We have a tool to stop Israel’s war crimes: BDS

Naomi Klein
Only outside pressure can stop Israel’s war crimes. Naomi Klein

Jan. 10, 2024

In 2005, Palestinians called on the world to boycott Israel until it complied with international law. What if we had listened?

Exactly 15 years ago this week, I published an article in the Guardian. It began like this:

"Enough.  It's time for a boycott

Naomi Klein

It’s time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa. In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on ‘people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era’. The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was born."


Back in January 2009, Israel had unleashed a shocking new stage of mass killing in the Gaza Strip, calling its ferocious bombing campaign Operation Cast Lead. It killed 1,400 Palestinians in 22 days; the number of casualties on the Israeli side was 13. That was the last straw for me, and after years of reticence I came out publicly in support of the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights, known as BDS.

Though BDS had broad support from more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, internationally the movement remained small. During Operation Cast Lead, that began to shift, and a growing number of student groups and trade unions outside Palestine were signing on.

Still, many wouldn’t go there. I understood why the tactic felt fraught. There is a long and painful history of Jewish businesses and institutions being targeted by antisemites. The communications experts who lobby on Israel’s behalf know how to weaponize this trauma, so they invariably cast campaigns designed to challenge Israel’s discriminatory and violent policies as hateful attacks on Jews as an identity group.

For two decades, widespread fear stemming from that false equation has shielded Israel from facing the full potential of a BDS movement – and now, as the international court of justice hears South Africa’s devastating compendium of evidence of Israel committing the crime of genocide in Gaza, it truly is enough.

From bus boycotts to fossil fuel divestment, BDS tactics have a well-documented history as the most potent weapons in the nonviolent arsenal. Picking them up and using them at this turning point for humanity is a moral obligation.

The responsibility is particularly acute for those of us whose governments continue to actively aid Israel with deadly weapons, lucrative trade deals and vetoes at the United Nations. As BDS reminds us, we do not have to let those bankrupt agreements speak for us unchallenged.

Groups of organized consumers have the power to boycott companies that invest in illegal settlements, or power Israeli weapons. Trade unions can push their pension funds to divest from those firms. Municipal governments can select contractors based on ethical criteria that forbid these relationships. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founders and leaders of the BDS movement, reminds us: “The most profound ethical obligation in these times is to act to end complicity. Only thus can we truly hope to end oppression and violence.”

In these ways, BDS deserves to be seen as a people’s foreign policy, or diplomacy from below – and if it gets strong enough, it will eventually force governments to impose sanctions from above, as South Africa is attempting to do. Which is clearly the only force that can get Israel off its current path.

Barghouti stresses that, just as some white South Africans supported the anti-apartheid campaigns during that long struggle, Jewish Israelis who oppose their country’s systemic violations of international law are welcome to join BDS. During Operation Cast Lead, a group of roughly 500 Israelis, many of them prominent artists and scholars, did just that, eventually naming their group Boycott from Within.

In my 2009 article, I quoted their first lobbying letter, which called for “the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions” against their own country and drew direct parallels with the South African anti-apartheid struggle. “The boycott on South Africa was effective,” they pointed out, saying it helped end the legalization of discrimination and ghettoization in that country, adding: “But Israel is handled with kid gloves … This international backing must stop.”

That was true 15 years ago; it is calamitously so today.

The price of impunity

An explosion from an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza

A plume erupts during an Israeli bombardment in Rafah

A Palestinian trapped under rubble in Gaza City

Palestinians after an airstrike on a house in Rafah, Gaza]

Reading BDS documents from the mid- and late 2000s, I am most struck by the extent to which the political and human terrain has deteriorated. In the intervening years, Israel has built more walls, erected more checkpoints, unleashed more illegal settlers and launched far deadlier wars. Everything has gotten worse: the vitriol, the rage, the righteousness. Clearly, impunity – the sense of imperviousness and untouchability that underpins Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – is not a static force. It behaves more like an oil spill: once released, it seeps outwards, poisoning everything and everyone in its path. It spreads wide and sinks in deep.

