"Civil society" as theoretical construct
In his recent book, "The English and their History," Robert Tombs describes the beginnings of a "public sphere" in the eighteenth century, consisting of "places and institutions for exchanging information and forming opinion, which lay between the purely private world and the official realm." Since its emergence in that distant era, the notion of a "public sphere" as the place where "civil society" interacts has become a staple of social sciences scholarship. Countless books, treatises and articles have been written on the topic, many of which followed an influential 1962 work by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society." In his introduction to Habermas' work, American philosopher Thomas McCarthy notes both genesis and ultimate purpose:
"As a sphere between civil society and the state, in which critical public discussion of matters of general interest was institutionally guaranteed, the liberal public sphere took shape in the specific historical circumstances of a developing market economy. In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler's power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people."
The concepts of a "public sphere" and "civil society" are so intertwined, it may even be somewhat hard to distinguish between them. But regardless of where one concept begins and the other leaves off, they clearly go hand in hand:
The value of a public sphere rooted in civil society rests on three core claims: first, that there are matters of concern important to all citizens and to the organization of their lives together; second, that through dialogue, debate, and cultural creativity, citizens might identify good approaches to these matters of public concern; and third, that states and other powerful organizations might be organized to serve the collective interests of ordinary people—the public—rather than state power as such, purely traditional values, or the personal interests of rulers and elites. These claims have become central to modern thinking about democracy and about politics, culture, and society more generally.
BDS and "Palestinian civil society"
The BDS movement - which seeks to sway world opinion against Israel by imposing the "non-violent" tactics of "boycott, divest and sanction" in retaliation for its treatment of Palestinians - puts much faith in its own authenticity and righteousness by virtue of its origin in the consensus of "Palestinian civil society." You hear the phrase uttered time and time again by BDS proponents. Omar Bhargouti, the Palestinian activist most closely identified with BDS, made the point in his November 2015 talk to members of Interfaith Peace Builders:
BDS was established in 2005 by the absolute majority of Palestinian society, including all political parties, trade unions, womens' unions, professional organizations, farmers unions and so on and so forth - just about every main entity in Palestinian society signed on [to] the BDS call. And that's important to remember because in a lot of the propaganda against BDS you hear that this is some elite NGO groups in the occupied territories. It's not. It's far beyond that and the representation comes from Palestinians in the 1967 territory, in the '48 territory as well as Palestinians in exile. So it's really representative of Palestinians at large.
This "call" to BDS is in fact formalized in a single document dated July 9, 2005, and signed by various named groups constituting "Palestinian civil society":
We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.
But is this attempt to characterize BDS as a plaintive plea emerging spontenously out of the deep yearnings of Palestinian civil society a fair basis for characterizing its validity? Some of its most vocal supporters would not even think twice before saying that it is. Take Brant Rosen, for example, a rabbi who works for American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that has strong views in support of BDS. Back in 2010, he explained the basis of his own strong views in support of BDS as follows:
"[BDS is] a way of leveraging people power against oppressive power and calling for solidarity and so the true question is are we going to respond to that call or not? Another thing you often hear is why are we boycotting Israel or divesting from Israel when there are so many other horrible regimes throughout the world? Why are we singling out Israel? And again, this is not the real question. The real question is not about all these other countries. The question is, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society has put out this call. The real question is, are we going to respond to their call or not? Not what about those other countries. That to me is a kind of misdirection ..."
So if, in fact, there is no doubt that Palestinian civil society is ardently asking the world to support BDS, a couple of questions spring naturally to mind.
First, how and when exactly was this group of organizations convened to discuss whether to "call" for BDS, and what was the process it followed in doing so?
On what must have been a complex process, taking at least a few months of planning and organization and involving various notable figures, there appears to be very little reliable information available from public sources. The closest I came to an origin story behind the 2005 document was a 2016 article by Alex Joffe - admittedly not the most unbiased of sources - noting that it was "largely the effort of a small group centered on Omar Barghouti (born in Qatar, raised in Egypt, educated in the US), then a graduate student at Tel Aviv University." As for grass-roots activism by "indigenous" organizations - those that work directly in Palestinian communities for the common good - there is scarcely any record. Rather, according to Joffe, there appear to be at least fingerprints of "outside manipulation."
Second, is there anything else this collective (if somewhat amorphous) entity has done in terms of petitioning those in positions of power, about matters near and dear to its interests?
Perhaps these organizations would be interested in making collective requests of those officials of the Palestinian Authority who are charged with exclusively administering Area A and co-administering Area B in the West Bank areas described in the Oslo II accord. No, although the Palestinian Authority has long delayed long-promised elections, there does not appear to be anything on the Web to suggest it is upset about that or anything else relating to how things are going - except, that is, that Israel should be subjected to BDS.
Third, apart from jointly making their "call" for BDS, looking at the list of group names on the "call" document, what exactly is their relationship amongst themselves?
Here, we begin to see the chimera of any claim to true, independently conceived collective action. A web search on "actions by palestinian civil society" leads to a few interesting results. One is a page on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations that notes that apart from having "coalesced around a joint call made in 2005" for BDS, the Palestinian space for civil society is dominated in large part by NGOs receiving outside funding:
"Extensive foreign funding has led to criticism of both the “NGO-isation” of Palestinian civil society and of the international support to NGOs, which has been described as serving a political agenda."
