The most recent events in Gaza have shocked the conscience of the world so deeply that we have seen the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the world that we have ever seen. From London, to Sydney, to South Africa, to Chicago, thousands have come out to demand a cessation to the bombing. Even fifteen years ago, during the Second Intifada, the global protest movement was not nearly as large. Something profound has occurred that has altered Israel’s ability to present its case to the world and have it be accepted as gospel.
First, the bombings of Gaza have produced a concentrated spectacle of what daily life in Gaza is like: bombing from Israeli Defense Forces, indiscriminate round-ups of Palestinians, collective punishment, inadequate access to food, water, and medicine, and the absolute disregard for civilian life. The bombing of hospitals, schools, UN refugee camps, apartment complexes, killing entire families, and even children playing on the beach are not “accidents” but the direct outcome of Israeli policies which have turned Gaza into one of the most densely populated places on the earth and then deprived that population of basic necessities, including the freedom to move. The fact that Israel does the same things it is doing now even when there are no Hamas rockets on which to deflect attention gives lie to the claim that this has anything to do with self-defense. As Noura Erekat, the legal scholar, has convincingly argued, Israel, like every other occupying power, has no right to self-defense. It has, rather, an obligation to preserve the lives of those it occupies, and it has flouted that obligation repeatedly.
Second, the rhetoric from inside Israel has shifted very decisively towards the far-right. The anecdotes reported in the media are chilling enough: the burning alive of an innocent Palestinian boy by an Israeli lynch mob; soccer fans shouting “death to Arabs!”; Israeli youth patrolling the streets with Kahanist t-shirts; the repeated accusations that one is not a citizen of Israel if one is not loyal to its military campaigns; and on and on. But even worse have been the reports of what has been said by the political establishment. Ayelet Shaked, member of Israel Beiteinu, called for the deaths of Palestinian mothers since they give birth to “more little snakes.” Despite knowing that the three teenage Israeli youth who had been feared to be kidnapped were actually dead, Prime Minister Netanyahu whipped up racist hysteria and did nothing to stop the mobs from attacking Palestinians in the streets. The once popular belief that Israel represented the leading force for democracy and social justice in the Middle East has been betrayed by the rampant racism, chauvinism, and xenophobia.
Finally, as these lines are being written, new protests have emerged in the West Bank. A march from Ramallah to Jerusalem, one of the largest in a decade, has unleashed the spirit of the third Intifada. Pictures of protesters tearing down the separation (also known as the “apartheid”) wall that Israel used to annex unlawfully more of the West Bank. The spirit of unity that was only formally represented in the alliance announced between Hamas and Fatah a few months ago has become transformed into a truly popular and nationally unity against the horrors that Israel is committing in Palestine. Two years after the revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring, it seems that the spirit of popular rebellion has come to Palestine as well.
These new processes have altered the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict substantially, even as they have not yet fully been able to transform the political commitments of the most powerful nations in the world. The US Senate voted unanimously to support Israel. The French government declared a ban on protests in support of Israel. The European Union even balked at the opportunity to condemn Israel for killing citizens of the EU, Ibrahim al-Kilani, his wife, and five children. Despite the shift in global public opinion decisively towards support for the Palestinian cause, the leadership of the most powerful countries in the world remains decisively committed to Israeli apartheid and occupation.
This is the context in which the calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions have to be understood and the reasons why ordinary people throughout the world must press harder and harder for a movement for BDS. It was as a consequence of the struggles of black South Africans that global civil society was inspired to isolate apartheid South Africa through a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions in the 1980s. The parallels to today could not be clearer. The refusal of Israel to stop its criminal war on Gaza and the refusal of the world powers to act mean that the job falls to the only two actors capable of making social change: the Palestinians and global civil society. The former has already acted and sacrificed—lives, health, dignity, and freedom. It falls on the rest of us to heed their call.
*Snehal Shingavi is an Assistant Professor, English, University of Texas Austin