Australia/Israel Review

The Origins of the BDS War

Mar 2, 2016 | Gerald Steinberg

The Origins of the BDS War

Gerald Steinberg


Judging from media reports, anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaigns have been getting increasing attention around the world. Academics, musicians and athletes are pressured into boycotting Israel, and those falsely accusing Israel of violating international law are speaking up louder and more frequently. Recent suggestions from within the Australian Labor party that would discourage members from participating in educational trips to Israel show just how widespread the boycott idea has become.

The starting point of this process can be traced to the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa 15 years ago, at which 1,500 NGOs (non-governmental organisations) participated and developed a strategy of political warfare against Israel. Building on this foundation, the network of powerful NGOs with strong political and ideological agendas, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and Oxfam, have been at the forefront of attempts to delegitimise Israel. These groups often work in concert with the Arab League and the Islamic bloc in UN frameworks, promoting false allegations of “war crime”, “massacres” and other violations of human rights. This process was clearly manifest during campaigns to condemn Israel’s self-defence actions, in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield (2002), the 2006 Lebanon war, and in the Gaza operations of 2008-09, 2012 and 2014.

These NGO-led attacks fuel BDS campaigns, as well as “lawfare” in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other legal venues. Well-funded and highly publicised NGO activities promote BDS on university campuses and in church frameworks, and economic boycotts targeting Israeli firms. The NGOs are active in Israel Apartheid Week events at universities, campaign for academic boycotts of Israel, and lobby in parliaments around the world. In 2015, the same NGOs successfully pressed the European Union to adopt regulations for product labelling applied to goods from settlements, as the basis for additional BDS measures to follow.

As BDS campaigns gained momentum, from Durban onwards, the response, particularly from the Israeli government, was slow and defensive. For many years, government bodies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paid little attention to NGO power and agendas, and viewed the campaigns as minor nuisances. Similarly, many Israel advocacy groups were focused on Iran and regional issues, allowing BDS to grow. This passivity changed shortly after the 2009 UN Goldstone report, and the counter-attack has grown steadily, including recent legislative proposals in Israel to disrupt the power and impact of BDS.

To effectively counter BDS, however, it is necessary to understand its sources, history and power and the central role the NGO network has in promoting it.

BDS and the Durban NGO Forum

In 2001, the UN Human Rights Commission (which became the Human Rights Council in 2006) held a World Conference Against Racism and Discrimination, in Durban, South Africa. Many participants, including “respected” NGOs, saw this as an opportunity to adapt the strategies used in fighting apartheid in their political war against Israel. It was in this framework that BDS was launched.

The conference featured three forums: an official diplomatic framework, an international youth forum, and an NGO Forum. In terms of BDS, the NGO Forum was the most significant, involving representatives from some 1,500 organisations. They included major actors such as HRW and Amnesty, and dozens of Palestinian NGOs like MIFTAH, BADIL, Al Ha, and the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO). These groups enjoyed and continue to receive significant funding from foreign governmental sources, especially European.

This NGO Forum was characterised by many displays of antisemitism, and Jewish and Israeli participants were intimidated, verbally and physically. In this environment, and with the active participation of groups like HRW and Amnesty, the NGO Forum adopted a Final Declaration, singling out Israel.

The NGO declaration asserted that “[t]argeted victims of Israel’s brand of apartheid and ethnic cleansing methods have been in particular children, women, and refugees.” It called for “a policy of complete and total isolation of… the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation, and training) between all states and Israel.” And, additionally, condemned states “supporting, aiding and abetting the Israeli apartheid state and its perpetration of racist crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide.”

This was a declaration of political war by a powerful and well-financed NGO network, targetting Israel.


Implementing BDS: From the Jenin “massacre” to boycott

The first major implementation of the Durban strategy of political warfare, including boycotts, began in April 2002, during the IDF’s Defensive Shield counter-terrorist operation. Israel’s actions followed a series of Palestinian suicide mass-bombings, such as the Park Hotel Passover attack, which killed and injured hundreds of Israeli civilians. The Jenin refugee camp, an operational centre for terrorists, was a major objective of the operation.

