The power and complexity of BDS

Insights from an interview with human rights advocate Hisham Al-Sharbati.
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A group of people at a protest carrying flags and a microphone
Photo: Heri Rakotomalala/ Flickr

In a thought-provoking interview, Hisham Al-Sharbati, a dedicated researcher and advocate for human rights from Al-Khalil/Hebron, provides valuable perspectives on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. With a wealth of experience in various human rights organizations and as a crucial partner of Community Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Al-Khalil/ Hebron, Al-Sharbati offers profound insights into the significance of nonviolent resistance and the challenges faced by Palestinians in their struggle for justice.

The three elements of the BDS movement are the actions of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. BDS is an effective tool on several different levels—individual, corporate, and governmental—where consumer power exerts pressure on an oppressive regime and advocates for international solidarity in supporting human rights. “The concept of boycott at the individual level means we harness the freedom of choice to refrain from purchasing items that benefit the oppressors, explains Al-Sharbati. “At the corporate and investment level, it means withdrawing investments (divesting) from the regime and at the state level, political decision-makers can impose sanctions on nations who are not abiding by international law.”

BDS is not a new form of nonviolent resistance but draws on many historical and longstanding traditions of boycotts as a means of peaceful protest, including the stories of Prophet Muhammad and the liberation movement of Mahatma Gandhi. More recently, Al-Sharbati notes, is the success of BDS actions in apartheid South Africa, “where a white minority ruled over a black majority, which closely resembles our situation in Palestine. They placed blacks in areas A and B, telling them to elect a parliament and even allowing them to become members of the United Nations, but ultimately foreign policy and economic keys were in the hands of the white minority.” Under this oppressive apartheid regime, South Africans were able to harness an international campaign of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to challenge the state and ultimately dismantle apartheid. The Palestinian BDS movement draws on similar actions to address Israeli occupation and discrimination.

Reflecting on Palestinian history, Al-Sharbati recalls the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936 and the first Intifada as moments of collective resistance where boycotts played a significant role. In 1951 the Arab League established a boycott office in Damascus which led to further organization of regional efforts. “I remember well there was an Israeli cigarette brand called “Time,” which most Palestinians used to smoke,” says Al-Sharbati. “But then it completely stopped, even if you went to the market, you wouldn’t find it. This became Palestinian legacy.” 

But as the Israeli occupation cemented its presence, it became increasingly difficult to boycott Israeli products. The Arab League had managed to divide companies, where Coca-Cola was present in Israel but not in the West Bank, and Pepsi only served the West Bank and Arab countries without products in Israel. The same with car companies, where Chevrolet was available to Arab nations, while Israel had Peugeot, Subaru, and Skoda. But with the collapse of the boycott office, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab nations, companies found it easier to collaborate across picket lines and now corporate brands are available on both sides of the green line. 

On the ground, it has become extremely difficult to boycott as Palestinians who live in a market controlled by the occupation. All export and import is determined by the Israeli apartheid state. As much as Al-Sharbati can educate on the merits of boycotting, in practice “as Palestinians we cannot boycott 100%, although in the West Bank we have a little more control than the Palestinian who lives inside the Green Line who is surrounded by an Israeli market and has no other option or the Palestinian in Gaza who is subject to the products Israel approves of under siege.”

Despite these struggles, Al-Sharbati remains hopeful about the impact of boycotts in advancing Palestinian rights. He stresses the need for Palestinians to educate and show political commitment for international solidarity movements. “As a Palestinian, I must be the role model and serve as the lever for others so that when the British, American, and French boycott, this affects the Israeli economy,” points out Al-Sharbati. “This foreigner will not boycott until he sees me, a Palestinian, starting to do so.”

Especially as the genocidal war on Gaza continues, calls for boycott have grown stronger and been supported by decades of political organizing. From Amman to Cairo to Kuwait, McDonald’s and Starbucks stand empty, and local soda companies are booming as stores and restaurants emptied their stock of Coca-Cola products. Not only do these efforts serve to make an economic impact on the occupying power but also offer space to educate as the movement spreads into the public sphere. Communities start to have conversations when red tags appear on grocery store shelves to mark boycotted dates and smartphone applications can tell you which shampoo to buy and which chocolate bar to avoid, ultimately serving as a means of exposing the injustices of Israeli occupation.

These actions have helped lead toward a political shift, where Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada have all suspended arms transfers to Israel, and even in the last United Nations Security Council vote, the United States changed its tone by abstaining from the ceasefire resolution instead of its usual veto. “We are not saying that the opinion of the American regime has fundamentally changed; this move may be tactical or something else,” notes Al-Sharbati, “but the point is that what is happening in Gaza has had an impact on global support for the Palestinian cause.”

In conclusion, Al-Sharbati’s insights shed light on the power and complexity of boycotts in the Palestinian struggle for justice. Through grassroots activism, international solidarity, and strategic advocacy, the BDS movement continues to be a potent force for change, challenging oppression and advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people.

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