On a warm, sunny afternoon, I met Eman Sourani and Rana Baker in an airy outdoor café several blocks from the port of Gaza. Both are members of the Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI). Sourani, a 22-year-old English literature student at Al-Aqsa University, cofounded the group after Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, while Baker, a 19-year-old blogger and a business administration student at the Islamic University of Gaza, joined it during Israeli Apartheid Week, a global event in March 2011.
PSCABI is the student arm of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), itself part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee. Since its July 2005 founding by Palestinian organizations from Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and the diaspora, BDS has grown into a formidable global movement with an impressive record of victories.
In the last month alone, the University and College Union (UCU) and the University of London Union (ULU), respectively the largest academic labor union in the United Kingdom and the largest student union in Europe, voted to support it and sever their ties with Israeli institutions; UK Prime Minister David Cameron quietly resigned his post as Honorary Chairman of the Jewish National Fund, implicated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian lands; students at the United States’ DePaul University voted by a nearly 80% margin (although without reaching the necessary quorum) to remove Sabra hummus, linked to the Israeli military, from their campus; the French-Belgian bank Dexia announced the impending sale of its Israeli subsidiary, “even at a loss;” and musicians Andy McKee and Marc Almond cancelled appearances in Israel.
Although not all acknowledged the role of the campaign in their decisions, each was a target of it. Meanwhile, battles rage against the US pension fund TIAA-CREF; Israeli national institutions like the Histadrut and State of Israel Bonds; the Israeli produce exporter Carmel Agrexco; the French construction firms Alstom and Derail Veolia; the beauty suppliers Ahava, Estee Lauder, L’Oréal, and Seacret Dead Sea; and dozens of other institutions complicit in Israeli crimes, as well as performers like Paul Simon and Jello Biafra, who plan to violate the cultural boycott by playing Tel Aviv.
“Even some South Africans like Desmond Tutu have said that what they did in thirty years, the Palestinians did in three,” Sourani told me over tea. “The boycott is a lesson of the success of the South Africans. And why not? Nothing is imposible. When people hear that Palestinians are doing something like this, that we are taking action, they believe in the idea and the issue much more.”
Baker agreed with her about the importance of South Africa. “We like to address apartheid,” she said. “We like to use this word, because it really emphasizes what is happening. Of course we have the apartheid wall. We have the checkpoints like they had in South Africa. What does an apartheid wall represent but apartheid? What else do checkpoints represent?”
“We think that BDS is a very effective way to resist Israel,” Baker continued. “Why? Because the pillars of BDS represents all Palestinians. The core issues of the Palestinian cause are the right to return, the ending of the occupation, and equality between Palestinians and Jews within the Israeli state or borders. So we think that being a real Palestinian-led movement that represents all Palestinians is very important. And this makes it able to grow, makes it able to expand within each and every cause. It represents every Palestinian in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Israel, and in the diáspora. BDS is established on those pillars. And the most important pillar, in my opinion, is the right to return. This movement, the march of return, is also a powerful campaign to make people understand that we have not forgotten our right to return. When Ben-Gurion said that old would die and the young forget, he was totally mistaken! Of course the old will die, but they have children, they have grandchildren, and we will never forget. We are Palestinian.”
”We have Palestinian identity, and Palestinian identity is a great responsibility,” Sourani added. “So we have to act. We have to fight Zionism. We have to be aware of what is going on, because being aware means that we are alive. It gives meaning to our lives. I myself give the definition that life is politics here in Gaza. It is all of what we live.”
How does PSCABI fight Zionism, I asked? “We as youth and students address youth and students about the academic boycott, and connect it with the cultural boycott,” Sourani answered. “We make videos to send to universities and have video conferences with them. We just tell people that we are here. You should know about Gaza, and you should know about Israel and the reality of its apartheid. Some of our biggest successes are the University of Johannesburg boycotting Ben Gurion University, or the biggest student union in London refusing to deal with Israel.”
“We also write letters to celebrities who are going to perform in Israel, asking them not to entertain apartheid, and we are actually succeeding in this,” said Baker. “Many, many of them have been stopped from performing in Israel, and some actually became BDS advocates.”
How do they work with BDS activists elsewhere? “I think is important that we talk with them, that we have a discussion about BDS here and BDS there,” said Baker.” We want to see what they do there and learn from them, and they might also see what we do and learn from us. So we can share our experiences in BDS, our stories, and they can use our stories and spread them out to gain more support for BDS.”
“The young Palestinians nowadays are very creative, in writing, blogging, video making; many, many things,” said Sourani. “I am very proud of my generation. They are so creative, really. I meet and talk to anyone who does anything: maybe blogging, a site, a Facebook account, a Twitter. Youth everywhere are doing fantastic things. They just need to be linked with Palestinians ourselves.”
“We want more links with people outside,” said Baker. “We want more actions and more communication. The more you communicate with people, the more the idea becomes big and it grows. And BDS is growing. Citizens, and students, and young, and old, are engaging themselves in BDS, outside and inside and everywhere. It is actually, in its core, a popular struggle, and it is civil resistance.”
What do they ask of outsiders? “The important thing is that they take action,” Sourani replied. “This is what we are looking for. We don’t look for passion, we don’t look for tears, we don’t look for romantic speech. We just look for actions. Whatever small action you can take is something beautiful. This is the basis of BDS, that we don’t wait for talk.”
“Let’s mention here the the recent action taken by people in the United States diring the AIPAC speech,” said Baker. “I think this was really effective, when young students stood up and spoke out for Palestine, students who had no relation to Palestinian identity, except that they understood the issue, they understood what is right and what is wrong, and they took action. Even if they knew that they might be harmed, or might get fired from somewhere. We think that this is really important, and this is a success for BDS.”
“An important thing we do at the end of every video conference is to give them a request: Come to Gaza,” said Sourani. “People will not act before understanding. You can come, live with us, and see how students can’t get get books, how students can’t get scholarships abroad, how students would die to go, but have nightmares about Rafah Border before going to London, for example. We can’t go to places in our own country! We can’t study, for example, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah, in Najah University. I actually was planning for that, but of course it is imposible.
“This is about human rights and international law, how the world Works,” she added. “As you live there peacefully, Palestinians have the right to live. The rights your students have to move, to learn, to travel everywhere, to get scholarships, we also need. So we need people to understand, to study the issue, and to act. This is what we are doing.”
And other Palestinians? “I want all Palestinians, not only us in BDS, to engage in boycotting Israel,” Baker replied. “I want all of them to become politically aware. And this is also something we work on in BDS. We don’t just discuss BDS in the meetings of our core group. We talk about it in our universities. We invite people to our events. In the future, we really hope that each and every Palestinian becomes aware of BDS, and implements BDS so that it becomes a part of his or her life.
“We also like to participate in events that are held worldwide, like Israeli Apartheid Week,” she said. “We had one here this year, and it was really successful. We try talk to many academics and important activists, like Ilan Pappé and Ramzy Baroud. It’s really good how many people here want to know about BDS. They really want to listen.”
“The amazing thing about PSCABI is that all the political blocs here support it and agree on the academic boycott,” added Sourani.
What else, I asked in closing? “We want people to know that we’re not dying of hunger,” said Baker. “We’re not begging. We’re not shedding tears. We’re taking action on our own behalf. We’re trying to raise awareness, to link people, to make them understand and make them more involved in independent political groups that are peacefully resisting Israel and the occupation.”
“BDS is a Palestinian voice,” said Sourani. “This is what people need to hear, to listen to everywhere. We refuse occupation. I’m proud of doing this work. I’m a Palestinian; I’m not silent. That is the idea.
“I don’t want peace before justice. I’m looking for justice. And justice means the end of apartheid, the end of racism, and the end of occupation. So I need justice first, and then, when we are all equal people, we will look for peace.”