Strategic thinking and solidarity to national social justice struggles

Posted on | juni 1, 2011 | No Comments

Children holding Palestinian flags close to the border line. Mohammed Omer

For centuries, national social justice movements have brought about fundamental change. The Anti-Slavery Movement in the United States led to the abolition of slavery in 1865. In the Netherlands, women fought for, and obtained, the right to vote in 1919. The campaigns of the African-American Civil Rights Movement led to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. South African liberation movements (ANC and PAC) overthrew apartheid in 1994. All these examples illustrate the power of citizens and their organizations when they persistently work together towards clear goals.

As Ghandi observed in 1938, ‘a small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history’ (Misra and Gupta, 2008). This short statement reveals a number of key elements for the success of social movements. A movement can be sparked off by a small body of persons when they are determined and have an unquenchable faith in the mission of their social justice movement. These elements correspond with what I experienced at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa (KZA) that, for decades, supported the struggle against apartheid. These elements also apply to how the successful global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestinians came about. A core group of dedicated persons shared the conviction that they could make a contribution to fight injustice.

However, a small body of determined spirits cannot achieve social change on their own. A social justice movement needs to inspire large numbers of people to join in collective and individual actions in order to be successful. The challenge for solidarity activists is to find the ‘correct use’ of limited resources required to support the social justice movement. Therefore, strategic thinking is essential to prioritize the actions of social justice movements and solidarity activists.

The case of the global BDS movement is a good example of the importance of strategic thinking. In 2005, a small group of Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) explored how to respond to ongoing Israeli violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. Numerous UN resolutions and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Israel’s wall in the West Bank in 2004 confirmed the illegality of the settlements and the wall built on Palestinian land (Nieuwhof and Machover, 2009). Moreover, the ICJ ruled that all states have the obligation not to recognize the illegal situation and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation. In addition, state parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention were reminded of their obligation to ensure Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa inspired Palestinian NGOs. The anti-apartheid struggle demonstrated that international civil society can be a significant factor in bringing about social change. After several hundred years of colonialism and more than 40 years of apartheid, President De Klerk and other white leaders had to face the reality that fundamental change was inevitable in South Africa. Demographic pressures, the deplorable state of the economy, the international isolation of ‘white South Africa’, the increasing anti-apartheid protests both inside and outside South Africa and the outreach policy of the ANC were all important factors in bringing about this fundamental change (Nieuwhof, Ngeleza and Handmaker, 2005).

Palestinian NGOs have realized that while states have failed to hold Israel to account, civil society could itself play a role in ending Israel’s impunity. The Palestinian BDS campaign-call for action against Israel until it complies with international law, made a direct appeal to international civil society in 2005. 170 Palestinian NGOs supported the call, launched one year after the ICJ advisory opinion on the wall.

During the time of apartheid South Africa, solidarity organizations in Europe and the United States mobilized campaigns to build substance and gain momentum. After apartheid formally ended following democratic elections in 1994, it became clear that international pressure was one of the most significant factors that contributed to fundamental change in South Africa. The Palestinian BDS call is, in fact, an agenda to mobilize and unite international solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. The BDS call seemed a useful tool for building international pressure on Israel.

The mission of a group of Palestinian NGOs to mobilize international solidarity through the BDS call has, in a short time, already proven to be successful. The global campaigns to boycott and divest from companies that are involved in the occupation are effective. Moreover, the campaigns have contributed to an increasing awareness of the oppression of the Palestinian people. In response to the success, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, plans to spend millions of dollars on campaigns to redress the country’s deteriorating image in Europe (Eichner, 2011). However, it may be that the only real way to end BDS activism will be for Israel to comply with international humanitarian law and human rights.


  • Dutt Misra, A. and R. Gupta (2008), Insipiring Thoughts Of Mahatma Gandhi: Ghandi in daily life. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.
  • Nieuwhof, A and D. Machover (2009), ‘Time to hold Veolia to account’, The Electronic Intifada (accessed 30 January 2011).
  • Nieuwhof, A., B. Ngeleza and J. Handmaker (2005) ‘Lessons from South Africa for the peace process’, The Electronic Intifada (accessed 31 January 2011)
  • Eichner, I. (2011), Israel to hire European firms.,7340,L-4021603,00.html (accessed 1 February 2011)

This coverage was also published at International Institute for Social Studies

AUTHOR: Adri Nieuwhof
E-MAIL: a.nieuwhof [at]


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