An academic conference focused on efforts to boycott Israel in protest at violations of Palestinian human rights opened in Hammemet, Tunisia on Thursday, August 4. “Boycott as a Strategy to Counter Israel’s Occupation and Apartheid: Present-day Realities and Aspirations” was co-hosted by the Tunis and Doha, Qatar branches of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. The meeting brought together academics from across the Arab region and the wider world to discuss global efforts to boycott within a broad context of Palestinian national resistance.
In his opening remarks to the conference, Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk—Head of the Tunis Office of the ACRPS—pointed out that the gathering coincided with the 70th anniversary of the first official declaration of a boycott of Israel by the Arab League. As time went on, however, the frailty of the Arab order and its inability to implement its writ became increasingly evident, said Mabrouk. Making matters worse was the disarray of the Arab political elite when facing the dual challenges presented by both domestic fanaticism and increased antipathy from the West. The cumulative effect was negative for the future of the Palestinian cause.
Mabrouk went on to highlight the ACRPS’ commitment to academic scholarship which furthers the Palestinian cause for greater rights. In this sense, added Mabrouk, the ACRPS’ conference was an affirmation both of the dynamism of the politically plural and non-partisan movement to boycott Israel and of the Palestinian people’s right to defend itself and strive for national liberation.
Following Mabrouk, ACRPS Executive Director Mohammad Almasri addressed the floor, describing the Center’s overarching commitment to the Palestinian cause, evidenced through its convening of a number of events dedicated to studying the Palestinian cause. The Center’s commitment to the Palestinian was also evidenced, said Almasri, in the large roster of its publications.
The first panel discussion was given over to discussing the integration of the global boycott movement within the Palestinian strategy for national liberation. The first speaker on this panel was Palestinian academic Michel Nawfal. Nawfal pointed out that the European publics were largely more receptive to Palestinian demands for a boycott of Israel than the state bureaucracies. Nawfal singled out the two symbolically important cases of the United Kingdom and Germany, where the grassroots was more vigorous in its demands for a boycott of Israel than the governments. Nawfal then moved on to contrasting these two situations to the experience within the United States in which counter-boycott efforts ultimately won the upper hand. Despite measures taken by the Israeli authorities, said Nawfal, activists within the global campaign to boycott Israel did have remarkable success in persuading large sections of the global public of the criminality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. So successful were these efforts that the Israeli government has been compelled to launch its own anti-boycott initiatives to defend itself to world public opinion.
Also speaking on the first day of the three-day event was ACRPS researcher Ayat Hamdan, whose intervention was titled “The Boycott of Israel Within Palestine: Challenges and Context”. Hamdan explained to the participants of the conference that the lack of a coherent Palestinian national strategy hindered any possible successes of the global movement to boycott Israel. Without political backing, said Ayat, it would be difficult for the Boycott National Committee to achieve its goals. Hamdan made a connection between this failure to support boycott as part of a wider Palestinian political strategy, and the peculiar form of settler colonialism to which the Palestinian territories are subject in the political climate shaped by the Oslo Peace Accords. This explained, said the scholar, why it is that Palestinian boycott efforts lagged behind even as global initiatives made impressive strides over the previous decade.
Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian scholar resident at the Arab Center Washington DC also addressed the first day of the meetings. Jahshan’s paper, titled “A Strategic Adjustment to Sustain the Success of the BDS Movement” (the abbreviation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, one of the global drivers of the boycott of Israel), was an invitation to face the challenge posed by Israeli government campaigns to counter the boycott. Jahshan suggested that these campaigns necessitated a reexamination of the tactics used by boycott activists, particularly with regards to the American public. Jahshan suggested that such a reevaluation was vital to ensuring the sustainability and continued effectiveness of boycott campaigns across the world. “It won’t be enough to repeatedly shout that Israel is incapable of defeating the worldwide BDS movement … [the campaign] needs to capitalize on its efforts”.
Amani Senwar later addressed the same meeting where she delivered a paper titled “Labelling Settlement Goods in Europe: Political and Economic Aspects”. Senwar’s research involved an examination of the 2012 decision by the European Parliament to label all goods produced in Israeli settlements on the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The move by the EU legislature was, as Senwar pointed out, a further statement by the Europeans that they would not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian territories. Developments across the Middle East, said the speaker, served to drive a wedge between Europe and Israel, despite the close, historical relations which bind the two sides. Senwar called on leading decision makers in the Arab world to adopt more stringent standards with regards to the boycott of Israel, and to “actualize their rhetoric” on that topic.
In a similar vein, Tarek Hamoud presented his paper titled “The Procedural Boycott in Europe: Total Support for Israel, a Half-hearted Boycott of the Settlements”. Hamoud described the European movement to boycott Israel as having distinct aspects: legal, rights-based and moral. These three types of demands were pushed forward by similarly distinct camps: one based in the grassroots and another rooted in the official institutions. Said Hamoud, “a careful reading of official European measures adopted towards Israel reveals a sharp divide between the legal and moral [obligations] on the one hand and procedural actions taken, on the other: in the latter, Israel is accepted as a fully legitimate political regime which enjoys supra-political support, and as a democracy deserving of support”.