National conference focuses on West Bank boycott efforts

The fourth national BDS conference

The fourth BDS national conference.

Asa Winstanley The Electronic Intifada

Reports on Saturday’s fourth national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference in Bethlehem tended to focus on the shaming of Palestinian Authority minister Jawad Naji (including my own initial one). But the conference itself was a bigger story.

The main reason the audience was so angry with Naji was that the focus throughout the day was on local boycott initiatives. The PA undermines these through its many contacts with Israeli officials and institutions.

Despite the minister’s walk-out and his thugs’ subsequent bloody attack on Nizar Banat (the man who supposedly “insulted” PA leader Mahmoud Abbas), the conference was a vibrant and exciting event.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights today called for an investigation into the attack on Banat.

Normalization slammed

Several speakers from the platform [PDF] denounced efforts by Israel and its collaborators to normalize the occupation. Many of those who spoke from the floor demanded the PA make laws to punish normalization. Several said the PA was undermining boycott efforts through joint initiatives. An-Najah University economist Yousef Abdul Haqs said of such efforts: “We have breached our boycott movement.”

Samia Botmeh of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel talked about efforts in schools to combat normalization initiatives like OneVoice, which target the minds of children, she said. OneVoice is group founded by Israeli businessman Daniel Lubetzky, which seeds to bring the “two sides” together in dialogue.

Ziad Shuaibi of the BDS National Committee talked about Seeds of Peace, another normalization initiative, which sends Israeli and Palestinian youth on summer camps abroad together. He described how it uses powerful financial initiatives to entice participants, such as potential scholarships in foreign universities and the chance of travel. Normalization is a form of “social engineering” by Israel, he said, concluding: “we will not allow them to occupy our future.”

BDS in the West Bank

The “ubiquity” of Israeli products in Palestinian stores in the West Bank was also a major talking point from both speakers and participants.

From the platform, Mazen al-Azzah said that Palestinians are the first market for Israeli goods. He said this was largely down to the greed of Palestinian capital. But he cautioned that emptying Palestine of Israeli products would not be enough to pressure Israel, and that international successes would still be needed. However, he said local initiatives like the relatively new Bader initiative to boycott Israeli products could be a model for the international community.

Khaled Zahd, a local activist from Salfit, talked about the incredibly difficult situation there, where Israeli settlers now outnumber Palestinians in the region. He described the situation as a crisis the PA should pay more attention to. Nonetheless, a local “Olive Convention” was formed which called on stores to boycott all Israeli products, with certificates being issued to those who agreed.

An all-Palestine event

The event was organized by the BDS National Committee, who said that approximately 700 persons attended. There were almost 30 speakers, and the day concluded with several concurrent workshops.

BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti told me the day was: “By far the most successful BDS conference in Palestine… for the first time we had such a huge cross section of Palestinian society everywhere. It was unprecedented in that sense.”

“This conference’s slogan was spreading BDS locally: as campaigns,” he explained. “Emotionally, symbolically, we have wall-to-wall support … but to translate that into effective projects, effective programs, BDS campaigns in each sector … this is the first time we do this. So the workshops, instead of the normal recommendations … each sector was supposed to develop a plan of action until next year … Israel is very worried that BDS is spreading effectively much more in the occupied territories than before.”

People from all over Palestine were bused into Bethlehem for the day. Coaches were organized from Ramallah, Hebron, Haifa, Jenin, Salfit, Tulkarem, Jerusalem, Qalqilya, Lydda, Jaffa and Nablus. Palestinians from exile came from abroad, and several Israeli activists from Boycott From Within also attended.

Several of the speakers had to use Skype to give their talks, including the BDS National Committee’s Haidar Eid who spoke from Gaza, criticizing normalization as a deliberate attempt to undermine BDS. Activists with BDS campaigns from Jordan and Lebanon also used video conferencing to communicate in the same way.

Famous names

Archbishop Atallah Hanna on the Kairos Palestine document

Archbishop Atallah Hanna on the Kairos Palestine document.

Asa Winstanley The Electronic Intifada

Videos of support for the conference from veteran anti-apartheid figure Desmond Tutu, rock legend Roger Waters and renowned Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife were screened. Tutu said of the Israelis: “they might be strutting around as if they are invincible, but they are on the side of the wrong… one day Palestinians will walk tall, free citizens of a free Palestine.”

The conference was opened by Brother Peter Bray, the head of the university, who expressed his support for BDS. The Electronic Intifada understands this was the first time he’d ever done so publicly.

