Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region
The Spider Web: The Roots of BDS and the Campaign to Delegitimize Israel

The Spider Web:
The Roots of BDS and the Campaign to Delegitimize Israel

A roadmap to the malevolent multi-national, global networks and their interlocking connections

Ehud Rosen
July 9, 2018

Summary of the Main Findings

For almost two decades, Israel has been subjected to an international campaign of political subversion – known as the “Delegitimization Campaign” – aimed at undermining its existence as the sovereign nation state of the Jewish people. The campaign operates in the political, legal, academic, cultural, religious, and economic fields, and also includes “direct action” activities such as flotillas or pre-coordinated demonstrations and marches around the world.

Various organizations follow, map, analyze, and examine the central groups and their EU sources of funding. At the Jerusalem Center we have also been following and mapping the main groups that take part in the campaign. Yet, comprehensive and in-depth research is still missing; such research should isolate the main players – their structures and working methods, inner struggles and dynamics within the campaign, as well as the attempts to convey their message in Western liberal language. In this paper, which is part of our ongoing research, we aim to assist in filling this gap. This time, we will map strategically significant European countries, each having its own specific weight, as well as the United States. This mapping exercise also reveals that in spite of the unique geo-political structures in each country, when looking at the main players in the Delegitimization Campaign, the picture is very similar.

The move toward Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) on Israeli products, which comprises most of the economic aspects of the campaign, has probably gained most of the attention among the other fields of the campaign. BDS has many overlapping features with other fields of this campaign, yet also has its unique structures. In common with other fields of this campaign, BDS is presented as a Palestinian “grassroots,” “civil society” initiative; implementing “nonviolent” means to resist the occupation. Yet the reality is markedly different and highlights the main tactics of the main players in the whole campaign:

  • BDS is not a Palestinian initiative to begin with; the perception of escalating boycotts against Israel has been gradually developed by international far-left elements, especially those who were previously involved in campaigns against the Vietnam War and in South Africa (including members of the ruling ANC Party); the well-known three basic obligations of BDS from July 2005 were actually published in very similar terms back in February 2005 – in the closing statement of the World Social Forum (WSF). WSF is the annual international anti-globalist gathering that counters Davos’ World Economic Forum. For many years, it has also served as one of the main international platforms in promoting anti-Israel sentiments and boycotts.
  • On the Palestinian side, “civil society” has actually been built “back to front.” From the early 2000s, European countries assisted to develop “civil society” organizations as part of their efforts to promote peace and democracy. A great deal of funding was devoted to this initiative, and political activists were recruited as partners. This European-devised project thus created a politicized “civil society” network, whereby many NGOs merely serve as political fronts for Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, as well as for the Marxist and Maoist fronts (PFLP, DFLP). In this context it should also be noted that the PFLP remains a designated terrorist group in several European countries and in the United States, but those acting under the wing of “civil society” are many times exempt from revealing the nature of their affiliations and ties to problematic bodies.
  • Many current PA ministers and senior advisers to President Mahmoud Abbas sit on the boards of the NGOs that take part in the campaign, helping to promote anti-Israel initiatives and boycotts – an endgame that is diametrically opposed to the purported goal of peace negotiations. Moreover, BDS is being increasingly adopted overtly by senior Fatah/PA officials.
  • The “nonviolent” nature of BDS and “direct action” activities is also questionable, considering that at least several main figures and organizations that promote and initiate them have supported violence and on more than one occasion these activities have led to violence.
  • As has been highlighted in several Jerusalem Center publications, the Delegitimacy Campaign is led by fringe groups, which many times utilize the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to achieve wider goals. Yet, since those who look into this campaign usually look at it in a local perspective, important aspects such as the “mainstreaming” of such groups in Western politics of the last few years, or the question of political Islamism, its activism in Western countries, and government policies toward it until now remain mostly out of the equation.