Since the original call for BDS was made in July 2005, the number of settlers living illegally in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has exploded, reaching an estimated 700,000 – close to the number of Palestinians expelled in the 1948 Nakba. As settler outposts have expanded, so has the violence of settler attacks on Palestinians, all while the ideology of Jewish supremacy and even overt fascism have moved to the center of the political culture in Israel.

When I wrote my original BDS column, the overwhelming mainstream consensus was that the South African analogy was inappropriate and that the word “apartheid”, which was being used by Palestinian legal scholars, activists and human rights organizations, was needlessly inflammatory. Now, everyone from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International to the leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have done their own careful studies and come to the inescapable conclusion that apartheid is indeed the correct legal term to describe the conditions under which Israelis and Palestinians lead starkly unequal and segregated lives. Even Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, conceded the point: “There is an apartheid state here,” he said in September. “In a territory where two people are judged under two legal systems, that is an apartheid state.”

Moreover, many also now understand that apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories, but inside Israel’s 1948 borders, a case laid out in a major 2022 report from a coalition of Palestinian human rights groups convened by Al-Haq. It’s hard to argue otherwise when Israel’s current far-right government came to power under a coalition agreement that states: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel … the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.”

When impunity reigns, everything shifts and moves, including the colonial frontier. Nothing stays static.

Then there is Gaza. The numbers of Palestinians killed in Operation Cast Lead felt unfathomable at the time. We soon learned that it was not a one-off. Instead, it ushered in a murderous new policy that Israeli military officials casually referred to as “mowing the grass”: every couple of years brought a fresh bombing campaign, killing hundreds of Palestinians or, in the case of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, more than 2,000, including 526 children.

Those numbers shocked again, and sparked a new wave of protests. It still wasn’t enough to strip Israel of its impunity, which continued to be protected by the US’s reliable UN veto, plus the steady flow of arms. More corrosive than the lack of international sanctions have been the rewards: in recent years, alongside all of this lawlessness, Washington has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moved its embassy there. It also brokered the so-called Abraham accords, which ushered in lucrative normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Under a clear blue sky, men walk on the top of the rubble of buildings.
Palestinians inspect ruins in Khan Younis after Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on 8 July 2014. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

It was Donald Trump who began showering Israel with these latest, long-sought-after gifts, but the process carried on seamlessly under Joe Biden. So, on the eve of 7 October, Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of signing what had been giddily hailed as the “deal of the century”.

Where were Palestinian rights and aspirations in all these deals? Absolutely nowhere. Because the other thing that had shifted during these years of impunity was any pretext that Israel intended to return to the negotiating table. The clear goal was crushing the Palestinian movement for self-determination through force, alongside physical and political isolation and fragmentation.

We know how the next chapters of this story go. Hamas’s horrific 7 October attack. Israel’s furious determination to exploit those crimes to do what some of the government’s senior leaders had long wanted to do anyway: depopulate Gaza of Palestinians, which they currently appear to be attempting through the combination of direct killing; mass home demolition (“domicide”); the spread of starvation, thirst and infectious disease; and eventually mass expulsion.

Make no mistake: this is what it means to allow a state to go rogue, to let impunity reign unchecked for decades, using the real collective traumas suffered by the Jewish people as the bottomless excuse and cover story. Impunity like that will swallow not only one country but every country with which it is allied. It will swallow the entire international architecture of humanitarian law forged in the flames of the Nazi holocaust. If we let it.

Which raises something else that has not stayed stable over the past two decades: Israel’s escalating obsession with crushing BDS, no matter the cost to hard-won political rights. Back in 2009, there were many arguments being made by BDS’s critics about why it was a bad idea. Some worried that cultural and academic boycotts would shut down much-needed engagement with progressive Israelis, and feared it would veer into censorship. Others maintained that punitive measures would create a backlash and move Israel further to the right.

