The Palestinian Conscience

In the boycott of settlement products, the Palestinians have found a way to provoke Israel at little cost.

311_boycott (photo credit: AFP)
(photo credit: AFP)
WITH THE PROXIMITY talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the background, the Ramallah authorities launched a widespread campaign to boycott settlement products. The Arabic media do not use the term “proximity talks,” which has positive connotations, but “indirect talks,” apparently to stress that there is no actual contact between the sides.
The Palestinian campaign to boycott Israeli products manufactured in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem actually began more than eight months ago, and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who initiated it, was photographed more than two months ago throwing settlement products into a fire. But until recently the campaign had not made a major impact on the Palestinian public or markets.
Now, however, it has become a much more organized, widespread and serious effort, with political implications, not the least of which is its impact on the proximity talks led by US envoy George Mitchell.
The boycott campaign was planned and prepared carefully by the Palestinian Ministry of Economy headed by Hassan Abu Libdeh, and at its center was the printing of a welldesigned, colorful, 78-page brochure, with photographs and details of 500 products and factories operating in the settlements. Most of these factories are in the Israeli industrial areas in the West Bank: Barkan in Samaria, Mishor Adumim on the way to Jericho and Atarot, northeast of Jerusalem. There are several other factories inside the settlements. Most of the products are in the food industry: baked goods, sweets, snacks, nuts and milk products, drinks, detergents, household and kitchen appliances, electronics and cosmetics.
The title of the brochure is “A Call to Fight Settlement Products,” and it includes the sections of the Palestinian law forbidding trading and buying products from the settlements and the fine and prison penalties for anyone who breaks the law. This law was passed a few years ago but never enforced. The slogan of the campaign is “You and Your Conscience,” and it is an appeal to Palestinians with a national conscience not to buy products from the settlements.
The booklet began to be distributed in mid-May by 3,000 volunteers, mostly high school students wearing uniform T-shirts, who canvassed door-to-door with the goal of reaching the 400,000 Palestinian households in the West Bank. The campaign does not include homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem but pictures of the brochure appeared in all of the Palestinian media and information about the campaign also reached East Jerusalem, of course.
The Palestinian leadership knows full well that calls for a boycott of settlement products anger many people in Israel – particularly when they see pictures of Israeli products thrown into bonfires. Therefore they have taken several calming measures.
Spokesmen from the Palestinian Ministry of Economy said, for example, that they intend to stress the positive side of the campaign, which is strengthening the Palestinian economy; in other words, that the hundreds of millions of dollars the Palestinians presently spend every year on buying products from the settlements should be diverted to buying similar or identical products manufactured in Palestinian factories. This will advance the Palestinian national economy. Therefore, the Palestinian spokespeople stress, it is by no means a boycott of products from Israel but only of those manufactured in the settlements. They stress their commitment to their economic agreements with Israel, which they say do not include settlement products but only what is manufactured inside Israel.
It is obvious this is not a purely economic campaign. Israeli factories, even the ones in the settlements, direct the vast majority of their output to the Israeli market or for export, and only a small part goes to the Palestinian territories.
The boycott of settlement products by foreign companies and organizations has stepped up lately, especially in Europe. Palestinian and other activists monitor settlement products in European markets and demand they be boycotted.
In several cases they have succeeded.
Wine from the Barkan Winery, for example, from the Samaria factory, has been boycotted in several places in Europe and the factory management, fearing damages, relocated production to a factory inside Israel (on Kibbutz Hulda near Rehovot).
I have even seen several bottles of wine produced by Barkan with a map attached to them showing the new location of the factory inside Israel. Nonetheless, the boycott of Barkan wine has not been canceled, because the Palestinians claim that the factory in Israel buys grapes from the Golan Heights.
“If European countries boycott settlement products, how could we go on buying them?” argued Economic Minister Abu Libdeh. He was referring, among other things, to a recent announcement by a large marketing network in Italy that it was boycotting agricultural produce from Israel’s Agrexco company, because it does not put special stickers on produce purchased from farmers from the settlements.