Then followed messages of solidarity from imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, the “engineer of the intifada,” and Ahmad Saadat, the jailed leader of the Popular Font for the Liberation of Palestine. Their respective partners, Fadwa and Abla, read the statements.

Marwan Barghouti called for a “comprehensive boycott of Israel” and said it was high time for Palestinians to bet on themselves rather than US negotiations. Ahmad Saadat said that BDS is similar to other anti-globalist movements, and emphasized the necessity of BDS when the Zionist entity (referring to Israel) depends on international support from imperialist forces.

To loud applause, former presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti hailed famed British academic Stephen Hawking’s recent decision to join the academic boycott. Barghouti criticized some Palestinian academics (though he didn’t name them) for attending the event Hawking pulled out of.

There was a session where speakers gave examples of successful BDS campaigns from around the world. Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Orthodox church spoke about the Kairos Palestine document endorsing BDS, and how it has triggered a backlash from supporters of Israel around the world. The document asserts Christianity is oriental, Middle Eastern and Palestinian, he said. Kairos is part of the religious curriculum in many schools now, he added. Hanna spoke of the need to confront normalization in all its forms.

“You blame the PLO”

PA economy minister Jawad Naji before he was compelled to leave.

Economy minister Jawad Naji before he was compelled to leave.

Asa Winstanley The Electronic Intifada

The controversial session that ultimately led to the PA’s minister being effectively chased out was titled: “Facing the Public,” and was focused on questions from the floor. The other two speakers were Palestine Liberation Organization representative Taisir Khaled and the BDS National Committee’s Omar Barghouti.

Khaled was a more slick speaker than the crude pro-Abbas sloganeering of Naji. Khaled responded to criticisms that had already arisen in discussion during the previous session: “you blame the PLO a lot” and “are dissatisfied with the PLO,” but, he said “the PLO still exists” and disputed a claim that the only PLO department left was negotiations.

After the minister’s walk-out, Khaled said he was against the Paris protocol (a one-sided economic deal with Israel that followed Oslo) and security coordination with Israel, but said it was nothing new, and claimed many in the PLO executive were against security coordination.

But he said he was not in favor of “abusive language” towards the minister, which he said was “not acceptable.” Khaled said nothing about the minister’s abuse of conference participants, however.

Omar Barghouti put the focus on the importance of people taking the initiative themselves. The BDS National Committee is not some well-funded nongovernmental organization, he said, and the conference grew this year without funding. Take the initiative and resist; don’t wait for anyone’s permission, he said.

Naji claimed the private sector is “the engine behind development and growth.” He pointed towards the PA’s 2010 “Dignity” settlement goods boycott campaign (despite the fact it is now defunct) and claimed credit for moves in the European Union towards labeling of settlement goods.

Where Naji seemed to start rub the crowd up the wrong way was when, after several critical contributions from the floor, he responded by complaining about having to wait an hour till after his scheduled time to speak. (Organizers told me his was because several speakers were added to the program at the last minute, including the messages from Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat. No one else apart from Naji complained about this, despite being equally effected by it.) He also said: “this is the government of the Palestinian people” (whether you like it or not, seemed to be the implication).

It all went downhill from there for him. He claimed he had never heard of even a single joint Palestinian-Israeli official project, despite several being named throughout the day. Responses from the floor were immediate: Rawabi. Paltrade has projects with the Peres Center.

Naji responded by calling the woman who’d pointed this out a “girl” and said she was mixing up between the private sector and civil society.

Eventually, Nizar Banat called out Mahmoud Abbas on coordination with Israel, and Naji responded with insults, which led to Naji being run out of the conference, as I reported Saturday.

Successful conclusion

Despite a brief moment of chaos, the conference resumed following the walk-out. The conclusion before breaking into workshops was a presentation from Alaa Muhanna, a Palestinian member of the Druze religious minority who has refused to serve in Israel’s army. He received perhaps the loudest applause of the day, and the chair told him “welcome home.”

Muhanna started by denouncing the minister for insulting Banat, but then proceeded with this prepared remarks. These were a passionate and emphatic affirmation of the Arab Palestinian identity of the Druze community. He claimed those who thought like him were the majority of Druze and those who did serve in the Israeli army were the victims of Zionist brainwashing: “we refuse military service everywhere, we are growing everywhere.”

Perhaps the comment that summed up the day best came from the floor. One contributor said the conference was “a great indicator of the unity of our people.”

Asa Winstanley is currently reporting from Palestine. Simultaneous translation from Arabic was provided by the conference organizers.


Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and co-host of our podcast.

He is author of the bestselling book Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2023).