So it is striking, looking back now, that those early debates have pretty much disappeared from the public sphere, and not because one side won the argument. They disappeared because the entire idea of having a debate was displaced by one all-consuming strategy: using legal and institutional intimidation to put BDS tactics out of reach and shut the movement down.

To date in the United States, a total of 293 anti-BDS bills have been introduced across the country, and they have been enacted in 38 states, according to Palestine Legal, which has closely tracked this surge. It explains that some legislation targets university funding, some requires that anyone receiving a contract with a state or working for a state sign a contract pledging they will not boycott Israel, and “some call on the state to compile public blacklists of entities that boycott for Palestinian rights or support BDS”. In Germany, meanwhile, support for any form of BDS is enough to get awards revoked, funding pulled, and shows and lectures cancelled (something I have experienced first-hand).

This strategy is, unsurprisingly, most aggressive inside Israel itself. In 2011, the country enacted the Law for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott, effectively nipping the nascent Boycott from Within movement in the bud. The Adalah legal center, an organization working for Arab minority rights in Israel, explains that the law “prohibits the public promotion of academic, economic or cultural boycott by Israeli citizens and organizations against Israeli institutions or illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It enables the filing of civil lawsuits against anyone who calls for boycott.” Like the state-level laws in the US, “it also prohibits a person who calls for boycott from participating in any public tender”. In 2017, Israel began openly barring pro-BDS activists from entering Israel; 20 international groups were placed on the so-called BDS blacklist, including the anti-war stalwart Jewish Voice for Peace.

Meanwhile, across the US, lobbyists for oil and gas companies and gun manufacturers are taking a page from the anti-BDS legal offensive and pushing copycat legislation to restrict divestment campaigns that take aim at their clients. “It points to why it’s so dangerous to permit this kind of Palestine exception to speech,” Meera Shah, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, told the magazine Jewish Currents. “Because not only is it harmful to the Palestinian rights movement – it eventually comes to harm other social movements.” Once again, nothing stays static, impunity expands, and when the rights to boycott and divest are stripped away for Palestinian solidarity, the right to use these same tools to push for climate action, gun control and LGBTQ+ rights are stripped away as well.

In a way, this is an advantage, because it presents an opportunity to deepen alliances across movements. Every major progressive organization and union has a stake in protecting the right to boycott and divest as core tenets of free expression and critical tools of social transformation. The small team at Palestine Legal has been leading the pushback in the US in extraordinary ways – filing court cases that challenge anti-BDS laws as unconstitutional and supporting the cases of others. They deserve far more backup.

Is it finally the BDS moment?

[See photos here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/jan/10/only-outside-pressure-can-stop-israels-war-crimes 

South Africa, 2015

Germany, 2020

United States, 2023

Ireland, 2023]

There is another reason to take heart: the reason Israel goes after BDS with such ferocity is the very same reason that so many activists have continued to believe in it despite these multipronged attacks. Because it can work.

We saw it when global companies started pulling out of South Africa in the 1980s. It wasn’t because they were suddenly struck by anti-racist moral epiphanies. Rather, as the movement became international, and boycott-and-divestment campaigns started to affect car sales and bank customers outside the country, these companies calculated that it would cost them more to stay in South Africa than to leave. Western governments began belatedly imposing sanctions for similar reasons.

That hurt the South African business sector, parts of which put pressure on the apartheid government to make concessions to the Black liberation movements that had been rebelling against apartheid for decades through uprisings, mass strikes and armed resistance. The costs of maintaining the cruel and violent status quo were growing higher, including for South Africa’s elite.

Finally, by the end of the 80s, the pincer of pressure from the outside and inside grew so intense that President FW de Klerk was forced to release Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years, and then to hold one-person-one-vote elections, which carried Mandela to the presidency.

