THE GLOBAL BDS MOVEMENT makes three demands of Israel that together form the core objective of the movement. Disagreements about the legitimacy of these demands explain some of the divergence of opinion on BDS.
The first demand calls on Israel to withdraw from its settlements in the West Bank and tear down the wall along the Green Line — the border drawn following the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and its neighbours.
Approximately 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, with 75 per cent of settlers living near the Green Line. Many settlers are drawn to the lower cost of living, as housing is subsidized. Others choose to settle there for religious reasons.
Several United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have considered the settlements illegal, as has the Canadian government, despite its otherwise steadfast support for the state of Israel.
The basis for this conclusion may be found in Article 49(1) and 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive” and “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Additionally the barrier set by the Green Line was found to be in violation of international law by the International Court of Justice. Israel maintains that neither the barrier nor the Green Line are illegal. Israel argues that the Green Line was put in place due to security concerns and the threat of terrorism.
“[T]he settlements are illegal by any standards of international law,” says Hanssen. “[The fact that] they still get… built even during [the] Oslo [process] and actually enhanced in the 2000’s is not because they’re legal. It’s because the… state of Israel gets away with it. It’s because it’s politically powerful enough or it has enough backing to get away with it. Even though it is illegal, it still happens.”
Fishman argues that the language in the Fourth Geneva Convention only refers to forcible movements by an occupying power on a foreign civilian population. “[I]t would be illegal for Israel… [to] force them militarily to move to the West Bank. That’s not allowed and that’s not what Israel’s doing.”
Swirsky also sees Israel’s settlements as illegal and as a barrier to peace. Because of this, he supports a boycott of products made there.
“The settlements are constructed, and its inhabitants, by and large, living there for messianic reasons that are incompatible with not only the UN’s designated borders of Israel, but with the sustenance of a modern, democratic state, especially when there are Palestinian people living in deplorable conditions with uneasy access to livelihoods,” he says. “The settlements add no discernible economic benefit to Israel, and gives them everything to lose in terms of global diplomacy, goodwill, and in general a mind to what is right for the Palestinian people, especially those oppressed by the status quo in the West Bank.”
Hanssen shares a similar view and believes that the infrastructure within the settlements that was built by Israel should remain in place as a form of reparations.
The second demand of the BDS movement calls for equal rights for Palestinian Arabs living in the State of Israel, proper.
Opponents of BDS claim that this demand is already fulfilled. “There are equal rights for the citizens of Israel,” Fishman says.
Swirsky says, “As it stands now, however, Arab citizens of Israel proper do indeed enjoy equal rights on the surface, as evidenced by countless Arab university students and graduates… the presence of Arab justices on the Supreme Court, and the status of the Joint Arab List as the third party in the Knesset.”
Sa’adeh contends that equality for Arab Palestinians in Israel is superficial at best. “Well, Netanyahu’s campaign that got him elected was saying, ‘look at all the Arabs that are going to the polls. We should do something about it.’ That’s the current Prime Minister of Israel,” he says, “so you have a racist system of apartheid that actually does discriminate against the Arab population within Israel.”
Comparison between Israel’s role in Palestine and South African apartheid has been a point of contention within the BDS movement.
“[I]n Israel proper I can’t imagine something more opposite to apartheid, because you actually have Jews, and Muslims, and Christians, people from all over the world, mingling, and getting along in Israel itself, relatively well,” says Fishman.
Hanssen has a different view. “You can argue that they have more rights than the blacks had in South Africa but in some ways, they have less rights,” he argues. “Buying property is impossible for them. There are no benches marked ‘Jews only’ so these egregious kind of forms of racism that existed in south Africa don’t exist, but structurally… it’s quite comparable.”
Sirri also points to Israel’s immigration laws and the Law of Return that allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship, which he says is a discriminatory practice.
“Any Jewish person in the world today who can claim that they’re [Jewish] has the right to immigrate, no questions asked, with full rights and equality, quote unquote, in Israel,” Sirri explained. “And yet, someone who is native, indigenous Palestinian to this land doesn’t have the same right.”
Fishman acknowledges that there is societal racism against Arabs in Israel, but maintained that Israeli policy continues to support equal rights.
“The way to remedy this, as in the United States, would be for the government to recognize that these incidents occur, and work with marginalized communities to create a culture within its enforcement bodies that respects and considers all people equally in all circumstances,” Swirsky suggests.
The third demand of the movement calls for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the wars following Israel’s independence. This demand has been a particular point of contention between the supporters and opponents of BDS. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency defines a “Palestinian refugee” to be any Palestinian who was displaced from their homes after the wars in 1948 and 1967, as well as their descendants, which brings their estimated total population to over five million.
Benezrah believes that, should this demand be fulfilled, Israel could no longer be classified as a Jewish state. She points to a statement made by Omar Barghouti, an Egyptian BDS leader from Tel Aviv University, in which he says, “If the [Palestinian] refugees were to return [to Israel], you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”
“The BDS movement… seeks not to create a neighbouring Palestinian state, but to replace Israel completely by transferring millions of Palestinians into Israel,” contends Benezrah.
BDS activists point to the Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” as well as Article 49(2) of the Geneva Convention, which states, “Persons thus evacuated shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.”
The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which was passed shortly after the conclusion of the war in 1948, stipulates that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible” Some interpret these documents as a guarantee of right of return for Palestinian refugees.
“International law grants all refugees who were displaced as a result of occupation or form of military violence their right to return to their homelands,” says Sa’adeh. “So, I do not think that Palestinians should be an [exception] to that international law.”
Sirri concurs, “that’s a right, period, full stop.”
Hanssen acknowledges the practical concerns of letting all Palestinian refugees return to Israel.
“It’s perhaps not feasible… if you [define] feasibility in terms of what happens if all the descendants of all the Palestinian refugees of all the 800,000 who were evicted from their land in ’48 and ’67 all in [in] one go, that’s going to create chaos,” he said.
Hanssen says an acknowledgement of the right of return by the Israeli government may suffice, even if it does not have the capacity to follow through.
“I’m not saying I have a blueprint, you know… but I think the right of return needs to be recognized as a right, not as a compulsive act.”