BDS and Israel’s Battle for Legitimacy

By Samah Sabawi

(Excerpts from a speech presented at the first National BDS Conference in Australia October 2010.)

Israeli propagandists attacking the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement often claim that pro-Palestinian activists hide behind words like International Humanitarian Law to promote a hidden agenda aimed at demonizing and deligitmizing Israel. But there is no hidden agenda. We are explicit and clear in what we say and what we call for. We don’t hide behind International Humanitarian Law we stand by it. This is precisely why Israeli propagandists have good reason to worry. Israel knows that its fight to legitimize its behavior cannot be won for as long as the BDS movement continues to expose its violations of IHL. So it is pushing back with its army of lawyers and experts in an effort to exonerate itself of accountability, redefine the rules of IHL and undermine international bodies and institutions. If Israel succeeds, Palestinians will not be the only ones to suffer. The implications of legitimizing Israel’s behavior will have far reaching affects on all citizens of this globe.

In calling on Israel to comply with its obligations under IHL, the BDS movement highlights the strength of the Palestinian cause. Palestinians don’t need to negotiate for rights they are already entitled to, they need to demand these rights. The right of return, the right to citizenship, the right to equality, the right to self determination, the right to live free from occupation, the right to education, the right to freedom of movement, the right to security the right to fair trials etc, these are all non-negotiable human rights Palestinians are already entitled to under IHL.

BDS activists and Palestinian solidarity groups have taken note of that, but we have to be aware that time is precious and we must move fast. Right now, Israel is fighting a ferocious battle, headed by its best lawyers, military experts, politicians and academics to redefine the rule of law. This is especially dangerous because of the close ties they share with countries fighting ‘the war on terror’ such as Canada, Australia, the US, Britain and others who have a vested interest in rolling back international law and eliminating any protection their non-state foes and the civilians they kill maybe entitled to.

Jeff Helper wrote about this in his article The Second Battle of Gaza: Israel’s Undermining of International Law where he identified some of the leading Israeli figures who feature prominently in this campaign. One of them is Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy and “practical ethics” at Tel Aviv University who wrote in Haaretz in 2009 “We in Israel are in a key position in the development of law in this field because we are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. This is gradually being recognized both in the Israeli legal system and abroad…What we are doing is becoming the law”.

Another prominent Israeli figure involved in this campaign is former head of Israel’s International Law Division in the Military Advocate General’s office, Daniel Reisner who told Yotam Feldman of Haaretz "International law develops through its violation… an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries”. Reisner gave an example of how Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations was initially viewed by most governments and international bodies as illegal; but now it is “in the center of the bounds of legitimacy."

We see the laws changing in many western democracies as we adopt new ways of dealing with alleged ‘terror’ suspects and anti-war protestors. Recent examples include the FBI raids of homes of anti-war activists in the US, the Canadian Police brutalizing citizens during the G20 protests in Toronto and the WikiLeaks evidence of war crimes committed by the US in Afghanistan. Our governments are violating our civil rights, and the rights of the civilians in the countries where they are waging war. Our world is changing. Kasher and the Israeli military establishment know this. The more often so called western democracies apply principles that originated in Israel in places like Afghanistan and Iraq as well as domestically under the cover of a ‘war on terror’ the more chance there is that these new principles will become valuable parts of IHL.

Today, Israel stands in violation of 65 UN Resolutions on issues related to Palestinians refugees, Jerusalem, its borders, its assaults on its neighbors; its violations of the human rights of the Palestinians, its building of illegal colonies and its refusal to abide by the U.N. Charter and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

As the definition of ‘terror’ stretches, and as the ‘war on terror’ spreads Israel’s campaign to undermine IHL will have a terrible impact on the people of the world. We need these laws to protect us. They are not just some abstract notion that affects someone else in a faraway country.  These are laws that touch our lives as civilians everywhere on this planet.

Make no mistake about it, oppression spreads. Powerful states are only too happy to allow Israel to redefine the rules of engagement so they too can practice impunity in their own wars. We the people of the world will be left to pay the heavy price. Do we want to be deprived protection as civilians in times of war? Do we want to be denied fair trials? Do we want to be robbed of our civil liberties? Do we want the rule of jungle to override the Universal Declarations of Human Rights? Do we want to legitimize Israel’s behavior? Today the BDS campaign is not only at the forefront of the battle for Palestinian rights, it is at the forefront of standing up for the rule of International Humanitarian Law. 

– Samah Sabawi is a writer playwright and poet. She was born in Gaza and is currently residing in Melbourne Australia. She contributed this article to

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