Two notes should be added here:

  • Since this paper analyzes the works of the various players by countries, several cross-country (especially far-left) organizations and umbrella groups do not have their specific entries; these deserve a separate paper that will also look into the way their combined work is done.
  • The role that Iranian-influenced bodies play in the Delegitimacy Campaign has not yet been analyzed properly. For many years, its “public face” expressed itself in Western countries by mobilizing the annual demonstrations and events surrounding Al-Quds Day (many times in cooperation with far-left and Sunni Islamists characterized in this paper). Lately, however, first signs of political awakening among Shiite communities in Western countries have been noticed although Shiite communities in Western countries – their immediate target audience – are rather small. This new phenomenon could also merit a separate survey.

I wish to extend my gratitude to several friends and colleagues at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for their assistance in the process of writing up this paper. First and foremost to Dr. Dore Gold, President of the Center, and Senior Project Manager Yossi Kuperwasser for his wise advice and guidance. Special thanks to Dan Diker, Director of the Political Warfare Project, and to Pinhas Inbari and Adam Shay for the long discussions and deep insights. Lastly to Lenny Ben David for his careful editing.

Executive Summary

As emphasized in our previous publications, while various activities and actions instigated as part of the Delegitimization Campaign are presented as originating from grassroots, civil society organizations, in reality those initiating the battle are usually part of various NGO networks – comprising a relatively small number of activists who come together on the basis of a joint ideology and end goals, personal ties, and sources of funding. In most cases, they can be characterized along these lines; they can be identified and profiled along these parameters. Furthermore, in many instances, the same individuals and groups have been active in a range of campaigns. This means that while anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments are growing, the number of their instigators is gradually becoming smaller. Yet these instigators are simultaneously becoming more focused and professional – and of course funded for the sole purpose of delegitimizing Israel. In many instances, state actors fund them behind the scenes to act as “proxies” to promote their various interests and goals. The advance of campaigning abilities on behalf of these players can be seen in two relevant incidents: in July 2017, following the terrorist attack on Temple Mount that brought the Israeli government to place metal detectors in the entrance gates to Al-Aqsa; and in December 2017, around U.S. President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel and preparation would begin to move the U.S. embassy there. Many of the actions, demonstrations, and riots that took place around the world were pre-coordinated, aiming to create the impression of a wide, global mobilization that was not really there.

Following is a brief analysis of the components of the campaign; the motivations behind their agitation, and their working methods:

International Far-Left Elements1

Far-left elements, at best supporters of the “one state solution,” serve as the main mentors for the other forces involved in the campaign.

  • They commonly hold post-colonial/post-imperialist theories (inspired by intellectuals such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and others), in which Israel is perceived as a Middle Eastern imperialist enclave. Ever since the 2008 recession in Europe, new players entered the scene, targeting Israel as a symbol for Western capitalism, which they abhor. The situation seems to have gone far beyond the common discussion on anti-Zionism and the “new anti-Semitism” (in fact, many of the activists are Jewish and anti-Zionist Israelis). Exploiting Israel’s democratic system and freedoms, radical anti-Western groups and remnants of the Cold War-era, even though diverse in their ideologies, histories, and internal tensions, gradually come together to target Israel as a symbol for everything they object to in the Western world and values.
  • In the past few years, encouraged by the Czech Velvet Revolution (1989-1990), as well as a series of books on the history and practices of “nonviolent struggles” by the American professor Gene Sharp – far-left, mainly anarchist groups, adopted this language and methodology. In our context, it should be noted that even actions that may potentially lead to violence are still characterized as nonviolent.
  • Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, various far-left groups have pointed to political Islam (Islamism) as being what they perceive to be the only organized force able to resist U.S. hegemony and their perception of “empire.”
  • “Resistance” [muqawamah] is often accepted and presented as a legitimate tool. Rather than acknowledging that non-state organized players are waging terrorist attacks against states, “resistance” is portrayed along Marxist lines as the natural response of “oppressed” civilians against an “oppressor.”
  • On the other hand, the “War on Terror,” declared by U.S. President George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, served as a main catalyst for activism for those who perceived it as a new and unacceptable form of war against a method or an imperialist/post-colonialist scheme.
  • The nature of far-left ideologies like anarchism necessitates continuous campaigning and activism. Its practitioners therefore constantly find new reasons to demonstrate – while inventing new groups and fronts, usually operated by the same people who claim “wide support” and “huge successes.” Such patterns also resemble the methods employed in the past by the prominent Communist propagandist Willi Münzenberg.
  • Activism gradually expresses itself in “international mobilization”/“direct action” (such as flotillas, pre-organized demonstrations and marches around the world, political lobbying, and online campaigns, which run simultaneously in various languages), on the one hand, and the economic BDS route, on the other.
  • In the current battle against Israel, tactics used during the campaign against the Vietnam War, as well as the battle against South Africa’s Apartheid regime, are implemented. Furthermore, key activists and intellectuals who were involved in the previous campaigns also play a major role.
  • Cooperation between various far-left groups and the beginning of a long-term strategic plan to isolate Israel first manifested themselves in the NGO Forum held alongside the UN 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. This collaboration continues on the ground via a number of international platforms – ranging from the annual anti-Globalist World Social Forum (WSF) to the regional and local gatherings that emerged from it, such as the bi-annual European Social Forum (ESF), and also to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP), which has already held several sessions (in 2015 it even held a session during the WSF in Tunis).2
  • It is worth noting here that the original call for boycotts and divestment was published during the January 2005 WSF in Brazil,3 several months prior to the “Palestinian civil society call for BDS.”4 The endorsement of the Palestinian struggle and the support for such measures were part of a central call passed by the Social Movements Assembly to globalize the struggle against neoliberalism, wars, racism, castes, patriarchy, imperialism, and the destruction of the environment. The Palestinian struggle was one of several struggles across the globe that were championed in this call.

