A Primer On The BDS Movement

By the members of the graduate students’ Palestine Solidarity Caucus at University of Massachusetts Amherst

The legal and ethical foundation for the BDS campaign



It is by now clear that there is no viable two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since signing the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 to supposedly pave the way for such a solution, Israel has actually expanded its illegal settlements, entrenched its occupation of the West Bank, tightened its grip over the Gaza Strip, escalated its eviction of Palestinians from Jerusalem and of Bedouins from their villages, and consolidated the attack on outspoken members of the Palestinian Israeli community.

A quick look at the map of the region evinces Israel existing alongside not a Palestinian territory that can form the basis of a state, but along numerous fragmented bantustans whose airspace, borders, and water Israel itself controls. Bantustans were territories set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa during the apartheid regime and are increasingly used to describe the fragmented and martially controlled territories set aside for Palestinians by Israel. The contrast between Israel and the Palestinians is striking in terms of territorial integrity and control, but also in terms of rights. In the occupied territories, Jewish settlers enjoy rights as Israeli citizens while the Palestinians next door are subject to martial law and stateless. Within Israel, Jewish citizens enjoy preferential citizenship rights relative to Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin, as enshrined in Israel’s Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952); less explicit but equally salient discrimination takes place in the redistribution of resources and social welfare and in access to economic assets including land.

Territorially, then, what emerges is a no-state solution for the Palestinians. Rights wise, it is a system of legal and institutional apartheid. Both can be situated in Israel’s pursuit of preferential rights for Jews vis-à-vis non-Jews in the area under its control. It is in this context, and amid the failure of the international community to hold Israel accountable to basic human rights, that the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005.


The strategies and outcomes of the BDS campaign 


BDS is a rights based strategy that directly exposes and challenges the reality of the lack of rights for Palestinians. It calls on people all over the world to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and demand sanctions against Israel until Israel meets its obligations under international law, by ending its occupation, recognizing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.


Specifically, boycotts target products of companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights as well as Israeli cultural and academic institutions that directly contribute to maintaining or whitewashing the oppression of Palestinians. Divestment targets companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensures that investment portfolios are not used to finance such companies. Sanctions target the Israeli state’s membership in various diplomatic forums and seek to end the complicity of other nations in the violations of Palestinian rights.


BDS is operated and framed fully within the bounds of international law, and is premised on the vision of human rights for all. It does not target individuals but institutions and institutional affiliations complicit in sustaining the status quo. Furthermore, it draws inspiration from the legitimacy and success of the movement in South Africa in the 1980s, where boycotts, divestment, and sanctions proved highly effective in the struggle against a morally reprehensible and longstanding system of discrimination. These two systems evolved under different historical conditions but they have been brought closer together by the ongoing bantustanization of Palestinians and the absence of a viable two state option.


BDS has successfully mobilized people and organizations around the world, as shown by a highlight of victories in the period of 2010-2012. It has also been endorsed by a vast array of individuals and organizations, from Desmond Tutu to Jewish Voices for Peace to the American Studies Association and the UK’s National Union of Students. Importantly, students such as ourselves play a strong role in the BDS movement in North America and Europe, by developing campus divestment initiatives and using unions to oppose the relationships that universities have with companies complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights.


Still, the strategic significance of the BDS campaign extends beyond direct mobilization victories. As argued elsewhere, its far greater importance lies in the philosophy and the vision it provides. By adopting and popularizing the discourse of rights, the BDS campaign directly exposes and challenges the discriminatory status quo that exists in Israel/Palestine. It circumvents the fixation on statehood, a moribund project, and therefore helps us move forward toward a just resolution of the conflict. Short of massive population transfer of the Palestinians, Israel is condemned to remaining an apartheid state with preferential rights for only one part of the population under its control. The BDS movement offers one channel for to us to stand on the right side of history and to contribute to the reversal of this abysmal path.