BDS, Arab Land, and the Custodian of Absentee Property

The 2005 call by more than 170 Palestinian organizations, both within Palestine and without, to boycott Israeli products and services, divest from companies that support and sustain Israel and sanction the Israeli state and its agencies is one of the most important and potentially one of the most effective strategies to end the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinian people as a result of the creation of a Zionist state and by Zionist actions even before.

Nothing in this article is intended to criticize or undermine BDS as a strategy. On the contrary, BDS should be encouraged and pursued as vigorously as possible. I am among those that believe that the only way to end the injustices is to end the state itself, but the participants in BDS need not agree about this in order to undertake BDS actions.

Recently, I and others have expressed concern about an apparently unauthorized change in the wording of the 2005 BDS call, posted on the BDS National Committee (BNC) website. This is also not a criticism of the strategy or of the movement, but rather of the actions of unknown parties that appear to have committed a breach of trust with the signatories of the 2005 call, by altering the wording of that call without consulting them.

Some have argued that the change of wording is insignificant and that the meaning remains unchanged. This is absurd. Why bother to change the wording if there is no change in meaning? That change in wording is important to someone. But to whom? And why? And by what protocol (if any) was the change made? Has this action been accountable in any way?

Arab land and the Custodian of Absentee Property

The change in question concerns the first of three objectives articulated by the BNC and endorsed by the signatories to the call. As already indicated, one may participate in BDS without being a signatory or endorsing the specific BNC objectives. Criticism of the BNC wording change of its BDS objectives is therefore not a criticism of BDS per se.

The original statement of the objective reads “The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by: 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall” (emphasis added). That is how it reads. Unfortunately, that part of the website is historical, and not what the statement is today, which reads: “The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by: 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall” (emphasis also added).

The questions surrounding this are: When did this wording change? By what procedure was it amended? Were the endorsers consulted or even notified about the change? What was the reason for the change? Who is accountable for making the change?

Although the argument that the change is not substantive is irrelevant to the breach of trust implied by not consulting the endorsers, I would like to put this nonsense to rest. In the first incarnation of the statement, what is meant by “Arab land”?

such property is equal to at least 80% of the pre-1967 territory held by the state of Israel.1

Those who think that the change is insignificant will argue that the territories occupied prior to June, 1967 are not “Arab land” and that those occupied in June, 1967 are. This is an astonishing assertion, given that one of the first acts of the newly created Zionist state in 1948 was to appoint a “Custodian of Absentee Property” to oversee the lands and property of Palestinian Arab refugees fleeing the new state. According to the holder of that office, as interviewed by journalist Robert Fisk in 1980, such property is equal to at least 80% of the pre-1967 territory held by the state of Israel.1

For those of us who agree that this is Arab land (including, by implication, the state of Israel), the difference between the original 2005 call and the later revised one is huge. The amended version amounts to an abandonment of millions of dunums of land that even Israel agrees belongs to Arabs. Let us please therefore set aside the claim that there is no substantive difference between the two wordings.

The interesting thing about the 2005 wording is that it permits different interpretations, which is a useful means of achieving consensus among groups or individuals that wish to form a strategic alliance but do not necessarily agree on definitions. Who therefore insisted upon the disambiguation in the unauthorized amended version? And why and how was this amendment implemented without the concurrence of the endorsers?

Fixing the problem

The simplest way to fix this problem is to remove and amend the offensive wording. This would permit the person(s) who made the change to save face. However, if an overt change is made while maintaining an under-the-table agreement with a wink of the eye, such a correction is meaningless. It is therefore important to conduct a fact-finding inquiry and accounting in order to determine what has or has not been agreed and what procedures have or have not been followed. The outcome of the investigation must be an assurance that the statement signed in 2005 has not been altered and that no secret agreements have been made that compromise the possible interpretations of the statement without the consent of its signatories. This should be undertaken as soon as possible so as to restore confidence and put this chapter behind us.

  1. The actual statement was that up to 70% of what had been British Mandate Palestine was under the control of the Custodian of Absentee Property. Assuming that this does not include most of the occupied Palestinian territories in 1980, therefore, it is hard to arrive at a figure of less than 80% for pre-1967 Israeli-held territory. (Robert Fisk, ‘The Land of Palestine, Part Eight: The Custodian of Absentee Property’, The Times, December 24, 1980, quoted in his book Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War). [] []
Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement. Read other articles by Paul.