Palestinian officials flooded the media with allegations of an Israeli “massacre” in Jenin. Officials from HRW, Amnesty, and Palestinian and Israeli groups echoed these allegations, despite the absence of any verifiable supporting evidence. These NGOs provided credibility to Palestinian lies. For example, on April 16, Le Monde cited HRW’s statements alleging that Israel had committed “war crimes.” Two days later, the BBC interviewed an Amnesty official who repeated these allegations. Shortly afterwards Amnesty declared, “The evidence compiled indicates that serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed, including war crimes,” calling, like HRW and Palestinians, for an “independent inquiry.”

The NGO-led campaign influenced UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who appointed a “fact-finding team” to “investigate” Israel’s alleged war crimes. Israel refused to cooperate with what it viewed as a biased agenda, and this effort was disbanded. However, on May 7 the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution requesting “the Secretary-General to present a report… on the recent events that took place in Jenin and other Palestinian cities.” This report generally followed the lead of multiple NGOs, and, as Israel anticipated, was similarly one-sided. In contrast to the biased UN publication, Israel provided details showing the vast majority of Palestinians killed were terrorists.

Based on the Durban strategy, one of the immediate impacts of this campaign was the attempt to boycott Israeli universities in the UK. On April 6, 2002, days after the “massacre” campaign began, the Guardian published a letter signed by radical academics calling for a boycott of cultural and research links with Israel. The letter repeated much of the Durban language, referring to “violent repression against the Palestinian people.”

Activists in the UK Association of University Teachers then launched a wider boycott, aided substantially by UK-based anti-Israel NGOs, including Christian Aid and War on Want. In parallel, Christian Aid conducted its own campaign based on the Jenin “massacre,” screening the movie “Peace Under Siege” in churches during the Christmas season. This helped fuel the BDS process, both in academia and churches.


Perfecting the process: Goldstone

The modus operandi used in the “Jenin Massacre” myth was continued and perfected by BDS activists. NGO activities surrounding Israel’s 2008-9 counter-terror operation in Gaza, resulting in the now-discredited Goldstone report, are prominent examples of how the process operates.

Deadly rocket attacks from Gaza triggered an Israeli military operation in December 2008. Immediately, BDS activists again implemented the Durban strategy, mass producing allegations of Israeli “war crimes” and violations of international law. This continued in the UNHCR’s Goldstone “fact-finding mission.” As in the past, NGOs – spearheaded by HRW – led the charge. During three weeks of fighting, NGOs published over 500 documents and statements, often accompanying them with press conferences, op-ed articles, and interviews. The scale of these statements suggests they were intended for the UN committee, among other audiences.

Mary Robinson, the former UN Commissioner of Human Rights, declined to head the UNHCR mission, citing its imbalanced mandate, and Judge Richard Goldstone was offered the position. Goldstone was perfect for promoting BDS. As a former South African judge, he became involved in ending the Apartheid regime, and was later appointed by Nelson Mandela to the Constitutional Court. Furthermore, his Jewish background and affiliation with Zionist causes added to the impact he had as Israel’s main accuser.

As expected, the allegations in the 452-page Goldstone report repeated themes from the 2001 NGO Forum. Again, Israel was singled out and subject to unique criteria not applied to other nations involved in counter-terror operations. As in similar previous reports, so-called witnesses were not cross-examined, blatant internal contradictions were ignored, and much of the “evidence” was never made public. At the time, Goldstone himself acknowledged that while the report was phrased legalistically, in “a court of law, there would have been nothing proven” by it.

