Sitting in the top floor of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah we listened to Omar Barghouti incisively dismantle our apathy. “In 2012 at the Presbyterian General Assembly we heard again and again how you have enough problems close to home to be dealing with and how can you possibly make a big impact on Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine? We’re not asking you to come here and fight the occupation for us. We’re only asking you to withdraw your support for oppression. It’s hardly heroic.”
Heroism is what they’re doing in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The Popular Committee of that community has been organizing weekly nonviolent direct-action for years. Every Friday they creatively demonstrate against the separation wall which cut their historic village land in half, confiscating arable land for Israeli settlers. They have dressed in costumes as historical figures known for their nonviolent resistance. They have assembled mock-barricades to impede Caterpillar bulldozers from tearing out ancient olive groves. They have put themselves in harm’s way again and again despite the fact that they are met every week by violent military suppression. People are severely injured, even put into a coma or killed by “rubber” bullets that are actually steel balls coated in a thin layer of rubber. They are sprayed with noxious chemicals that ruin clothing, beaten with batons, and bombarded with tear-gas. Even outside the demonstrations they are harassed in every conceivable way: nighttime raids, arrests without charges, detention without trials, steep fines, and curfews.
The community paid a high price in 2009 when one of their most beloved members, Bassem Abu Rahma, was shot in the chest by a metal tear gas canister designed to be launched over 500 meters through the air from about 20 meters. It tore a hole in his chest and killed him. Using these weapons directly on civilians in this manner is against international law, but no soldier has ever been convicted in Israeli court and no one in the international community is doing anything. That weapon, like all the others used to maintain the occupation, was made in the U.S.A..
No, divesting from the corporations that are profiting from the occupation isn’t heroic. It’s the minimal requirement.
Divesting won’t make us heroes but it will make a difference. One thing Omar Barghouti stressed in that interview in Ramallah is how effective the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction campaign (BDS) is proving to be. When boycotts started causing international security firm G4S to lose several major contracts in Europe they sold all their operations in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli government has acknowledged that BDS is already damaging their reputation and limiting their trade options and it is still a young movement. Every voice that joins the chorus helps build the momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.
Some will tell you that the PC(USA) is too insignificant to matter in this discussion, but Palestinians we are meeting in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and all over the West Bank repeatedly assure us they are watching. Our denomination was the first religious organization in the world to begin exploring divestment as a strategy making our actions symbolically significant to the movement. There is a great deal of money and energy being spent by Zionist groups to keep Presbyterians from divesting, which wouldn’t be the case unless our decision could have an impact. Boycotts ended Jim Crow. Boycotts and divestment brought down Apartheid. We could have a role in ending this occupation.
We just have to stop supporting oppression. It’s hardly heroic. But it is an excellent beginning.