The Arab Anti-Peace Camp and the Palestinian Authority

  • Historically, since the 1960s, far-left European elements have had ties with some of the subgroups within Fatah and the Marxist/Maoist fronts (PFLP, DFLP). In addition, the leaders-in-exile in Britain of the anti-Zionist/anti-Imperialist Matzpen Movement, in particular, became the “educators” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict of leading figures of the “new Left” in Europe.5 Gradually, the conflict became an extension of other anti-colonialist struggles, and the same language and terminology were adopted. Former Matzpen leaders are still very active in the battle today.
  • During the 1990s, some key figures in Fatah and other PLO organizations who opposed the Oslo Accords and the peace process either left or remained as oppositionists leading the militant line. The most senior among them was Farouk Kaddoumi, (Abu al-Lutf), who serves as head of the PLO’s Political Department in Tunis. Kaddoumi, and others in his circles, sometimes participate in activities initiated by the Islamist camp, and continue to promote the spirit of anti-normalization and anti-peace within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority against the peace process.
  • During the 2000s, “the increased donor aid into Palestine as a result of the establishment of the PA also contributed to the proliferation of NGOs that addressed a variety of social, cultural, economic as well as political agendas. The Palestinian NGO community has become vibrant and well-funded by international donors, and many NGO leaders were also politically active in various parties.”6 Furthermore, as explained in a 2004 report, attempts by civil society organizations (CSO) to redefine the relationship with their political parties – in order to create partnerships rather than continue with patronage –were resisted during the years of the first Intifada. The NGOs evolved out of this conflict as winners and the political parties were completely sidelined. According to Salah Abdel-Shafi, “Some prominent NGO political activists marginalized the political party and use the NGO as a platform to enter the social and political arena.”7
  • This means that the structure of Palestinian “civil society” and “grassroots activity” is very different from Western structures. Further, this structure also works in the opposite way, by allowing certain NGOs to practically serve as fronts for political organizations and forces, and sometimes serving to “absolve” those with problematic reputations and violent backgrounds. Problematic figures are thus able to deepen their political and financial cooperation with core Western “civil society” organizations and NGOs and the relevant official UN and EU institutions. Former members of terrorist-designated groups, like the PFLP, are able to both cooperate with Western “civil society” bodies and operate their own NGOs in various countries. At best, foreign groups fail to perform basic due diligence checks to ascertain the true identity of those behind certain “civil society” structures.
  • Working through “civil society” organizations and NGOs around the world eases the way to the Durban route of 2001 – to spread and brand Israel in terms of “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” and so forth.
  • Acting under “civil society” and “NGO” titles also enables rival political Palestinian camps, especially the nationalist and the Islamist camps, to collaborate over certain issues, both within the Palestinian territories and abroad.
  • On the other hand, having nurtured these artificial and heavily politicized NGO networks, European figures and decision makers often seek their advice in significant issues, when it is unclear how relevant they are, if at all, to the ordinary Palestinian in the street.
  • A more recent tendency growing within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority is the increasing participation in the campaign of figures who were in the past – at least publicly – supportive of the peace process. De facto, this is creating a parallel Palestinian track that continues to aspire to eliminate Israel while engaged in the peace process.
  • This bolsters the Palestinian Authority’s efforts in the past few years to override the Oslo Accords, apply international pressure on Israel via international institutions, and, on the ground encourage “popular,” “peaceful” struggle. PA support for “popular peaceful resistance [muqawama]” also enables its leadership’s support for BDS, as expressed, for example, by the Hebron Governor Kamil Hamid, who opened the third BDS National Committee’s (BNC) Conference in December 2011.8

