Empowerment through Boycott

Is the Palestinian Authority’s boycott of settlement products incitement against Israel or a legitimate step towards state-building?

boycott israeli goods 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
boycott israeli goods 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Don’t let the settlements into your homes,” the yellow and black banners in downtown Ramallah proclaim. The streets are bustling as usual with people walking in the West Bank’s busiest street amid the loud vendors and the even louder car honks of impatient drivers.
In Ramallah’s grocery stores and supermarkets, the shelves are piled up with food products, the basics, flour, sugar, pasta, and snacks, chocolates, chips and drinks, almost all made in Israel. Consumers buy them intuitively without any thought as to where they come from or where they are manufactured.
But there are some slight, yet perceptible changes. Along Ramallah’s hisbe (marketplace), the fruits and vegetables that once used to be piled on cartons with Hebrew writing are now piled out in the back. “We are more worthy” reads a banner, stuck on a store glass front. “You and your conscience,” reads another banner.
The banners refer to a new law banning products produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Golan Heights and Jordan Valley. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ratified the law on April 26. The ban calls for punitive measures against Palestinians who violate this law, including confiscation and destruction of the merchandise, a fine, and the possibility of a prison term.
In mid-May, a team of volunteers campaigned from house to house in the West Bank, explaining to Palestinians the importance of the boycott and presenting them with a list of products that are, the PA contends, manufactured in Israeli settlements.
The PA Ministry of Economy has also established a task force, known as karama (the National Dignity Fund), funded jointly by the government and Palestinian businesses, which will oversee the campaign. Karama has already set up a website, charged with identifying products produced in settlements and increasing the availability of Palestinian-produced products in local markets. The website already features names and pictures of products produced in the settlements: including Bagel Bagel, a snack-producing company, Tara dairy products, Ahava cosmetics, and dozens of others.
According to PA officials, the boycott is part of a larger plan to sever all commercial ties with settlements. The settlers “must understand that it will no longer be economically viable or profitable for them to continue to live in the West Bank,” declared PA Minister of the Economy, Hasan Abu Libdeh, in a press briefing in Ramallah, on May 4.
Abu Libdeh added that the campaign and the law are “not only about boycotting products, but about empowering local products, which currently make up only 18 percent of the Palestinian market” and increasing the Palestinian public’s confidence in Palestinian businesses. PA officials are also hoping that the boycott will increase the demand for domestic goods and thus increase employment in the West Bank, where some 200,000 Palestinians are currently out of work.
“While the decision of what to consume is a personal one, when that decision becomes a hazardous one to the Palestinian national interests, then something can and should be done,” Abu Libdeh said.
“This is not a political campaign, but a regulatory one, and it is not a campaign directed at Israel but a campaign to regulate and educate Palestinian society,” Abu Libdeh continued. He added that such a boycott is “long overdue,” and that “consuming settlement products is wrong, nationally, economically, politically, and must stop right away.”
Abu Libdeh says that while the PA has currently begun to confiscate goods as they leave the settlements and are transported to PA-controlled areas, the authorities have not yet begun to search homes and markets. According to Abu Libdeh, some $200 million worth of goods produced in West Bank settlements have already been confiscated.
Approximately 300,000 Jewish settlers live in settlements in the West Bank, along with some 2.5 million Palestinians. According to data provided to The Report by the PA Economics Ministry, Israeli settlements pump more than $500 million worth of goods and products into Palestinian markets.
But accurate figures regarding the value of goods produced in settlements are difficult to obtain, since Israel does not make any official distinction between goods produced in settlements and those produced in Israel proper. It is thus difficult to ascertain how harmful the boycott, even if it is fully observed and enforced, will be to the settlements  economically.
Head of the Wall and Settlements Affairs Unit of the Palestinian Authority, Ali Amer, tells The Report that until this legislation the West Bank was an open market that was flooded with all sorts of products – Palestinian, foreign, Israeli and settlement-made.
According to Amer, the difficulties of marketing farm products and their distribution to local and external markets have been the major obstacles facing Palestinian farmers. Selling Palestinian agricultural products within Israel requires Israeli-issued permits. Transporting products from north to south, and the reverse, in the West Bank has been adversely affected by Israel’s closure of East Jerusalem, in the middle of the main route between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. Movement of agricultural products between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is also subject to Israeli control and hindered by security checkpoints.
Every summer, Amer continues, farmers from Hebron struggle to market and sell their grapes in the West Bank. “Though they are the best grapes in the world, every year farmers throw out unsold, rotten merchandise, while grapes grown on settlements are sold all over the West Bank,” he complains. And Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Ismail Dweik asserts to The Report that “fruits and vegetables grown on the settlements are more costly and contain higher levels of hormones and chemicals.”
Dweik explains that Palestinians buy Israeli products “because of a misguided aesthetic appeal: because they are unnatural and harmful, but they look uniform and better.”
With the US-initiated Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks under way, Israeli officials say the campaign is ill-timed and misguided. “The message that is sent by this campaign is the exact opposite of the negotiation process that we are all trying to relaunch,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor tells The Report. “This campaign is a rejection and violation that contradicts the spirit of compromise and reconciliation that is essential to any peace process.”
And settler officials have called the boycott an act of “economic terrorism.” Concerned about the effect of the boycott on their economy and on possible resulting unemployment within the settlements, the Yesha Council, the representative organization of the settlements, declared in a written statement, “This is an act of hostility for all intents and purposes on the part of the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, and it must be answered immediately and decisively just like any other act of hostility.”
