The Impact and Importance of the BDS Movement

What is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement mobilizing for? What are their demands?
Graphic of raised arms with text to act now and join the BDS movement

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is the primary initiative that directly supports the Palestinian people, both inside and outside of Palestine. In my earlier interview with Hisham Sharabati, we explored the movement’s origins, growth, and significance. Now I aim to discuss the current asks of the BDS movement for today’s reality and what that looks like on the ground.

Since its launch 18 years ago, the BDS movement has been tirelessly building and expanding a network of supporters for Palestinian rights and advocates for our just cause all over the world. This is accomplished with the support of international unions, syndicates, civil society institutions, popular movements, and other entities representing tens of millions of people. The movement has significantly impacted the isolation of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime, forcing large multinational corporations such as G4S, Veolia, Orange, HP, and PUMA to partially or completely end their complicity in its crimes against the Palestinian people.

With the onset of the genocidal Israeli war on the Gaza Strip in October 2023, the Palestinian National Committee for the Boycott of Israel, the broadest coalition in Palestinian society and the leadership of the BDS movement, called for increased participation in all popular events and campaigns in support of Gaza. They also called for continued mobilization and pressure to demand an immediate ceasefire, the lifting of the blockade (including the opening of the Rafah crossing), the immediate entry of emergency aid to Gaza, including fuel and electricity, the provision of international protection for the people in Gaza, and accountability for those involved in the ongoing genocide, including governments, companies, and institutions.

This call aligns with strengthening the campaigns to boycott Israel and divest from it on all levels, from boycotting companies directly involved in Israel’s crimes to academic, cultural, artistic, and sports boycotts. The call also includes intensifying popular campaigns against all forms of normalization in the Arab world and escalating global military embargo campaigns, mobilizing activists, and equipping them with effective tools to pressure decision-makers in their countries.

Over the past nine months, we have witnessed a significant increase in the impact of global solidarity movements, with the BDS movement at its core, both at the grassroots level and in terms of state policies. This culminated in South Africa filing a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide. The court later declared on 26 January 2024, that it is reasonable to consider Israel’s actions against Gaza as genocide. On 23 February 2024, UN human rights experts issued a statement highlighting the severity of the genocide committed by the Israeli regime and calling on all states to fulfill their legal obligations by immediately halting all “arms exports to Israel” and imposing “sanctions on trade, finance, travel, technology, and cooperation.” These demands have long been advocated by the BDS movement through building popular and mass support.

Student Perspectives on BDS

In interviews with university students in the United States, their perspectives provide a deeper understanding of the practical implications and challenges of implementing BDS on campuses.

I spoke with one student who emphasized that on a day-to-day scale, BDS is the most realistic action that students can take to impact the situation materially, beyond activism work on campus. Some of these students’ efforts include pushing their school to disclose investment records and stop providing boycotted items, although this has proven difficult. At the same time, they directed their action to target the campus café provider, Starbucks, due to its complicity in supporting Israeli actions. They are engaging with the campus food provider, conducting surveys among students, coordinating with alumni, and pressuring the administration to meet with them and reconsider their contracts.

Through this experience, the students discussed the broader impact of the BDS movement as divesting from unethical practices as a whole. They noted that corporations like Starbucks and McDonald’s have responded with increased promotions, indicating a recognition of the pressure BDS campaigns can exert. Additionally, BDS addresses the capitalist side of the issue, challenging the ethics of where and how money is invested. They stressed that BDS is not just for Palestine but about changing the narrative to recognize that money is not neutral.

While BDS can be seen as the bare minimum in terms of activism, it is also considered one of the most accessible ways for people to feel they are actively contributing to the cause. Other methods include talking to representatives, posting online, and raising awareness, but BDS allows individuals to make a tangible impact through their purchasing choices.

Finally, students reflected on the inconsistency between personal support for movements and official stances taken by faculty or administration. They expressed hope for a cultural shift, particularly in the United States, to become more mindful of the impact of institutional positions and actions. They also criticized the disconnect between universities’ marketing strategies— which emphasize inclusivity—and their actual support for international students and relevant causes.

In summary, the BDS movement plays a crucial role in advocating for Palestinian rights and has garnered significant global support. University students’ efforts to implement BDS on their campuses highlight the practical challenges and the potential for meaningful impact through sustained activism and pressure.

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