Political Islamism, Mainly the Global Muslim Brotherhood

  • As explained in our 2010 paper dedicated to the British arena,9 the Muslim Brotherhood, once a Middle Eastern movement, has been internationalized to form a network which, according to several senior figures in the Movement, is represented in up to 80 countries. This network is better known as the Global Muslim Brotherhood, and cooperation between the various affiliates around the globe can be seen in joint conferences, political lobbying groups, pre-coordinated demonstrations, or online media campaigns, “aid” flotillas or convoys, and joint sources of funding etc.
  • In Europe and the United States, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations started to develop in the late 1950s, and today they comprise a wide-ranging da’wah network that includes mosques, charities, schools, social institutions, and political lobbying umbrella groups – all claiming to speak for the Muslim communities in each country. For many years, being almost the only voice speaking for Islam in Western countries, they were indeed perceived as such by officialdom. However, there has been a discernible change in the last few years – with the whole subject being scrutinized, and with new groups of Muslims gradually being formed that counter this perception.
  • Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in Europe come under the umbrella of the Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), which was founded in 1989 and today claims to have hundreds of member organizations spread across 28 European states.10
  • The main spiritual leader, especially of the European part of the Global Muslim Brotherhood, is the Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Toward the end of the 1980s, al-Qaradawi developed the theory of Minorities Jurisprudence [fiqh al-Aqaliyyat], which for the first time treated Muslims living in non-Muslim countries as a settled fact and not as victims of circumstances who aspire to go back and live in Islamic countries. In his new theory, al-Qaradawi ruled on their daily lives and unique challenges.
  • In 1997, FIOE initiated the formation of the European Council on Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which issues fatwas affecting the daily lives of Muslim minorities to implement the theory of fiqh al-Aqaliyyat. In 2004, during a visit to London, al-Qaradawi launched his Qatari-headquartered International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) to spread his theories globally.
  • For the immediate Palestinian/Hamas context, the most relevant Muslim Brotherhood umbrella group is the Union of Good (UoG), a large coalition of European charities affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that came together via al-Qaradawi’s initiative shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, and was designated in 2008 by the U.S. Treasury for funding Hamas.11 Many of the UoG’s member charities (some of which disavow the UoG’s claim of their membership) are central to the financial structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which also includes commercial companies, real-estate portfolios, and more. Some charities are also used to fund various purposes within Europe.
  • It seems that the major boost for Islamists to join the Delegitimization Campaign came from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-2009). In the months that followed the operation, a series of international conferences was held in Istanbul. It is crucial to understand the first conference in order to understand later developments.
  • This first conference brought together hundreds of radical Sunni Muslim scholars, who aimed to reshape the battle and open a “third Jihadist front” in Gaza, in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq.12 It was held under the auspices of the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign (GAAC), a main international umbrella organization that brings under its wing Salafist, Salafist-Jihadist, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas leaders, some of whom are designated terrorists in the United States and Europe.13 The conference gave birth to the infamous Istanbul Declaration, which among other repercussions, caused the British government to cut its ties with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), after one of its leaders refused to withdraw his signature from the Declaration. A series of panels discussed multiple ways for civilians to “break the siege” on Gaza, such as helping Gaza by sending humanitarian aid on ships, trucks, and other means,  collecting money throughout the Arab and Islamic world, peaceful demonstrations and applying political pressure in various countries, using public polls, and via co-operation with Arab and international legal bodies. Other examples included approaching international courts in actions against the “Zionist entity” and exploiting the media with careful and credible documentation of this tragedy of history in order to shame the racism and barbarity of the occupier.14 This episode illustrates how the adoption of the civilian element in the struggle has been exploited by the wider Sunni-Islamist community – in addition to violent resistance.