Another, and perhaps more revealing search query result, is an article by UNISPAL noting that "[t]he Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People has a mandate from the United Nations General Assembly “to extend its cooperation and support to Palestinian and other civil society organizations” (italics in original). This is the same committee that the ADL described, in a detailed report, as having spent the last 35 years demonizing Israel. But, put that aside. To join the committee's loose assembly of civil society organizations, a group must "become accredited to the UN Palestinian Rights Committee," which in its most recent report (2017), offers this even-handed statement on its view of the overall situation:
"Recalling the upcoming seventieth anniversary of the expulsion of Palestine refugees from their homeland in 1948, remembered as the “Nakba” (catastrophe), the Committee emphasizes the importance of the acknowledgment of that event and its impact upon the Palestinian people as a necessary requirement for a viable and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as for future reconciliation. It strongly advocates for the right to return (or compensation) of the Palestine refugees, as provided for in paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III)."
The "right of return" is also baked in to the BDS call which, as Barghouti candidly admits, destroys any prospect for Israel and Palestinians living side-by-side in their separate nation states:
"If the refugees were to return," he says, "you would not have a two state solution. Like one Palestinian commentator said, 'You would have a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to Israel.'"
In other words, to join Palestinian civil society, and thereby be able to cast your vote in support of BDS, your group must agree that it does not want Israel to be able to continue to exist as the national homeland for the Jewish people - something which (unsurprisingly) is a non-starter in Israel. So instead of trying to help itself in relation to itself - that is, Palestinian civil society - its one collective action - the BDS "call" - seems primarily focused on how to destroy Israel, as we know it today.
Hearing the "BDS call" for what it truly is
Let's cut to the chase. Palestinian civil society, in and of itself, is something of a curious creature. It relies extensively on foreign NGOs for funding; it has what is clearly a political agenda revolving around opposition to Israel; its UN-guided membership process seems to play into the hands of those who want to blame Israel for everything; and it seems to have done only one thing very clearly, for worldwide consumption: "call" for BDS. But if you peel the onion a little further, and consider that you never really hear much about it except from a small cadre of anti-Israel activists, it seems clear that attributing the "BDS call" to its initiative is a subterfuge for hiding the non-existence of a true upsurge in Palestinian support for the destruction of Israel. Asking nothing of its own political leadership, being guided by a UN committee that has perfected the art of reproaching Israel, allowing a handful of anti-Israel advocates sole control of its voice on the world stage, the legitimacy of anything coming out of "Palestinian civil society" - at least in the context of BDS - seems questionable at best.
This, in turn, leads naturally to examining more carefully what the "BDS call" is really about. The timing and contextualization of the call does nothing to add support for it. As noted by a self-described "long-time activist in Palestine solidarity," and as made clear by its very first sentence - the call's formulation was hardly an organic process of back-and-forth deliberation by a group of independent organizations; rather, it was centrally planned for maximum effect:
[Th]e BDS call was deliberately issued exactly a year after the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the West Bank Wall, or “separation barrier.” The Advisory Opinion placed obligations on the governments of third countries, but as soon as it became apparent that these governments were not going to take any action regarding the wall, the necessity of civil society action was clear.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the BDS call arose - without much fanfare or widely heard cries of "why don't we try a boycott or something?" - in 2005. This does not seem coincidental, as it fell fast on the heels of other developments that may have fallen short in rallying world sympathy toward the Palestinian cause: the widely-reviled "Durban I" conference in 2001, and the disastrous Second Intifada in 2002. Perhaps the call was instigated to sound more focused and "official-sounding" than the NGO diatribe against Israel coming out of Durban I:
"Recognizing further that the Palestinian people are one such people currently enduring a colonialist, discriminatory military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination including the illegal transfer of Israeli citizens into the occupied territories and establishment of a permanent illegal Israeli infrastructure; and other racist methods amounting to Israel's brand of apartheid and other racist crimes against humanity. Recognizing therefore that the Palestinian people have the clear right under international law to resist such occupation by any means provided under international law until they achieve their fundamental human right to self-determination and end the Israeli racist system including its own brand of apartheid."
Or maybe it was announced because its motivations would be much less easily debunked than the transparent propaganda efforts following the Israeli "Defensive Shield" operation, in response to repeated attacks on Israeli communities coming out of Jenin in 2002:
"What was the real story? That hand-to-hand, door-to-door combat, in an intensely built-up shantytown, among dozens of houses booby-trapped by Palestinian fighters, should have yielded somewhere between seven and 21 scattered civilian casualties is nothing less than astonishing. It testifies to the extraordinary scrupulousness of the Israeli army, which lost 23 soldiers in the battle, precisely because it did not want to cause the civilian casualties that come with aerial bombardment, as has happened everywhere from Grozny to Kabul. And yet Israel was investigated precisely for defending itself against massacres that warrant no investigation."
After all, apart from Omar Barghouti, and a handful of other highly visible BDS proponents - most of whom are not even Palestinian - who exactly are the "civil society" leaders from the various Palestinian organizations that supposedly signed on to make their voices heard through the BDS call? Which of them have been interviewed by foreign media about it, and what do they say? What sort of process did they undertake to deliberate, weighing the pros and cons of trying to launch such an ambitious, worldwide boycott campaign? To what extent are they monitoring the effects of the call, beyond allowing Mr. Barghouti to continue to tour the world telling his side of the story, which is that "we lose some battles, but we win most, so the general direction is going up."
Conclusion: BDS seeks to kill Israel, only softly
It's a clever sleight of hand to couch justifications for BDS in the language of "civil society", "human rights", "inalienable rights under international law," all in response to "ethnic cleansing," "apartheid," "racism," and "settler colonialism." It's even more interesting to push it all into a bouquet of calm, thoughtful responses to Israeli "occupation" - but not just occupation - as Mr. Barghouti has done so artfully for the past 12+ years, ever since the call was, well, first called. But if you're paying attention, you will see that BDS is mostly the hollow receptacle of a Palestinian sentiment that has always simmered, if not on the surface, then not that far below it: as a strategy of those who, by demonizing Israel in the eyes of the world, under the guise of advancing Palestinian interests, seek its gradual evisceration and destruction.