A Palestinian covered with national flag
Palestinian with national flag walks on top of Israel's controversial separation wall between the West Bank city of Abu Dis and east Jerusalem, on 2 November 2015. Getty Images

Professor Alan Dershowitz won the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) debate at the Oxford Union on 1 November fair and square. I lost.

The motion "Is the BDS movement against Israel wrong?" was carried with 137 people voting yes and 101 voting no. Dershowitz would have won, though perhaps by a smaller majority, without his family members, Israeli Embassy staff and other allies in attendance.

Although I could have secured guest tickets for my pro-BDS friends, I organised no one to attend in support of my argument that BDS is a legitimate peaceful protest tactic to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territory it seized in 1967 - in particular to pull out from the on-going new settlements on the West Bank and to end the punitive treatment of Gaza's civilian population.

BDS is a non-violent campaign, based on the ethical humanitarian principles espoused by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It is, in my view, an infinitely preferable method of resistance to Israeli occupation than the violence of rocket attacks, suicide bombings and random stabbings. It is also likely to be more effective and successful than armed resistance. This may helpfully encourage increasing numbers of Palestinians to pursue peaceful methods to secure their just cause of a Palestinian state.

As I made clear from the outset of the debate, I support BDS with a heavy heart. For me, it is a last resort, made necessary because of Israeli intransigence. All the other methods have failed. Diplomacy, negotiations, UN resolutions and terror attacks have not secured Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Depressingly, there is no prospect that they will achieve this goal in the foreseeable future.

The core objective of the BDS campaign, launched by Palestinians in 2005, is to secure Israel's compliance with international law and UN resolutions by:

  • Withdrawal from territories seized in 1967, especially the West Bank settlements;
  • Dismantling of the separation wall;
  • Legal equality and non-discrimination against Arabs living in Israel; and
  • Right to return for Palestinians forced into exile in 1948.

BDS involves:

  • Boycotts of Israeli goods and institutions;
  • Disinvestment of funds in Israel and in Israeli companies; and
  • Sanctions against Israel and its leaders.
Palestinian demonstrater at Israeli separation wall
Palestinian demonstrator tries to destroy part of the Israeli separation wall between the West Bank city of Abu Dis and east Jerusalem on 2 November 2015 Getty

Contrary to Dershowitz's mischaracterisation, which presented BDS as a monolithic, uniform, top-down campaign, the BDS movement in counties around the world is broad and diverse, with no central command and coordination. Different supporters interpret and implement it in different ways.

Some advocate a consumer boycott but not a cultural boycott. Others lobby for an arms embargo but oppose cutting scientific and academic ties. There are BDS supporters who, like me, support a two-state solution, and those who advocate a single democratic, secular state that protects all peoples and faiths.

Dershowitz equated BDS with the 'extremist' statements of some of its leaders and supporters, which clearly swayed some of the Oxford Union audience. I pointed out that the debate motion and my advocacy was for the principle of BDS, not for the views of individual BDS officials and organisations - some of whose opinions I do not share.

I argued that BDS was necessary because Israeli politicians and public opinion have shifted to the Right and to a more rejectionist position that mirrors the hardliners on the Palestinian side. The prospect of voluntary concessions and peace initiatives from Israel is now almost zero. The political balance has shifted to the hawks.

During my 48 years of human rights activism I have witnessed continuous Israeli expansionism and colonisation. From 1948 onwards, Israel has progressively seized more and more Palestinian land.

Israeli borderguard fires terargas canister
Israeli borderguard fires terargas canister during clashes with Palestinian demonstrator close to the separation wall on November 2, 2015. Getty Images

Prior to 1948, in the British mandate of Palestine, Jewish settlements comprised a tiny proportion of the territory. Today, Israel occupies the vast majority of what was the old Palestine mandate.

Israelis have been forcing out Palestinians and taking their land for seven decades; beginning with 700,000+ Arabs fleeing at the time of the creation of the state of Israel, 67 years ago. This process of dispossession is still continuing, with over 500,000 Israeli settlers now on Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

These provocative settlements are a deliberate attempt to undermine and sabotage the peace process. They indicate that Israel has no serious commitment to secure a lasting peace with justice.

That's why BDS is necessary - to pressure Israel to dismantle its apparatus of occupation. It is a very moderate, reasonable response to massive land confiscation and the denial of statehood to Palestine.

Dershowitz argued that I was wrong to put the onus for progress on Israel. But in my view, as the occupying power, with the vastly bigger economy and military, Israel has a responsibility to take the lead by ending the occupation, which is the main cause of the conflict and stalemate. It is not reasonable to expect the victims of occupation to concede to their occupiers.

Summing up his arguments in the Jerusalem Post, Dershowitz claimed that "BDS will absolutely not bring peace. If the BDS movement is desirous of peace, then why will its leaders not debate me?"

"BDS is not an alternative to war as Tatchell said, but rather an alternative to negotiations for the Palestinians. The message to the Palestinian cause is clear, you don't have to negotiate with Israel, you'll get a state through external intervention (via BDS)," he claimed.

BDS sign in the West Bank
A sign painted on a wall in the West Bank on 5 June 2015, calling to boycott Israeli products coming from Jewish settlements. Getty

If it is true that BDS may eventually force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and concede a Palestinian state, as Dershowitz seems to imply, then surely it will bring peace closer and many Palestinians may be inclined to swap armed struggle for BDS. Surely a good thing?

In other words, far from thwarting negotiations, BDS could make them more likely. Well, that's the aim.

Predictably, the debate was strewn with the usual diversions and false accusations, such as: Why are you singling out Israel for BDS?

I don't. I support BDS against all tyrannies and occupiers; including the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Belarus - plus China's occupation of Tibet, Iran's occupation of al-Ahwaz, Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, Pakistan's occupation of Balochistan, Indonesia's occupation of West Papua, and so on. As one example: I have long urged an end to oil purchases from, and arms sales to, the Saudis and other Middle East despotisms.

Another jibe that's often made against me is: You're just an Israel hater and an apologist for Hamas. No. I don't hate Israel or its people. I just disagree with its policies towards the Palestinians.

And far from being soft on Hamas, I am one of its fiercest critics; having repeatedly condemned and protested against its anti-human rights policies. Indeed, I have been on Palestine marches and carried placards condemning attacks on civilians by both Israel and Hamas. I've been kicked, punched and spat at by Palestine supporters for criticising human rights abuses by the Palestinian authorities.

What about all the Jews forced to flee Arab countries? Why don't you condemn that, I was asked. But I do. The dispossession of Jews was very wrong but no justification for treating the Palestinians to a similar dispossession.

Then there is the smear that BDS supporters are anti-Semites and oppose a two-state solution. Neither I nor any BDS supporter I know is anti-Jewish and most of us support the co-existence of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.

Dershowitz said BDS against Israel was unjustified because it was the only democracy in the Middle East. While Israel is far more democratic than the neighbouring Arab states and scores much higher in terms of liberty and equality, these achievements are built on the injustice of dispossession and occupation.

It is also true that despite the institutional anti-Arab discrimination highlighted by the Or Commission in 2003, Israeli Arabs are still better off than Arabs in the neighbouring countries. But again, this is not an excuse for Israel's post-1948 land grabs.

As I told the Oxford Union, I want to see a Middle East where Jews and Arabs live together in peace and harmony, with security and equality.

That's why I support BDS: to pressure Israel to end the occupation and thereby open the door to the possibility of a lasting and just peace - which is, of course, in Israel's interest, as well as in the interest of the Palestinians.

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