The Palestinian organizations that have kept the flame of BDS alive through some very dark years still place their hope in the South African model of outside pressure. Indeed, as Israel perfects the architecture and engineering of ghettoization and expulsion, it may be the only hope.

That’s because Israel is markedly more insulated from internal pressure from Palestinians than white South Africans were under apartheid, who depended on Black labor for everything from domestic work to diamond mining. When Black South Africans withdrew their labor, or engaged in other kinds of economic disruption, it could not be ignored.

Israel has learned from South Africa’s vulnerability: since the 90s, its reliance on Palestinian labor has been steadily decreasing, largely thanks to so-called guest workers and to the influx of roughly a million Jews from the former Soviet Union. This helped make it possible for Israel to move from the oppression model of occupation to today’s ghettoization model, which attempts to disappear Palestinians behind hulking walls with hi-tech sensors and Israel’s much vaunted Iron Dome air defense.

But this model – let’s call it the fortressed bubble – carries vulnerabilities of its own, and not only to Hamas attacks. The more systemic vulnerability comes from Israel’s extreme dependence on trade with Europe and North America, for everything from its tourism sector to its AI-powered surveillance-tech sector. The brand Israel has fashioned for itself is that of a scrappy, hip, western outpost in the desert, a little bubble of San Francisco or Berlin that just happens to find itself in the Arab world.

That makes it uniquely susceptible to the tactics of BDS, including cultural and academic boycotts. Because when pop stars wanting to avoid controversy cancel their Tel Aviv stops, and prestigious US universities cut their official partnerships with Israeli universities after witnessing the detonation of multiple Palestinian schools and universities, and when beautiful people no longer choose Eilat for their holidays because their Instagram followers won’t be impressed, it undermines Israel’s entire economic model, and its sense of itself.

That will introduce pressure where Israel’s leaders clearly feel little today. If global tech and engineering firms stop selling products and services to the Israeli military, that ups the pressure still further, perhaps enough to shift the political dynamics. Israelis badly want to be part of the world community, and if they find themselves suddenly isolated, many more voters could start demanding some of the very actions that Israel’s current leaders dismiss out of hand – like negotiating with Palestinians for a lasting peace rooted in justice and equality as defined under international law, rather than trying to secure its fortressed bubble with white phosphorus and ethnic cleansing.

The hitch, of course, is that for BDS’s nonviolent tactics to work, the wins cannot be sporadic or marginal. They need to be sustained and mainstream – at least as mainstream as the South African campaign, which saw major corporations like General Motors and Barclays Bank pull their investments, while massive artists like Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr joined a quintessentially 80s supergroup to belt out “ain’t gonna play Sun City” (a reference to South Africa’s iconic luxury resort).

The BDS movement targeting Israel’s injustice has certainly grown over the past 15 years; Barghouti estimates that the “labor and farmers unions, as well as racial, social, gender and climate justice movements” that support it “collectively represent tens of millions worldwide”. But the movement has yet to reach a South Africa-level tipping point.

That has come at a cost. You don’t need to be a historian of liberation struggles to know that when morally guided tactics are ignored, sidelined, smeared and banned, then other tactics – unbound by those ethical concerns – become far more appealing to people desperate for any hope of change.

We will never know how the present could have been different if more individuals, organizations and governments had heeded the BDS call made by Palestinian civil society when it came in 2005. When I reached out to Barghouti a few days ago, he was not looking back at two decades of impunity, but on 75 years. Israel, he said, “would not have been able to perpetrate its ongoing televised genocide in Gaza without the complicity of states, corporations and institutions with its system of oppression”. Complicity, he stressed, is something we all have the power to reject.

One thing is certain: the current atrocities in Gaza dramatically strengthen the case for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Nonviolent tactics that many wrote off as extreme or feared would get them labelled antisemitic look very different through the dim light of two decades of carnage, with new rubble piled upon old, new grief and trauma etched in the psyches of new generations, and new depths of depravity reached in both word and deed.

