Campus fiasco highlights the disastrous consequences of Palestinian “anti-normalisation” activism


An ideal scenario one would think: the two leading software companies in the Palestinian territories arrive at a Palestinian university to offer jobs to Palestinian students at a time of high unemployment amongst young Palestinians.

Yet, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has reported, their appearance at the annual Career Day of Bir Zeit University on April 24 near Ramallah in the West Bank ended in a far from ideal way. The representatives of the two Ramallah-based software development companies – ASAL Technologies and EXALT – were kicked off campus in the face of protests from radical Palestinian student groups who claimed that the companies were cooperating with Israeli technology firms.

This is just the latest manifestation of the Palestinian cult of anti-normalisation, or ‘denormalisation’, a strategy that might be likened to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

A statement released by the protesters accused the University Administration of not abiding by the Israel boycott campaign, and said they “reject normalisation and adopt the approach of resistance until the liberation of the entire Palestinian territory.” In other words, the economic and other interests of young Palestinians can wait until after the elimination of Israel.

Not only was there no talk of co-existence or peace-building with Israel here, but apparently anti-normalisation also requires boycotting even completely Palestinian companies if they have any dealings with Israelis.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has defined normalisation “as the participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.”

In other words, all contact with Israelis should be banned unless the Israelis already completely agree with all Palestinian demands and are there to join in Palestinian “resistance” against Israel.

Dialogue, people-to-people activities, and everyday interaction – usually seen as prerequisites for building the conditions for peace – only hurt the Palestinian cause, in this worldview. Anti-normalisation aims to smother grassroots engagement between Palestinian and Israeli activists and NGOs involved in peace-building and put obstacles in the path of incidental communication and co-existence between ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. The subtext is that all Palestinians must never treat any Israeli individual, organisation, or company as anything other than a hated enemy.

Yet while it hurts the peace process, the primary victims of anti-normalisation are the Palestinians themselves, as evidenced in the Bir Zeit example. The proponents of this uncompromising stance take it on themselves to impose hardship upon and deny opportunities to their own people. Opposing “normalisation” with Israel means making sure no student at the University gets the chance to join Palestinian software companies which are a major source of current and future employment opportunities for young, university-educated Palestinians.

Another example that garnered much publicity and was hailed as a triumph for anti-normalisation and the allied Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, is that of SodaStream, an Israeli-based manufacturing company which operated its main plant in an industrial zone in the West Bank.

Targeted for years by the BDS movement, it eventually re-located several nationwide facilities into one streamlined operation in Israel’s Negev. Approximately 500 Palestinians lost their jobs – which generally offered much better pay and conditions than otherwise available in the West Bank – because only a fraction were issued work permits to transit to the Israeli plant.

Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a West Bank village said “All the people who wanted to close (SodaStream’s West Bank factory) are mistaken… They didn’t take into consideration the families”. Nabil Basherat, a department head with the company, echoed these sentiments. “The BDS movement threatens my job security and my livelihood. They undercut the livelihood of hundreds of SodaStream employees, who were fired when the company closed its [West Bank] factory.” He is in favour of normalisation. “I believe we can live together. I have been living this reality for the past nine years. Even though everyone [in the factory] comes from a different place, we work together. We eat together, we talk openly about our lives and even about politics. We’ve even been through tough times together like the last two Gaza wars [in 2012 and 2014] and the wave of terrorism that erupted in the fall of 2015. We talk about these things”.

Another example is Rawabi, the first planned city in the West Bank built by and for Palestinians, the ambitious development of Nablus native turned American millionaire Bashar al-Masri. It was envisaged as a modern hi-tech city with middle-class homes for 40,000 residents. According to Masri’s vision, Rawabi is to be the backbone of a new Palestinian state, and a symbol of Palestinians “defying the occupation”. It is, by all accounts, an impressive achievement.

Nevertheless, the BDS National Committee attacked Masri for “normalisation with Israel that helps it whitewash its ongoing occupation, colonisation and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” His offence was to work with Israeli officials to obtain basic services and supplies for Rawabi, such as water, electricity and cement – things that most other Palestinians also obtain from Israel. Anti-normalisation activists prefer Palestinians do without a Rawabi rather than “collaborate” even on the most routine and unavoidable level with Israelis.

The stance taken by the Palestinian leadership against normalisation is hypocritical. Palestinian Authority leaders often support the concept, even though it denies employment and other opportunities to their people without being able to offer much in its place (not least because of the corruption in the Palestinian Authority from which those leaders benefit.) Yet when it comes to matters it views as vital to its own security, the Palestinian Authority relies heavily on co-operation with Israeli security forces.

Anti-normalisation – and its complete rejection of any coexistence –  is one reason why a two-state peace seems more elusive than ever, despite Israel’s credible offers of such a peace several times. Anyone who wants to know why the Palestinian economy continues to struggle needs only look at the degree to which anti-normalisation activists are seeking to make it impossible for young Palestinians not only to have good jobs at Israeli companies like SodaStream, but even at Palestinian software companies seeking to hire Palestinian university graduates.