This article by Jake Wallis Simon, features writer at The Telegraph, was published on June 9th.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem particularly unusual. In April, four Palestinian protesters were arrested after disrupting a performance by an Indian dance troupe at the Al-Qasaba theatre in Ramallah.
The protesters – Zeid Shuaibi, Abdel Jawad Hamayel, Fadi Quran and Fajr Harb – were activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to force the Jewish state into political, economic and cultural isolation. Their grievance was simple: the Indian dancers had previously performed in Israel.
(One might be forgiven for viewing performances in both Tel Aviv and Ramallah as a gesture of support for peace. But that’s not how the BDS movement sees it.)
But here’s the twist: in an unprecedented development, these protesters were arrested not by Israeli forces, but by the Palestinian police.
Moreover, the Palestinian authorities seemed determined to make an example of the BDS four, choosing not to let them go with a “slap on the wrist”. On 28 May they were formally charged with “provoking riots and the breach of public tranquillity”, and the case will go to court on 14 July.
The irony is tangible. All over Britain, the United States, Europe and Australia, campaigners for the BDS movement are lauded as champions of the Palestinian cause.
Many high-profile names have been linked to the movement, such as Desmond Tutu, Stephen Hawking, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Elvis Costello, and of course Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (who last year, at one of his concerts, raised a large inflatable pig with the Star of David displayed on its side).
But it appears that the Palestinian leadership views BDS activists as little more than embarrassing troublemakers, and wishes to suppress them.
Omar Barghouti, a leading figure in the BDS movement, responded by releasing an almost comically petulant statement: “If the four men are brought before a court,” he said, “then we should prosecute the Palestinian Authority for serving the Israeli occupation’s project.”
In truth, however, it has long been clear that many Palestinian officials believe that the BDS movement does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people.
During Nelson Mandela’s funeral, it couldn’t have been plainer: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told reporters: “No, we do not support the boycott of Israel.”
Majdi Khaldi, one of his senior advisers, was even more explicit: “we are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognise Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel.” (Though the PA does support a boycott of settlement produce.)
From the Palestinian point of view, the arguments against BDS are quite straightforward. For one thing, BDS gives the distinct impression that the Palestinian side has no interest in the pursuit of compromise, peace and the two-state solution; activists have managed to block a succession of attempts at dialogue between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians in Ramallah and East Jerusalem.
For another, large numbers of Palestinian entrepreneurs – 16,000 of them, at the last count – heavily invest in the stable Israeli economy. According to researchers at Al-Quds University, Palestinians investments in Israeli businesses dwarf those made in their own territories.
It has also been argued that even a boycott of settlement businesses makes little economic sense for Palestinians. There are 14 Israeli industrial parks on the West Bank containing 788 factories (including Soda Stream). These businesses employ 11,000 Palestinians who are paid in accordance with Israeli labour laws, work side-by-side with 6,000 Israelis, and receive two or three times the average Palestinian salary.
Either way, one thing is clear: were the BDS activists to gain ground, the economic repercussions for ordinary Palestinians would be profound. Relations between Israel and the Palestinians, from the grassroots level all the way up to the leadership, would be further damaged through the erosion of what little trust remains. And other nation states – such as India, for example – will start to take a dimmer view of the Palestinian side, which is intent on demonstrating against their performers.
Despite the fact that there is undeniably a degree of popular support for BDS among Palestinians, it is an area in which the Israeli and Palestinian leadership appears to be in concert.
A senior Israeli official told me, “the bottom line is that both Israel and the Palestinians fully understand that our futures are intertwined, and joint projects, both cultural and economic are the future. BDS stands for the opposite. They are ‘professional haters’, usually not from the region, who preach division. I can’t speak for the Palestinian Authority, but is seems that this is why the PA takes a rough hand with them.”
This perspective is shared by many across the Israeli political spectrum. “Boycotting settlements serves mainly corrupt elements in the Palestinian Authority, which make a living from the industry that has developed around these groups, which are well funded,” says Basam Id, a researcher for Betselem, the Left-wing anti-settlement organisation. “My feeling, as someone who is out in the field a lot, is that the BDS is more an empty PR slogan than a fact on the ground”.
All of this provides another compelling illustration of the hypocrisy of the BDS movement. A few weeks ago, I travelled to Israel to take part in the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival, in defiance of an “open letter” from BDS activists demanding that I boycott the Jewish state.
When I gave a speech (below) at the opening ceremony and expressed my opposition to the boycott, it received a positive response from the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and Limor Livnat, Israel’s Minister for Culture and Sport.
But I could not help but wonder whether many senior Palestinian figures would have been quietly applauding, too.