Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Omar Barghouti: Peaceful Resistance through Boycott of Israel

Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti is the founding member and primary coordinator of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) as well as being the main activist for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Born in Qatar in 1964, Barghouti began his career in the United States (US), where he earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. He married an Israeli Palestinian woman, Safa Tamish, moved to Israel in 1993 and obtained permanent residency there. He lives in the city of Akko (Acre) and has two daughters.

He earned a second master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University in 2009 and started to pursue his doctoral studies. When asked why he studied at an Israeli university despite his call for the academic boycott, Barghouti replied that the Palestinians needed to acquire knowledge and science and therefore they were unable to boycott Israel, but foreign countries that do not need Israel should boycott it.

When Barghouti’s campaigning began to mobilize international communities and organizations to boycott Israel economically and culturally, more than 184,000 Israelis signed a petition to expel him from the university and from Israel. This did not happen because the petition was not legal.

Omar Barghouti

In 2016, however, the Interior Ministry refused to renew Barghouti’s residence permit, claiming that he was spending most of his time in the West Bank. Barghouti believed the non-renewal of his residence permit was politically motivated and aimed at separating him from his family.

After the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, approved a law on 6 March 2017 banning the granting of visas or residence permits to foreign citizens calling for the boycott of Israel, Israel began to tighten the noose on Barghouti, who is legally considered a foreigner because he does not have a Palestinian identity number. After he won an award granted by the independent US-based organization Promoting Enduring Peace, Israel tightened the noose even further, preventing him from travelling and charging him with tax evasion.

In April 2017, an Israeli court temporarily lifted the travel ban on Barghouti, allowing him to travel to the US where he received the Gandhi Peace Award at a ceremony held at Yale University. He donated the value of the award to Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike.

New approach to Palestinian resistance

Barghouti was not the only person who believed in resistance through an international boycott. He was greatly inspired by Nelson Mandela’s approach to mobilizing the nations of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa. This approach was introduced in Palestine after the failure of the Camp David II peace negotiations in July 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada (uprising) in September 2000 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, followed by a major Israeli military operation in the West Bank in 2002. The same year, Israel began building a more than 700km separation wall in the West Bank, around 85 per cent of which was not built along the 1967 border but within Palestinian territory. Consequently, the International Court of Justice ruled on 9 July 2004 that the wall was illegal because it is was built on occupied Palestinian land.

During the military operation, dozens of schools and colleges were destroyed, prompting Palestinian and foreign activists, headed by Barghouti, to launch a campaign in Britain calling for the boycott of Israeli research institutions. The campaign gradually gained ground and, in April 2004, Palestinian intellectuals officially announced the establishment of PACBI, paving the way for initiatives to boycott Israel in other areas. The first Israeli Apartheid Week, which takes the form of university lectures and demonstrations, was held in Toronto, Canada in March 2005. It has since spread to more than 100 cities around the world, including in North America, Europe, South-east Asia, South Africa and Palestine itself.

Following the success of the Toronto event, the majority of Palestinian civil society organizations at home and the diaspora, including parties, trade unions, professional associations and national organizations, agreed on the need for sustained and strategic action aimed at realizing the rights of the Palestinian people by focusing on peaceful resistance and isolating Israel in local, Arab and international arenas at the economic, academic, cultural, military and political levels. On 9 July 2005, 171 national organizations issued a call to boycott Israel, withdraw investments from it and impose sanctions against it. The BDS movement was born.

Objectives of the BDS movement

The BDS movement embraces ‘freedom, justice and equality’, which is manifested in a set of principles with three main aims: ending the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and dismantling the separation wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194.

In order to realize these principles, the movement promotes boycott as a basic form of peaceful popular resistance to the Israeli occupation and the apartheid regime. It also aims to develop boycott strategies and programmes through campaigns, provide support and guidance to regional and international activists, and identify and set priorities and standards of such a boycott.

The movement, which emerged more than 15 years ago, has become a thorn in Israel’s side, mobilizing international organizations, trade unions and companies to stop dealing with their Israeli counterparts. Several trade unions, such as the Canadian UNIVER group, cut ties with the General Organization of Workers in Israel on 6 September 2017. Earlier that year, the Norwegian United Federation of Trade Unions announced it intended to boycott Israel economically, culturally and academically. In addition, the General Federation of Trade Unions in the United Kingdom stopped dealing with its Israeli counterpart on 14 September 2011.

In addition, dozens of international companies announced they would stop dealing with Israel, including the Orange France telecommunication company, Fitness Water in the Netherlands, French energy company Veolia, the Dutch Pension Fund, the British National Union of Students, the US-based DePaul University, the US-based University of North Western and some municipalities such as Merquiville in Sydney.

The success of the movement is evident in a United Nations report, which showed that foreign investment in Israel declined by 46 per cent in 2014 compared to the previous year.

More recently, the high-profile Eurovision Song Contest, held in Israel in May 2019, was the target of the BDS movement. Through its global network of activists, the movement was able to motivate participants to show sympathy toward the Palestinian people. Icelandic performers Hatari raised the Palestinian flag as their points were read out. The flag also appeared during the song ‘Future’ by Madonna, who made a guest appearance at the event.

Although the Israeli government has been able to score points in its open war against the BDS movement, when the German parliament approved a bill condemning the boycott as anti-Semitic, the bill was widely criticized by European intellectuals and even by some Israelis.

Undoubtedly, Barghouti’s name has become directly associated with the boycott movement. More importantly, however, he has been able to establish with a group of likeminded activists a form of resistance that does not resort to violence but aims to put international pressure on the racist policy applied by Israel against the Palestinians.

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