In a moment such as ours, we are what we do. So many people have been doing more than ever before: blocking arms shipments, occupying seats of government demanding a ceasefire, joining mass protests, telling the truth, however difficult. The combination of these actions may well have contributed to the most significant development in the history of BDS: South Africa’s application to the international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague accusing Israel of committing genocide and calling for provisional measures to stop its attack on Gaza.

A recent analysis by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes that if the ICJ rules in South Africa’s favor, even if the US vetoes military intervention at the United Nations, “an injunction could result in Israel and Israeli companies being ostracized and subject to sanctions imposed by individual countries or blocs”.

Grassroots boycotts, meanwhile, are already beginning to bite. In December, Puma – one of BDS’s top targets – let it be known that it will terminate its controversial sponsorship of Israel’s national football team. Before that, there was an exodus of artists from a major comics festival in Italy, after it emerged that the Israeli embassy was among the sponsors. And this month, the McDonald’s chief executive, Chris Kempczinski, wrote that what he called “misinformation” was having “a meaningful business impact” on some of its sales in “several markets in the Middle East and some outside the region”. This was a reference to a wave of outrage sparked by news that McDonald’s Israel had donated thousands of meals to Israeli soldiers. Kempczinski has sought to separate the global brand from “local owner operators”, but few people in the BDS movement are persuaded by the distinction.

It will also be critical, as momentum for BDS continues to pick up steam, to be acutely aware that we are in the midst of an alarming and real surge of hate crimes, many of them directed at Palestinians and Muslims, but also at Jewish businesses and institutions simply because they are Jewish. That is antisemitism, not political activism.

BDS is a serious, nonviolent movement with an established governing model. While giving local organizers autonomy to determine which campaigns will work in their areas, the BDS national committee (BNC) sets the movement’s guiding principles and carefully selects a small group of high-impact corporate targets, chosen “due to their proven complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights”.

The BNC is also very clear that it is not calling for individual Israelis to be boycotted because they are Israeli, stating that it “rejects, on principle, boycotts of individuals based on their opinion or identity (such as citizenship, race, gender or religion)”. The targets, in other words, are institutions complicit in systems of oppression, not people.

No movement is perfect. Every movement will make missteps. The most pressing question now, however, has little to do with perfection. It is simply this: what has the best chance of changing a morally intolerable status quo, while stopping further bloodshed? The indomitable Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy has no illusions about what it will take. He recently told Owen Jones: “The key is in the international community – I mean, Israel will not change by itself … The formula is very simple: as long as Israelis don’t pay and are not punished for the occupation and not taken accountable for it and don’t feel it on a daily basis, nothing will change.”

A row of white police officers wearing helmets and carrying automatic weapons faces what we see only as Black and brown hands raised holding flowers and showing the peace sign.
Riot police threaten anti-apartheid student protesters in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 20 August 1989. Photograph: Louise Gubb/Corbis/Getty Images

It’s late

In July 2009, a few months after my original BDS article was published, I traveled to Gaza and the West Bank. In Ramallah, I gave a lecture on my decision to support BDS. It included an apology for failing to add my voice sooner, which I confessed had come from a place of fear – fear that the tactic was too extreme when directed at a state forged in Jewish trauma; fear that I would be accused of betraying my people. Fears that I still have.

“Better late than never,” a kind audience member said to me after the talk.

It was late then; it’s later still now. But it’s not too late. Not too late for all of us to create our own foreign policy from below, one that intervenes in the culture and economy in intelligent and strategic ways – ways that offer tangible hope that Israel’s decades of unchecked impunity will finally come to an end.

As the BDS national committee asked last week: “If not now, when? The South African anti-apartheid movement organized for decades to gain broad international support leading up to the fall of apartheid; and apartheid did fall. Freedom is inevitable. The time is now to take action to join the movement for freedom, justice and equality in Palestine.”

Enough. It’s time for a boycott.