BDS advocates intensively promoted Goldstone’s report. In the month following its publication, HRW issued 12 statements supporting Goldstone, and HRW officials were widely quoted in the media. Many repeated the central accusation that Israel had been guilty of “willfully” killing civilians. HRW’s campaign continued in 2010, with 14 publications alleging the “inadequacy” of Israeli investigations into the Gaza War.

However, as the campaign to market the report expanded, the numerous fundamental flaws in the process received greater attention. The obsessive assault on Israel through false claims and gross distortion of legal arguments by NGOs were increasingly understood to go beyond any substantive aspects of the conflict.

Finally, in April 2011, Goldstone published an op-ed article in the Washington Post, in which he recanted the essential claims of the report. Eighteen months after the publication, Goldstone acknowledged that “our fact-finding mission had no evidence” to verify the NGO-supplied allegations. He retracted the allegations that Israel had targetted civilians, confessed to having ignored Hamas war crimes, and recognised the UNHRC’s fundamental bias against Israel.


Labels lead to boycotts

For years, the EU has given money earmarked for humanitarian aid and peace-building to political groups that abuse human rights to promote their own agendas. These organisations have lobbied hard for the EU to adopt their ideas, with liberal rhetoric masking blatant anti-Israel measures.

In November 2015, the EU complied, deciding to label Israeli-made products from beyond the Green Line (including the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights). For the NGOs advancing BDS campaign, this is seen as a first step toward wider measures. This “incremental BDS” allows Palestinians and their NGO allies to talk about post-1967 settlements while targeting Israel within the 1948 borders.

The 2012 “Trading Away Peace” report is an example of this process. In it, 22 NGOs repeated the Durban agenda, calling on the international community to wage political warfare through sanctions on Israel. The publication’s “Recommended measures” begin with “correct consumer labelling of all settlement products as a minimum measure” and increase in severity to “ban imports of settlement products,” “exclude settlement products and companies from public procurement tenders,” and “prevent financial transactions to settlements and related activities.” The Palestinian NGO Al-Haq repeated this in its 2013, “Feasting on the Occupation” report. It described “the issue of labelling settlement produce,” as “an interim measure in the process of adopting a ban [on trade in goods originating from Israeli settlements].”

Another example is found in the activities of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), an NGO with considerable impact on European decision makers. In a heavily-promoted 2015 publication, “EU Differentiation and Israeli settlements,” ECFR calls for sanctions against Israeli entities (and certain individuals) with activities in, or apparent financial contacts with, Israeli settlements, claiming this does not constitute BDS. According to its authors, the EU should extend this policy to the business and sports sectors. They argue these forms of “differentiation” reflect EU policy, whereas, in reality, the issue was specifically negotiated between Israeli and European senior officials in 2013 and was rejected.

As noted, product labelling is not the desired end result, and a number of influential political NGOs have been active in shaping and promoting the EU’s labelling resolution as a step in their quest to delegitimise Israel. For instance, the Palestinian BDS Committee issued a statement, echoing other NGOs, claiming labelling was not enough: “The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), considered the European Union’s move towards labelling Israeli settlement products… as insufficient for fulfilling European states’ legal obligations under international law.”


What next?

At the 2001 Durban conference, the NGO network adopted the terminology and built the foundations for a concerted campaign to isolate and deligitimise Israel. By providing large amounts of money to these groups, the EU and individual states have enabled the growth of BDS and other anti-peace agendas.

The change in Israel’s approach to this matter, which started after the Goldstone report, seems to have reached a tipping point recently. In Israel, politicians and journalists are discussing the question of unchecked NGO power publicly, with legislative proposals at the centre of the debate. In the US and UK, anti-BDS laws are being legislated.

But even legislation, if adopted, will not end the NGO war launched at Durban. Other measures are needed, especially the slashing of funding for irresponsible NGOs. As the past 15 years have demonstrated, to defeat BDS and other campaigns aimed at reversing Israel’s very existence, the NGOs and their funders must be held responsible for their actions.

Dr. Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and President of NGO Monitor.


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