One of the spokesmen of the Palestinian Ministry of Economy said that their inquiries found that the boycott in the territories and Europe has already yielded results: he said that 17 factories have had to relocate into Israel or close. This has political significance, he said, claiming that the settlements are an obstacle to peace, and therefore the weaker the settlements get, the greater the chances of progress on the political negotiations.
IT IS NOT CLEAR WHETHER HIS figures are accurate. Israeli institutions and officials, in any case, reacted to the boycott with either anger or dismissal.
One who was angry was the Chairman of the Manufacturers Association, Shraga Brosh, who accused the Palestinians of ingratitude: “For more than eight years I have been working with business people from Israel and abroad to develop the Palestinian economy, out of awareness that a thriving economy contributes to peace,” he said. “Meanwhile, their leaders are boycotting products and hurting the Israeli economy.” Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer reacted similarly and demanded the Palestinians stop the boycott because it ruins the atmosphere at the beginning of proximity talks.
Representatives of the right-wing parties in the Knesset reacted much more strongly, as did the Yesha Council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which called the boycott a terror attack.
“It is an act of hostility by the heads of the PA and it should draw the same response as an act of hostility,” the settlers’ council said in a statement. How should Israel respond? Knesset member Uri Ariel (National Union) and many others demanded an immediate counter-boycott against the Palestinians: stop buying their products and stop employing Palestinian workers in Israel. Almost all of the Israeli reactions mentioned the fact that Israeli factories in the settlements employ mostly Palestinian workers, and if the factories were to close, some 25,000 Palestinians would be out of work. So, they say, it is not the Israeli economy that will be hurt by the boycott, but the Palestinian economy.
That is the context of the many reactions of dismissal in Israel towards the boycott.
When the heads of industry called a conference about it, only three of the dozens of Israeli factory owners in the West Bank showed up.
It is interesting that the Israeli reactions left almost no impression on the Palestinians.
It is clear they were not at all intimidated by the Israeli threats to impose a counter-boycott.
The reason is that for them, the question is political, not economic. “What will happen if your boycott leads to the firing of 25,000 Palestinians who work in the settlements?” Haitham Kayali, an official in the Ministry of Economy, was asked. He replied: “We have no choice but to do this. Palestinian workers built the settlements and built the separation fence, and we, of course, object to those projects and object in principle to the settlers, and therefore we must boycott their products and weaken them.”
Since the Palestinians see it as a political matter, they feel that they have the upper hand.
Israel cannot react to the boycott. The Netanyahu government’s hands are tied. It cannot impose a counter-boycott against the Palestinians because Israel is committed to a series of international economic agreements forbidding such a boycott. Nor do the economic agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, signed following the Oslo Accords, allow a boycott of Palestinian products.
I noticed that the list of the 500 Israeli products and factories in the West Bank and the Golan Heights was downplayed in Israeli publications.
The Palestinians and their supporters all over the world look for such lists to expand their boycott of settlement products. Why, then, help them by publishing it? Even the prime minister and senior ministers hardly addressed the issue. It is even hard to find a statement of condemnation from the Foreign Ministry headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who does not miss opportunities to assail such Palestinian activities.
Why isn’t official Israel responding firmly? The reason is the hostile atmosphere towards the settlements, spreading throughout the international community and threatening to lead to the political isolation of Israel. If the Netanyahu government, which was forced to freeze construction on the settlements, started to act against the Palestinian boycott, it would immediately appear as supporting the settlers and arouse anger in the world.
Israel decided, therefore, to lower the tone, to let the Palestinian boycott campaign go by quietly and wait for the storm to pass.
Maybe there will be negative reactions in the Palestinian public. The fired workers will protest. The Palestinian traders who make their living from distributing settlement products might also be angry about the losses caused to them.
Either way, the Palestinian leadership is pleased with the boycott. Ramallah is well aware of the embarrassment the boycott causes the Israeli public and leadership. There are also left-wing elements in Israel who support the boycott. It looks like the Ramallah government found a successful issue from their point of view; an issue that allows them to provoke Israel without Israel being able to respond.