Palestinian Social Movements Abroad; a Body Parallel to the PLO, or Lobbyist Groups?

This article highlights the two models of the Palestinian social movements: BDS and Palestinians of Europe Conference. It will focus on goals of these movements, strategies, achievements and obstacles they face to reach their goals.

Abstract: Since signing the Oslo agreement in 1993, the focus of the Palestinian action has moved from The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), it has also moved from the Palestinian diaspora to the Palestinian autonomous region. The slogan has changed from “The liberation of all Palestine”, not recognizing Israel, into recognizing Israel and “seeking to establish a state on the borders of June 1967”.

This transformation of political agenda created a gap between the Palestinians in the Diaspora, and the PLO. some organizations outside the PLO tried to fill this gap by trying to reform the Palestinian discourse as it was before the Oslo agreement, and reassemble the Palestinian efforts in diaspora.

This article highlights the two models of the Palestinian social movements: BDS and Palestinians of Europe Conference. It will focus on goals of these movements, strategies, achievements and obstacles they face to reach their goals.



At the onset of the Palestinian Exodus “Nakba”, which resulted in the mass expatriation of Palestinians from their homes and villages in Palestinian lands occupied during the 1948 Palestine War, Palestinians were scattered in the diaspora. Over time, Palestinian communities throughout the world began to organize themselves, and bodies, associations and organizations where established to represent them and to demand their rights. The most prominent of which was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964, and who sought – since its inception – to represent the Palestinians at major international platforms, forming bodies and institutions in the Palestinian diaspora. PLO organizations took various forms, and were designed to emulate organizations in free countries. Some followed a military format and were mainly focused on armed struggle, such as the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) was ostensibly set up as the military wing of the, while syndicates were dedicated to Palestinian labor groups; others fell under the categories of relief, media, cultural, and intellectual institutions (such as the Palestine Red Crescent Society, was founded in 1968, by Fathi ArafatYasser Arafat‘s brother[i] , and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU)[ii].

The BDS Movement

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, or BDS, is a movement inspired by the ideas of the US Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, and the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, led by Nelson Mandela.  BDS was founded on July 9th, 2005 when a collation of 170 Palestinian Civil Society organizations called upon “people of conscience” around the world. The organizations represent the three major components of the Palestinian people: “the refugees in exile, Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the discriminated Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state”[iii].

BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that cements its Goals, in International Law and Fundamental Rights, upon the following three elements: It seeks to end the occupation, dismantle the illegal Israeli apartheid wall and settlements, demands full equality for Palestinians citizens in Israel, and calls for the right of Palestinian refugees[iv].

BDS relies upon a pressure strategy to coerce Israel into complying with International Law. BDS boycott actions do not deviate from International Law, and therefore it enjoys the support of official circles and civil society institutions. Its three basic demands – mentioned above – are also the demands of the international law. For example, the movement organized large campaigns to boycott settlement goods, and these calls were consistent with the UN resolutions in calling for the cessation of settlements and halting all dealings with them. This is one of the strengths of the BDS movement, through which it seeks to delegitimize and isolate Israel[v].

The boycott movement is not confined to the Arab world; it has extensions in most of the world, some European countries and even the US, gradually accumulating the successes of the BDS. Through the economic boycott campaigns, organized by BDS, the Israeli company Mekorot lost a hefty $170 million contract with Argentina, and the Dutch company “Wittens” ended its contract with Mekorot Water Co. for its involvement in the occupation. The German government announced that it would exempt, from scientific and technical cooperation agreements with Israel, all Israeli companies and institutions built on occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem[vi]. Some Pension Funds, such as the Dutch (PGGM) and the Government Pension Fund of Norway, were among those who joined the boycott campaigns and withdrew their investments in Israeli companies involved in supporting the Israeli occupation and settlement

The BDS organized successful academic and cultural boycott campaigns, where thousands of artists and cultural personnel signed public statements in support of the cultural boycott[viii]. In 2015, about a thousand cultural figures from the United Kingdom, signed a pledge to uphold the cultural boycott[ix]. In addition, BDS launched initiatives related to the boycott movement in Montreal (Canada), Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland, Lebanon, and the United States among other countries. 

A number of prominent cultural figures, including Lauryn Hill and the late Stéphane Hessel, have adopted the cultural boycott. Likewise, in 2014, the prestigious São Paulo biennial Festival terminated an Israeli sponsorship deal following repeated demands from the vast majority of participating artists[x].  The BDS movement has also been endorsed by anti-colonial Israelis and other Jewish groups, as well as Black Lives Matter movement (BLM)[xi].

The academic boycott lead by BDS is increasing substantially. In its official website, the BDS features some of the major direct and indirect impacts of the BDS movement:

“More than 30 US student associations and 11 Canadian student associations have voted to support divestment from Israeli apartheid. BDS is supported by the UK National Union of Students, 30 other UK student unions and student organizations in Belgium, South Africa, Brazil, Chile and beyond”[xii]

Economic Boycott campaigns have had a major impact on Israel, and were deemed by Israeli officials as a real threat to the very existence of the Israeli state, as these investments are some of the most prominent sources of strength to Israeli economic development. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon the “Jews of the world” to help eradicate the “boycott and divestment movement.”[xiii] At a ceremony honoring the so-called Jewish Agency Board of Governors, Netanyahu demanded: “Help us in our fight against the boycott movement, and delegitimize those who are trying to delegitimize us.” In a written statement, issued by the Israeli Knesset, Netanyahu added: “I want you to become soldiers of the truth, and advocate Israeli interests in your countries[xiv].”

According to We can’t consider this as a disadvantage unless it affected the movements objectives, which, meanwhile, seems not affecting negatively. On the contrary, “The Palestinians in Europe Conference” seems to be more opened towards masses, which will be discussed in the next few paragraphs.

