Three weeks ago, a coalition of organizations published a heartfelt and urgent call for action. “We Palestinians trapped inside the bloodied and besieged Gaza Strip call on conscientious people all over the world to act,” it said. “Protest and intensify the boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel until it ends this murderous attack on our people and is held to account.”
The plea, from groups including trade unions, women’s organizations and press representatives, was issued four days into the Gaza onslaught. It wondered, grimly, if the number killed in the new fighting would reach the 1,400 of Operation Cast Lead in 2008. Now, the death toll stands at 1,865. It isn’t likely to remain at that figure for long: the carnage, which razed entire neighborhoods, left Gaza with wounds from which it’s difficult to imagine a recovery.
Such a bleak picture suggests the coalition’s call went unanswered. And indeed, throughout the weeks of Operation Protective Edge, governments have maintained trade and military aid to Israel, with rarely more than muted censure of civilian casualties.
But the call was recognized in other ways. For the past month, the streets from Sana’a to Washington, D.C., have been flooded with demonstrators demanding an end to the carnage and the Israeli occupation. Online appeals for peace have attracted tens of thousands of signatures. The campaign to boycott Israel — already steadily gaining momentum — has achieved major victories and adopted new tactics.
“Even with public opinion in the United States, recent polls have shown that the only demographic really supporting Israel is old, white Republican men,” said Josh Ruebner, Policy Director at the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation. “There’s a clear indication that support for Israel is becoming a more marginalized phenomenon.”
In the July air of Kensington, a wealthy West London neighborhood overlooking Hyde Park, that sense of a changing mood was tangible. In a last-minute demonstration just a few days after the operation began, several thousand people, with a powerful showing from the city’s many Muslim communities, brought “Free Palestine” chants to the Israeli Embassy, shutting down traffic through the upscale High Street and commandeering a red London bus. Two weeks later, 45,000 demonstrators marched from Downing Street to the embassy. London was just one among scores of global cities whose streets were transformed by fury following atrocities in Gaza.
“Now, international activists are showing their own government how the Palestinians are suffering,” said Mousa Abu Maria, an activist with the Palestine Solidarity Project in the West Bank. “They show that people stand with us, behind Gaza, and that we are not alone.”
But although mass protests are photogenic, do they achieve anything? It’s a pertinent question for activists in Palestine and around the world, and one that’s closely tied to deeper conundrums about the role that international campaigning should play in the Palestinian struggle. Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie argue that global activism can mistakenly focus exclusively on discrete issues — violations of international law or bloody onslaughts such as the current attack on Gaza or the occupation itself — missing the broader fight for Palestinians self-determination. That’s amplified by superficial, fleeting involvement, a tendency to victimize or speaking on Palestinians’ behalf. By disregarding Palestinian action and “believing the road to liberation lies elsewhere,” Palestinian activist Maryam Barghouti explains, “you are not expressing solidarity; you are expressing a white savior mentality.” If the Palestinian struggle is against colonialism and for national liberation, when Western activists attempt to shape its terms they just perpetuate the imperialism behind the oppression they are trying to fight.
For the last month, Friends of Al-Aqsa has set its sights firmly on Gaza, in the context of ending the siege and occupation, and from a broader human rights perspective. “I think the central and most important factor for us is to work for justice and for equality, to say that all people should be treated equally before the law,” said Ismail Patel, chair of the organization. “Most people can agree on that. We must have some kind of standard globally, and highlight the hypocrisy that takes place by allowing some people to get away with certain things and not others.”
Friends of Al-Aqsa has drawn on diverse tactics in its work. It’s been instrumental in organizing marches across the United Kingdom — and is increasing it efforts to lobby political representatives and recruit volunteers — with a hope to turn those involved into active advocates who can rally further support in their communities and media. And central to its strategy is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005 and perhaps the most clearly defined framework that international Palestine activists are organizing around.
Reiterated in the July 12 call to action and pushed hard since Operation Protective Edge, BDS has been building momentum for years. “We work very closely with the Palestinian BDS National Committee responding to Palestinian civil society campaigns,” said Josh Ruebner. “This is what Palestinians are asking for from civil society.” And it’s crucial that the BDS strategy doesn’t just look to end the occupation, but calls on equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return. “We agree that any just peace needs to address these components as well,” he explained.
The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation expects an uptick in BDS campus actions in the fall, spurred, in part, by horror at the terrible images and rising death toll in Gaza. And recent weeks have witnessed dramatic developments in the campaign both large and small: Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru recalled their ambassadors from Israel; George Soros, Tesco and John Lewis all distanced themselves from settlement profits; and on August 4, the U.K. National Union of Students voted to endorse BDS.
“We have the beginning of a global movement now,” said Patel. “Our role is to translate that into political action. Now opinion needs to shift to such a level that the narrative changes, that people support the Palestinians.”
In the West Bank, Abu Maria knows international action has to be carefully coordinated with the goals and strategy of Palestinian civil society. “To make real work with Palestinians directly is very important,” he said. “Now the Palestinians have seen how internationals are important to our community, and since 2003 the international solidarity is growing day by day.”
“I am from Beit Ommar,” he continued. “The Friday before they killed three people, and shot maybe 60 people. Why? Just because they demonstrated for people in Gaza. That’s why international solidarity is so important now.”
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