The Palestinian struggle for independence bears some resemblance to ours, but Bangladesh's support for their cause dated back to its pre-independence period, when the wartime Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed refused Israel's offer of recognition and military help without a second thought. Genuine commitment towards the Palestinian cause has remained elusive across the political spectrum from then on.
True that, unlike Palestine's Arab brethren, Bangladesh has never maintained any overt or covert relation with Israel. “All countries of the world except Israel,” reads our passport. In all possible diplomatic forums, Bangladesh has persistently sided with Palestine. Yet, a critical look suggests that the relationship has always been symbolic at best, or opportunistic at worst.
In 1973, Bangladesh supported Palestine's fight against Israel in the October war, sending a medical unit and relief supplies for the fellow war-ravaged country. A curious mind ought to wonder whether it was a realpolitik act by Bangladesh because within the next few months we secured OIC membership and simultaneously allayed fears among some Arab states concerned with our emergence.
In the early 80s, plenty of Bangladeshi youths went to Lebanon to fight against the Israeli invading force. According to the US Library of Congress, the then Bangladesh government put the number of volunteer fighters at nearly 8,000 – a figure which might have been exaggerated to show a singnificant contribution from the country to the Palestinian cause.
In fact, the great Mendi Safadi saga was another reminder of the fact that we, too, could not resist scoring political points by utilising the Palestine card. It exemplifies that Bangladesh, like many other so-called pro-Palestine countries, simply takes pleasure in offering diplomatic support, which is thoroughly meaningless because no one seriously thinks that our diplomatic clout terrifies the Israeli establishment. However, there is something that really does.
A group of Palestine supporters has developed an effective and non-violent method to fight Israel's brutal occupation: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. As its title itself suggests, the strategic campaign advocates for a cultural, academic and economic boycott against Israel, and urges for divestment from all Israeli and international companies that operate in Israel, and hence contribute to solidifying its occupation and colonial project. It also calls on countries to hold Israel responsible for its gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity by imposing sanctions against it. As we speak, the movement sweeps the leading university campuses across both sides of the Atlantic.
Most recently, a United Nations panel, ESCWA, accused Israel of imposing an apartheid regime on Palestinians. It is the first time any UN agency reached such a conclusion, and it signifies Israel's growing isolation, albeit the UN secretariat distancing itself from the report.
With a consensus on Israel's culpability in war crimes growing, the decentralised movement has created panic in Israel, which sought to tackle it forcefully. Israel's friends in the West sought to delegitimise it by passing bills that promise punishment for those who support BDS, and branding the movement as “anti-Semitic”.
While it is ironic that such a move signals a departure from democratic values like free speech they say they defend, all their counterproductive measures result in more opposition to Israel's apartheid system.
Inspired by anti-apartheid boycott movement in South Africa, BDS denotes a powerful tool to combat Israeli injustice. If sovereign states like Bangladesh endorses BDS and adopts an official policy based on it, it could accelerate the process. Despite the fact that Bangladesh already has an official policy of non-cooperation with Israel in place, the proposed policy will render considerable feats.
By endorsing the BDS strategy, Bangladesh could firstly set precedence for other countries to follow. Secondly, it designates an extended ban on companies that operate or benefit from or contribute to Israel's notorious 'settler enterprise' which might diminish the settlement enthusiasm.
“Bangladesh luckily has a policy on non-cooperation with Israel, so the most important means for the government to hold Israel, and those complicit in its violation of international law and human rights, accountable is by joining in the global campaigns against those profiting from Israeli crimes,” Maren Mantovani of the BDS Central Committee wrote to me.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently visited Bangladesh, was against a total ban on Israel in spite of (or because of) the latter's brutal policy, but had no problem with a ban on products made in the settlements. If Bangladeshi policy solely targets Israeli settlements at least, it will adhere to the official Palestinian policy regarding BDS. On the other hand, Bangladesh should also be prepared for the backlash, especially the widespread accusations of anti-Semitism.
But why should, of all countries, Bangladesh make the move?
The answer lies in the fact that both countries are familiar with each other's nationalist struggle. Other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Algeria also fought their own liberation wars. But it was we who found Yasser Arafat, the father of Palestinian national movement, and Nelson Mandela, the great South African anti-apartheid leader, so inspiring that we invited them to the event marking the silver jubilee of our independence.
As we now head towards celebrating the golden jubilee, there is an opportunity for us to once again showcase our anti-colonial and anti-apartheid legacy to the world. In the absence of Arafat and Mandela, we could only do that by embracing and upholding their spirit of resistance – that is to say, by adopting the BDS strategy as an official policy.