  • Similar to far-left tactics, and many times inspired by them, those affiliated with the Global Muslim Brotherhood excel in running campaigns and sending a coordinated message that creates the impression of a mass movement raising the most urgent issues concerning the Arab and Muslim world. The Islamist side in many aspects has taken over the Arab and Muslim “street,” and since Fatah and the Palestinian Authority support and promote the “popular struggle” against Israel, it is very easy to join in its initiated campaigns in spite of the fierce rivalry between the sides in the political arena as reflected above.
  • As part of the “red-green alliance,” the two main European-based Islamist umbrella bodies that coordinated the battle against Israel (both led by UK-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliates), were:
  • The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza (ECESG), which included more than 30 NGOs, and apparently started its way at the initiative of FIOE,15 with many bodies close to the UoG;
  • The second, chief umbrella group was the International Campaign to Break the Siege of Gaza (ICBSG), which also included Middle Eastern Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas affiliates, as well as several radical western and non-Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.
  • The London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) is probably the most active European Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated institution in promoting a pro-Hamas agenda. In 2015, the PRC was granted consultative NGO status at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).16 Its heads are involved in political lobbying, especially with the current leadership of the UK Labour Party, and the European Parliament. Recently, with Hamas’ growing aspirations to take over the PLO, and thus win the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, its leaders also started operating various inter-Palestinian initiatives on a global scale.
  • Finally, as part of their attempt to regain credibility after the rapid rise and fall of their post “Arab Spring” Middle Eastern administrations, elements affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood started to create new fronts focusing on “human rights” issues, especially in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, where the Muslim Brotherhood have recently been weakened. The “human rights” ticket allows them renewed cooperation with international and official humanitarian bodies.
  • All the above points to the gradual process of Islamization and Hamasization of the Palestinian issue in Europe (and the same applies to the United States) over the last decade. This is also evident by the changing identity, as this paper demonstrates, of the officials in Palestinian, European, and U.S. representative bodies and at various anti-war rallies and demonstrations – in which the Arab side was usually Islamist, with the nationalist side sometimes participating but not acting as initiator. In May 2013, for example, President Abbas and his ambassador to Brussels, Leila Shahid, were accused of conspiring “against the interests of all Palestinians, at home and in the diaspora, by engaging in activism against the 11th Conference of Palestinians in Europe, the biggest Palestinian gathering in the diaspora,” which has been held annually since 2003 by the Islamist side (with the London-based PRC as its main organizer), and which took place in Brussels that year.17 Incidentally, this is not the first time that arguments between the two camps over the conference arose. Perhaps because of this, for example, Khaled Al-Zaher of the Palästinensische Gemeinde Berlin (PGB), when speaking at the 8th Palestinians in Europe Conference held in Berlin in 2010, felt the need to stress the diversity of organizations that took part in that conference, underlining the need for cooperation between all camps.18
  • Although most Western promotion of Islamist activism has been made by far-left activists, it is interesting to see that the Muslim Brotherhood also finds common ground with the rising Right wing. For example, in August 2015, the bureau-in-exile of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was invited by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) to visit the parliament.19
  • In recent years, U.S. Muslim Brotherhood affiliates have been on the rise, partly due to accommodating policies toward Islamism adopted by the White House and State Department in the Obama era. It is also noticeable that U.S. and European Muslim Brotherhood affiliates now work together closer than before.
  • For several years, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued an annual list of “The Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America.” Among the Muslim groups that appeared on the lists, the majority can be directly identified with U.S. Muslim Brotherhood circles, and others have minimal ties with it. The whole subject still awaits a comprehensive mapping exercise, and this paper also comes to fill in some of the gaps.

Israel’s Delegitimization Campaign’s Network Chart

Israel’s Delegitimization Campaign’s Network Chart