Israel: BDS' campaign is both divisive and malicious

David Saks responds to ANCYL WCape chairperson Muhammad Khalid Sayed

According to Muhammad Khalid Sayed (Politicsweb, 2 July), boycotting Israel is not a “malicious response” but one called for by straightforward principles of international law and human rights. This he illustrates with reference to the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, which he depicts as having been essentially an unprovoked act of criminal aggression by Israel against the innocent Palestinian population of Gaza, one in which over a thousand innocent men, women and children were wantonly slaughtered. Such caricatures of the conflict were commonplace at the time, and have since resurfaced following the recent publication of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report on what transpired.

In reality, threats to hold Israel accountable for “war crimes” are empty ones. Were it to appear before a genuinely impartial judicial tribunal, Israel would have little difficulty in tearing such allegations to shreds. It would show that the 2014 Gaza conflict was a war forced upon it by continual missile attacks by Hamas on its citizens and territory.

It would present incontrovertible evidence that in carrying out these attacks, Hamas based its operations in the very heart of its own civilian population, knowing full well that deaths and injuries to non-combatants would inevitably ensue. Perhaps most importantly, it would present in exhaustive detail the lengths its military went to avoid, or at least minimize civilian casualties and how in the process it not only met an acceptable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.

Testifying to this effect would be experienced military professionals who fully understand how formidable the challenges are for military forces to protect civilians while still fight effectively in densely populated civilian areas. In the words of an independent team of military experts who conducted their own investigation into the war, “none of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the Israeli Defence Force last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances”.

Significantly, even the UNHRC report acknowledged the efforts Israel had made to avoid harming civilians. It further unequivocally condemned Hamas for, amongst other things, deliberately firing of missiles at Israeli civilians, executing dozens of Palestinians without trial, encouraging Gaza residents to disregard IDF warnings and using terror tunnels built with humanitarian aid to attack and kidnap Israelis. 

More pertinent from a specifically South African point of view is Sayed’s assertion that the campaign by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to promote a boycott of Israel is not ‘malicious’. Theoretically, this may be true, but how, in practice, have BDS campaigns played out in South Africa?

Here, an examination of the record shows an ever-increasing series of ugly incidents of violence, race-baiting and intimidation that have directly resulted from BDS initiatives. Some of these have directly targeted the South African Jewish community, while in other cases the confrontations have spilled over into the wider society. What they all have in common, however, is that they have caused hatred and polarisation between fellow South Africans without making the slightest contribution to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

No Palestinians’ lives were improved by the looting and vandalising of a Woolworths store in Pretoria by those purporting to support BDS’ boycott campaign against Woolworths for stocking Israeli produce. When rampaging students at Wits disrupted a piano recital because the artist was Israeli-born, it only harmed the reputation of a fine academic institution while seriously undermining on-campus relations.

Those BDS supporters who believed they were striking a blow for Palestinian rights when they deposited a pig’s head in what was supposedly the kosher meat section of a Woolworths store in Cape Town were simply guilty of a nasty act of anti-Jewish racism.

The same is true of the demand by the Durban University of Technology SRC, that Jewish students be ‘deregistered’ (i.e. expelled) immediately following a BDS event on that campus, or the Dubula e’Juda (‘Shoot the Jew’) chants by participants in a BDS protest rally, again at Wits. No-one denies the right of people to demonstrate against Israel if they so wish.

However, is it acceptable to exercise that right by shouting, “Get out of our country – we will kill you” outside a Jewish communal event, or by declaring (as did former Wits SRC President and avid BDS supporter Mcebo Dlamini) that the hands of South African Jews are dripping with the blood of Palestinian children?

It is no accident that BDS’s activities in no way promote dialogue and peace-making, whether in the Middle East or locally, because in truth their agenda aims not at advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects but at eliminating Israel altogether. This is why its messaging makes no reference to a negotiated, two-state solution to the conflict, and why its speakers – one thinks in particular of the convicted plane hijacker Leila Khaled – speak only in terms of Israel’s supposed illegitimacy and the need to isolate and ultimately destroy it.

By contrast, the consistent stance of the South African government is to call for a negotiated solution to the conflict, one aimed at achieving an independent Palestinian state co-existing in peace alongside Israel. This was reiterated by President Zuma in his budget speech last year, when he said that there can “never be a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that “the only solution lies in serious and genuine negotiations involving all parties”.

In his statement to the National Council of Provinces on 28 August that year, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa put it even more poignantly:“South Africa has developed a particular DNA when settling conflicts, which is what has been bequeathed to us by our forefathers of democracy. That is what we enthusiastically always want to export…”

David Saks is Associated Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.