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We are better off without Uri Avnery’s soft Zionism

Avnery vehemently opposed the idea of a secular, democratic state for all its citizens in historic Palestine

Uri Avnery, founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, died this week at 94.

A white Ashkenazi Jew and ex-member of the Irgun Zionist gang that took part in the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Avnery opposed the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but never repented the original sin - the 1948 grand theft of Palestine.

For him, a committed Zionist until the last moment, the 1967 occupation was the source of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Missing the mark on BDS

I am interested in his position on two important issues: the Palestinian right of return and the call for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel until it complies with international law. 

His position represents that of the so-called Israeli “left”, that is, soft Zionism. While there are some courageous Israelis who support Palestinian basic rights and heed our boycott call, Avnery was totally opposed. He was prepared only to entertain the idea of boycotting settlement products, and other forms of “controlled” popular resistance against the occupation. 

Avnery studiously avoided the political framework set by Palestinian civil society by casting his support for BDS as a strategy to end only the 1967 military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza

Avnery belonged to a group of Israelis who aim to set their own, restrictive parameters for the Palestinian struggle and the BDS campaign, or to qualify their support to serve their political agendas. Within this context, it is of paramount importance to distinguish among the different variants of such support, particularly with respect to BDS.

Avnery studiously avoided the political framework set by Palestinian civil society by casting his support for BDS as a strategy to end only the 1967 military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. When he employed the term colonialism, he limited its application to the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967 - not to historic Palestine, which now encompasses the state of Israel.  

Sidestepping the right of return

The danger of this formulation is that it sidesteps the issue of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, as well as the legalised and institutionalised - and now constitutionalised - system of racism and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

It thus not only fails to adhere to the comprehensive, rights-based approach adopted in the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS, but also ignores the UN-sanctioned rights of the great majority of the indigenous people of Palestine. 

Uri Avnery and other activists demonstrate against the Israeli assault on Gaza in Tel Aviv on 2 March 2008 (AFP)

The Palestinian BDS call advocates non-violent, punitive measures until Israel meets its obligation to recognise Palestinians' inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law by ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation wall. This would entail recognising the full equality of Arab citizens of Israel and protecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as stipulated by UN Resolution 194.

Avnery refused to accept this definition for BDS, notwithstanding the fact that Palestinians have the right to set the parameters and to remain at the forefront of the movement as its legitimate frame of reference.

This was a reflection of some Israeli attempts to restrict the scope of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, equality and justice - the well-known Israeli "Zionist-left" penchant for defining the terms of the struggle and authorising appropriate solidarity actions to end Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people as they define it, irrespective of the needs of colonised Palestinians. 

Challenging Israel’s racism

Avnery, like other soft Zionists, took bold steps to "save Israel from itself" and guarantee a place for it in the Arab world, without dismantling its system of apartheid and settler-colonialism. 

I, like many other Palestinians, question the sincerity of those Israelis who never challenge the racist character of Israel, let alone the grand crime it committed against our people in 1948. The Israelis we count on are those who heed our call for BDS and recognise our internationally sanctioned rights, including the right of return. Avnery was not one of them. 

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On the contrary, he was committed to the Zionist project in Palestine through his defence of both the racist two-state solution and the Jewish majority on 78 percent of historic Palestine. He vehemently opposed the idea of a secular, democratic state in historic Palestine, one for all of its citizens regardless of religion, race or sex.

- Dr Haidar Eid is an associate professor in the department of English literature at Al-Aqsa University in the Gaza Strip.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Avnery in Tel Aviv in 2011 (AFP)