some global firms are being moved by the pressure. The British Co-op supermarket chain, the fifth largest in the UK, for instance, has adopted a policy of boycotting Israeli agricultural companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territory. Deutsche Bahn, a German government-controlled rail company, pulled out of an Israeli project encroaching on occupied Palestinian land.
Even world-renowned artists - including, Roger Waters, Zakir Hussain, The Pixies, Elvis Costello, Natasha Atlas, Cat Power, Vanessa Paradis and Cassandra Wilson - have cancelled performances in Israel, heeding the cultural boycott and transforming Tel Aviv into the new Sun City. A statement calling for the boycott of an Israeli theatre company that performs in Israel's illegal colonies in defiance of international law won the endorsement of top theatre and film figures in the UK, including Emma Thompson.
"Besiege your siege" - the cry of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish- acquires a new meaning in this context.
Since convincing a colonial power to heed moral pleas for justice is, at best, delusional, many around the world now understand the need to "besiege" Israel's occupation and apartheid through BDS, raising the price of its oppression and paving the way for freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people.
Only thus can Amal in Ain Al Hilweh and all Palestinian children cling on to the hope of finally realising their rights, after which they can commemorate the Nakba as a distant memory of an injustice that once was.
Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian human rights activist, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights