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Commentary | Witnessing the reasons for BDS

Dialogue requires recognition of asymmetrical situation

While students were campaigning for and against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motion on campus, I spent the weekend in Jerusalem. Although I had heard and learned widely divergent things about Israel and Palestine in the last few years, I went there with a youthful enthusiasm and an open mind, trying to find a middle ground between the diametrically opposed narratives by proponents of each side of the debate.

What I witnessed and experienced in Jerusalem helped me understand why Palestinian solidarity networks are such bold advocates for boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel: because Palestinians, who are severely oppressed by the Israeli state, have no other recourse. The oppression of Palestinians includes, but is not limited to, being subject to a discriminatory immigration policy, military occupation, settlement expansion, and the construction of segregated infrastructure in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. What I saw and experienced while there made it clear to me that, while dialogue is an important component of resolving the conflict, a mutual condemnation of Israel’s illegal settlements and military occupation is required for this dialogue to lead to anything meaningful.

On my flight to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I met a woman returning from France, where she was born and raised before migrating to Israel as a young adult. Unsurprisingly, dual citizenship is common among Israeli citizens; this is because Jewish people from around the globe enjoy flexible travel to and from Israel, are encouraged to participate in free birthright trips, and have access to a comprehensive integration program ready to accommodate them if they choose to move to Israel and become citizens.

In stark contrast, people without Israeli passports, often Arabs and other people of colour, are subject to a different immigration policy. To begin, the check-in terminal at the airport is divided into three sections: Israeli passport holders, all other passport holders, and all other passport holders who are Russian speakers. Upon giving the airport official my Canadian passport, and telling them that I planned on visiting Jerusalem, I was escorted to a guarded waiting room. Apart from two German guys who told the airport official that they planned on visiting Hebron in the West Bank, the room was filled with people who would be considered ‘ethnic minorities’ in the West, including Eastern Europeans.

After more than two and a half hours of waiting and repeated questioning, my passport was finally returned with a ticket to enter Israel. Unfortunately, the Arabs and the Russian speakers in the room didn’t have it as easy as I did. They were brought back and forth from this secluded waiting room to individual interrogation rooms by obnoxious, intimidating airport officials. My friend, a Canadian of Indian origin, was interrogated exhaustively. They asked about his family history and looked through his phone. After five hours or so, they returned his passport with a ticket to enter the country as well. Some Eastern Europeans had been waiting for their passports to be returned when we joined them, and they were still waiting after we had received permission to leave. Our taxi driver from the airport later told us that his brother is usually held for eight or nine hours every time he returns from the U.S., and that some people are not granted permission to leave the airport.

Israel’s landscape is breathtaking. The highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem literally cuts through hills and mountains, an impressive testament to the state-building process. But this fantastic architectural feat has a darker side. Layers upon layers of barbed wire surround the segments of the highways located alongside Palestinian villages, and there are no roads to access the highways from these villages. It’s significant to note that this is in Israel proper and should not be confused with the West Bank, where the separation wall and a complex, segregated network of roads and security checkpoints have drawn sharp criticism from the UN and from NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In Jerusalem, one of things that stands out most is the overwhelming scale of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presence. Although the official Israeli narrative has always been one of self-defence, the IDF’s positioning tells a different story. More specifically, there wasn’t a single IDF soldier in Israeli-inhabited West Jerusalem or in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, only civilian police officers – presumably because Palestinians are not allowed there, and never go there.

In contrast, at any given time, there were between 15 and 20 IDF soldiers on either side of the Damascus Gate (one of the seven entrances to the Old City), more than a dozen at the Lions’ Gate, and dozens of soldiers scattered in groups of three or four all throughout the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and East Jerusalem – the area designated for Palestinians. These facts strongly suggest that the IDF is, first and foremost, an occupation army.

I was also surprised by the degree of IDF soldiers’ authority. At one point, a soldier who mistook me for a Palestinian at Damascus Gate demanded in Hebrew that I show him my ID. After I replied “quoi” several times, his superior officer realized that I wasn’t Palestinian and, after asking if I was French, told me that I was allowed to move along.

Unfortunately, this is an all too common occurrence throughout the Muslim Quarter. I spoke with two IDF soldiers for about thirty minutes while waiting for my friend at a checkpoint table just outside of the Temple Mount. Although they talked to me normally, the way they looked at and treated the Palestinian teenagers who passed by us was heart-wrenching. Picture two 18-year-old Israeli soldiers demanding that teenage Palestinian boys not that much younger than them show their IDs, then patting them down before allowing them to pass. It’s degrading and humiliating to have to go through such treatment just to enter your neighbourhood or walk on your street.

Quite surprisingly, there are also many IDF soldiers patrolling several sections of East Jerusalem. I was shocked when I saw an Israeli settlement directly in front of the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. The red roofs on the buildings, IDF soldiers guarding them, barbed wire fences, and a giant Israeli flag differentiate these settlements from the Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. Illegal under international law, these settlements naturally only exacerbate the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, as our taxi driver reiterated several times.

Now, I have criticized the BDS movement in the past; I disagree with the practical applicability of cutting ties with Israeli universities or insisting on a guaranteed right of return. Nevertheless, I have come to wholeheartedly support the idea of labelling, boycotting, sanctioning, and divesting from all businesses based in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and from all products produced there. This is because the very essence of these settlements is hostile; it’s indisputable that military occupation and settlement expansion are aggressive actions and antithetical to peace. This is a point that no thinking human being can contest. Halting all illegal settlement expansion and ending the military occupation that suffocates Palestinian society are both imperative to resolving the impasse.

Dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian organizations is absolutely necessary, as is such discussion on campus, but joint condemnation of the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as the military occupation is the only way for that dialogue to lead to anything meaningful and constructive.

Both of these incredible injustices should be condemned by all decent human beings – especially those who are legitimately concerned about the situation, and truly seek to end the conflict. We should not allow Zionist nationalism and a narrow, unreasonable, and destructive selfishness to dehumanize the Palestinians and desensitize us to their suffering. We are capable of better than this.


George Monastiriakos is a U3 Political Science and History student. To contact him, email george.monastiriakos@mail.mcgill.ca.


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