The Palestinians in Europe Conference:

The Palestinians in Europe Conference is among the largest and most influential Palestinian organizations in Europe that has become a comprehensive public forum visited by Palestinian refugees residing in various European countries. The conference is held periodically since 2003, with its first session taking place in London, while its latest was held in the city of Malmö, Sweden in 2016. Preparations are underway for the upcoming conference to be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The conference is attended by: senior officials, public figures, professionals, activists, media, intellectuals and artists who support the Palestinian cause and the right of return. In addition to, relief organizations, as in the case of the European “Al-Wafa Campaign,” specialist groups, such as “The European Union of Medical Specialists,” as well as forums representing the Palestinian community in various European countries[xv].

Furthermore, the conference went beyond the organization of periodic mass rallies for Palestinians and Palestinian cause sympathizers; rather, it strived – since its inception – to launch and supervise Palestinian professional and student clusters, as well as various sectors of the Palestinian civil society in Europe and emphasized this fact on many occasions.  For example, one of the provisions in the final communiqué of the 14th Conference in Malmö states that: “the conference calls for the development of far-reaching Palestinian institutions and the fortification of popular action and Palestinian civil society sectors, everywhere and in all fields[xvi].”

Observers argue that, the Palestinians in Europe Conference, is an entity parallel to the PLO in Europe. As during the 1960s and 1970s, the PLO established several syndicate, labor, and health committees and institutions throughout Europe; however, its influence weakened following the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the establishment of the PNA. The Palestinians in Europe Conference was able to mobilize Palestinians masses whereas the PLO was unable to, which was due to the following reasons:

  1. The state of discontent over the PNA’s inability to make any progress in the Palestinian refugee file through negotiations.
  2. The weakened state of PLO organizations in Europe, their weakened ties with the Palestinian diaspora abroad, and the shifting of focus away from PLO and towards PNA organization within the Palestinian territories.

PNA representatives missed much of the Palestinians in Europe Conference activates, participating – only symbolically – in a few of them. However, representative of the PLO in Rome, ambassador Sabri Attia, expressed the desire to organize such conferences under the supervision of the PLO[xvii].

On several occasions, Israel instigated against the Palestinians in Europe Conference, and deemed it sponsored by Hamas. During its 13th session, held in Berlin, pro-Israel supporters in Germany organized a media campaign to put an end to the Conference. They even attempted to persuade conference hall owners to cancel their contract with conference organizers[xviii]. However, political and media pressures exerted by Jewish organizations and pro-Israel newspapers failed to influence German officials to block the conference. 


When the PLO lost its role in unifying Palestinian efforts and organizing them in institutions and unions outside of Palestinian territories so as to activate the Palestinian cause and serve Palestinians in all their places of residence, social and youth movements attempted to bridge this huge gap left by the PLO.

In following the official statements and public activities put forth by these movements and clusters, it becomes evident to the researcher that they do not have an agenda to replace the PLO as much as they are trying hard to pressure the PLO to restructure and revive itself, where it will once again, be a representation of all Palestinians, without monopolizing or marginalizing a large group of Palestinians that have no representation within the PLO. 

On February 25th 2017 the “Palestinian Diaspora conference” was launched in Istanbul, gathering thousands of Palestinians of all ages and from various locations. The conference’s final communiqué called for the restructuring of the PLO, so as to accommodate all components of the Palestinian people, and deemed the Oslo Accords injurious to the Palestinian cause. On the other hand, the “Palestinian Diaspora conference” and other activities and institutions, such as BDS and the Palestinians in Europe Conference, are a major inconvenience to Israel, who began to worry about losing its status in the world. Growing media coverage for boycotts campaigns and “the right of return” activities have increased Israel’s concern, and it is exerting much effort to stop them.

In another context, the vacuum created by the   PLO’s absence and its diminishing role, in favor of other organizations, are increasingly affecting Palestinians in the diaspora. The merit of institutions such as the BDS and the Palestinians in Europe Conference is that they present models of struggle against Israel’s anti-Palestinian practices. They have influence in western countries and their actions are imbedded in International Law, making it extremely hard for Israel to attempt to block or put a halt to the expansion and popularity of these institutions.


[i]  For more details see

[ii]  For more details see

[iii]  BDS, “What is BDS?”, at:

[iv]  Ibid.

[v]  Sperber, J. (2015). BDS, Israel, and the World System. Journal of Palestine Studies, 45(1), 8-23.

[vi]  Omar Barghouthi, “BDS; The Confrontation Planet”, Palestine, Assafir Al Araby, 2014, at:

[vii]  Christoph Schult, “EU To Crack Down on Israeli Settlement Products”, Spiegel-Online, 11/2/2013, at:

[viii]  BDS, “cultural Boycott”, at:

[ix]  Artists for Palestine UK, “Artists’ Pledge”, at:

[x]  BDS, “What is BDS?”, at:

[xi]  Hilary Aked, “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: What is BDS?”, Al Jazeera English, 11/1/2017, at:


[xiii]  Al Jazeera, “Netanyahu calls for Jews to confront the Israel boycott movement”, 2/11/2016, at:

[xiv]  Ibid.

[xv]  Palestinian Return Centre, “14th Palestinians in Europe Conference to be held in Sweden”, 2015, at:

[xvi]  Quds Net News Agency, “Final Statement – the 14th Palestinians in Europe Conference”, 8/5/2016, at:

[xvii]  Amer Sultan, “7th Palestinians in Europe Conference: No peace without the return”, BBC, 2/5/2009, at:

[xviii]  Khaled Shammat, “Launching The Palestinians Of Europe Conference, In Berlin, Amid Israeli Opposition,” Al-Jazeera, 25/4/2015,


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