North Americans wishing to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause, especially those who consider themselves to be on the political Left, are likely to look to BDS for leadership and a Palestinian voice. This is understandable because BDS is the most powerful worldwide Palestinian solidarity organization, and it has a Palestinian leadership. Moreover, the BDS demands are matters of Palestinian consensus – important political and civil society groups representing the interests of Palestinian nationalists, Islamists, and leftist have endorsed the BDS campaign.
However, it is important to differentiate between BDS as a solidarity organization and BDS as a political movement within Palestinian politics itself. While BDS embraces consensus demands, important leaders and champions of BDS have their own politics which, considering Palestinian politics as a whole, is just one among many voices in the struggle. The most powerful Palestinian leader who is involved in the BDS movement is Mustafa Barghouti, a third party leader with very little support either in the West Bank or Gaza. In the 2006 Palestine Legistlative Council elections the results were as follows: Fatah – 41%, Hamas – 44%, PFLP – 4%, and Mustafa Barghouti’s Palestine National Initiative – 2.7%.
Barghouti has also been known not to co-operate well with his Palestinian brothers in other factions. Last year on Land Day, Mustafa and his party was involved in demonstrations at the Kalandia check point. These were to be demonstrations held jointly between Fatah and other groups, including the Palestine National Initiative. Before the demonstrations they all parties agreed on two things – no flags of the particular parties (only the Palestinian flag), and the demonstration would not take place during the time of prayer. Mustafa, however, decided none of this applied to him and marched with his group to the checkpoint during the time of prayer with his party flags flying high. The ensuing fight between PNI and Fatah supporters resulted in Mustafa being injured and sent to hospital, although to save face it was reported that he had been hit in the head with a tear gas canister.
Of course, anyone has the right to side with whatever political movement they chose to, and after looking at the whole situation if one wishes to express solidarity specifically with the politics of BDS and not just the consensus demands, anyone has as much a right to do this as they have to support Fatah, Hamas, PFLP, or any of the other parties. When in Palestine at one point I was asked if I support Fatah by a student, roughly my age perhaps younger, who was a member of the Fatah youth movement at Birzeit university. In response I said that, as an international, I don’t take it to be my business to support any of the Palestinian political parties, although I do take it as my business to try to understand something about all of them.
The politics, as well as the strategy of BDS was really put into relief for me when I attended a talk in Ramallah that included a Skype feed with Leila Khaled. Out of a room that was 90% internationals it was not surprising that someone asked the “what can we do to help” question. Her answer first mentioned BDS, but she was careful to emphasize that BDS is not the resistance, and that the Palestinian resistance, using both armed and unarmed struggle, is the only force that can achieve the rights of the Palestinian people. Because she is PFLP, not PNI, she of course put the goals in the language of her party, which emphasizes the need for a Palestinian state on the way to the achievement of all the rights of the Palestinians. The politics of PNI are emphatically non-violent, Mustafa Barghouti has published articles arguing the superiority of non-violent struggle. These politics are long embedded in the ideological line of the Palestinian People’s Party, formerly the Palestinian Communist Party, from which the PNI defected from in 2005. The Palestinian Communist Party was, when it joined the PLO, the only group in the PLO not to have a military wing. I bring up this history to stress the fringe characteristic not only of the modern PNI, but of its political line, which has always been a comparatively very weak voice in the Palestinian liberation struggle. As a matter of comparison, PFLP may not have numerically many more votes than PNI or PPP, or PCP historically – however, PFLP’s central role and commitment to the armed struggle has been crucial for maintaining the relevancy of the organization, and maintaining it as the main alternative to Fatah within non-Islamist Palestinian politics.
None of this should be understood as attempts to de-legitimize the politics of BDS, or to deny to those Palestinians who support not only the demands of BDS but the politics of its leaders to have a voice in the Palestinian political spectrum. I merely wish to assert the importance for internationals not to confuse the politics of BDS with the politics of Palestinians as such, and to understand the crucial distinction between, on the one hand the movement’s politics – the apartheid analysis and the international boycott campaign to subject Israel to international law, and on the other hand the movement’s demands – the return of all occupied Arab land, the return of the refugees, and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. The demands are a matter of consensus, the politics is not.