Referring to the Paris Protocol, signed in April 1994, which determined procedures and regulations governing economic relations between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel, the Yesha Council further stated that the boycott is “a clear violation of the Paris Protocol, which regulates the economic relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel must use the Palestinian Authority’s funds in its possession to compensate the boycotted factories.”
In a stormy session of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Uri Ariel (National Union party) noted that Israel transfers some 2 billion shekels ($520 million) to the PA from taxes that it collects as part of the Paris Protocol and suggested that Israel could withhold these funds.
But Abu Libdeh insists, “There is nothing in this campaign that violates the Oslo agreement or the Paris Protocol.” Those agreements, he notes, do not mention anything about economic dealings with the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Furthermore, says Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian campaign against products from the settlements represents “a practical commitment to peace.” Writing in The Jerusalem Post, he explained that “the PA is serious about building for a future state, living side by side with Israel. By definition, this includes building a viable economy, free from economic dependence on Israel – a dependency Israel has actively cultivated and exploited for the past four decades... Ours is not a campaign against Israel, nor does it target products made in Israel. To portray it as such is not only wrong, it obscures the real issues, namely the illegality of settlement activity, its impact on Palestinians, and the enormous threat it poses to the viability of a two-state solution. This initiative should reassure all who are serious about saving the two-state solution.”
For some, the current plan does not go far enough. Hind Awwad, coordinator for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee, tells The Report that “this campaign is a step in the right direction, but not enough.”
“If boycott is a means of nonviolent resistance against the oppressor, then a boycott of only settlement products is not sufficient,” she continues. “The PA’s campaign unfortunately reduces Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians to just the settlements. The PA needs to expand its capacity.”
Some radical left-wing groups in Israel agree with her.
Dalit Baum, coordinator for the Who Profits from the Occupation project in the Coalition of Women for Peace said that it is “not simple to define what settlement products are. Fruits and vegetables are sometimes grown in Israel proper but then packaged in a settlement or vice versa.” The PA, she suggests, should not be advocating boycott, but rather sanctions on Israel. “It is not possible to differentiate between Israeli and settlement products – they both make up the Israeli economy.”
And Adam Keller, spokesperson for Gush Shalom, which has attempted to generate a boycott of products manufactured in the settlements among Israelis, says that “everything on the Israeli market can end up on Palestinian shelves. The Palestinian economy is captive to the Israeli market.”
In response to the Israeli supporters, Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, has called for implementing legislation similar to the anti-boycott amendment to the US Tax Reform Act of 1976 initiated by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, which established the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance to monitor and punish any companies that acceded to or supported the Arab boycott of Israeli goods.
Aside from the planned boycott of settlement products, which mirrors similar efforts in the European Union, the PA is also keen to stop an estimated 30,000 Palestinians from working in the settlements. “Those who are working in settlements are beefing up settlements, contributing heavily to the lifeline of settlements and therefore they deserve more punishment,” Abu Libdeh declared.
These efforts are part of a concerted campaign on the part of the Palestinians to simultaneously engage in the proximity talks while also pursuing diplomatic and economic efforts against Israel, including initiatives in the UN and the failed attempt to block Israel’s acceptance to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
They are also apparently an attempt to engage a disenchanted Palestinian public in the efforts of state-building without resorting to violence, which, according to a study in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in Ramallah, is supported by 47 percent of the Palestinian public. It would seem that these are the motivations behind the well-publicized activities by PA officials, including President Abbas’s participation in a large, demonstrative burning of banned Israeli products and PM Salam Fayyad’s frequent appearances in villages and cities, where he calls for sumud (steadfastness) and dedicates new electrical stations, sewage pumping stations, and so forth.
Palestinians in downtown Ramallah think that boycotting is the way to go. “No Palestinian can possibly be against this campaign,” says Jumana Dabis, 25, who works for AmidEast in Ramallah, an organization that teaches the English language and professional skills. “Not buying settlement products is the least a Palestinian resident can do,” she tells The Report
Store owner Ahmad, who refused to give his last name “out of fear of reprisal,” says that in principle, he has no objection to stop buying products produced in the settlements – provided there are alternatives available. “Consumers are the ones who dictate what we should sell and what we shouldn’t,” not the PA. And Palestinian consumers prefer Israeli or settlement products over Palestinian ones, though they are more expensive, he says.
Yusef Ghazal, the manager of Bravo, a large chain store in Ramallah,says the boycott has not affected him at all. “There were a fewproducts which we were advised not to buy, Eden bottled water, a brandof flour, and a snack – and we’ve stopped buying it, and that was it.Alternatives were already available to us.”
“I think that boycott as a concept is a good strategy,” says NidalAtallah, 22, a geologist, walking on the sidewalk with a cigarette inhand. “But I think the PA is demonstrating a very short-term vision inthis campaign. They are focusing on a symptom of the problem, and notthe problems themselves. Internationally, they can gain support andrally around it, but otherwise, I think this could have been anopportunity to target Israel, and not just the settlements.”
Critics say that the Palestinian Authority, having lost the ability toconnect to the average Palestinian, is trying to relate to consumers,especially young Palestinians, using nonviolent means.
“The PA is unfortunately utilizing a ‘people’s campaign’ to advance their own political interests,” says BDS activist Awwad.