To shop or not to shop?

Shopping has in recent years become a politically charged and sensitive topic that that drives Palestinians into heated debates.

Palestinian Arab woman shopping store 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinian Arab woman shopping store 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
As I was strolling down Jerusalem’s Mamilla Avenue on Friday, I glimpsed three prominent Palestinian women from the West Bank. Carrying brand-name bags, these women definitely were not there just to take in the sights.
Many Palestinians I know shop in Israel, as well as in supermarkets like Rami Levi where the prices are very competitive. But these particular women are outspoken and prominent activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, weekly popular resistance demonstrations and the March 15th group that hoped to launch the “Palestinian Spring.”
I wondered why they weren’t in Bil’in, Ni’lin or Nabi Saleh where they usually spend their Fridays. Most importantly, what were they doing here shopping? Surely they must understand that shopping on the Israeli side is directly contradictory to their activism.
Shopping, in addition to being a national pastime in the West Bank where there are few entertainment options, has in recent years become a politically charged and sensitive topic that that drives Palestinians into heated debates.
Amid the various Palestinian initiatives to boycott Israeli and settlement products as well as support local merchants and goods, the casual shopper navigates a metaphorical minefield of do’s and don’ts.
Seemingly simple questions such as where to go and what to buy have taken on mythological proportions. It has become a patriotic duty to shop one way and not another.
There have been several boycotting initiatives aimed at Israeli and settlement products, as well as academic and cultural boycotts, the latest of which involved several Palestinian activists preventing the Arab-Israeli singer Sharif Durzi from performing at a New Year’s Eve party in Ramallah. Durzi’s discography includes many Hebrew songs, which enraged young Palestinian activists.
Unlike the boycotting of settlement products, which was officially embraced by the Palestinian Authority, boycotting Israeli products is neither legal nor possible.
The Paris Protocol signed by both parties in 1994 does not allow for such boycott, nor is it possible from a practical point of view given the interconnectedness of the Palestinian and Israeli economies.
As such, such boycott campaigns are encouraged only by civil society groups, and since it’s coming from the street level, these campaigns have taken on moral and ethical dimensions.
Israel is not the only boycott target.
Arabs have taken to this approach. There has been a much-forwarded e-mail circulating lately supporting the boycotting of American, British, Danish or Dutch products either because of the war in Iraq, supporting Israel or publishing controversial cartoons depicting religious figures.
While the boycott campaign against Israel has found support abroad, in the West Bank it is taking a more radical form, called anti-normalization. Nowadays, if one were to voice uncertainty regarding the boycott, they would immediately be labeled as less patriotic than they should be.
Because of this radicalized environment, especially with regard to boycotting Israel, I was deeply surprised by the sight of these women shopping in Mamilla.
It begs the question: is boycotting Israeli products an effective mode of resisting the occupation? I often wonder because, for example, substituting Israeli dairy products for Palestinian alternatives is simply adding a middleman; the source of all milk in the country is the Israeli company Tnuva.
Add to this that there is no price-monitoring in the Palestinian market, and the result is that although Palestinian merchants do benefit, many more Palestinian consumers are burdened financially. The same situation occurs when purchasing brand-name clothes from a Palestinian merchant, who in turn bought them from Israel.
So the only thing this boycott means is having to go through another channel.
And under the tempting banner of “supporting the Palestinian economy” one would only be helping specific merchants by not buying the same products from the original chain stores in Israel.
As a casual shopper myself, I rarely venture into such serious and heated topics because they have the power to ruin a joy-filled sojourn in the Mamilla, Malha or Ben-Yehuda malls.
ANY DAY I have a permit to visit Jerusalem is a happy day. I have many Jerusalemite friends who accompany me for walks in the Old City, eating mutabak sweets and sometimes visiting the holy sites. But one of my important missions on such days is to shop, shop, shop.
It is not my place to formulate strategies for resistance, but even if boycotting Israeli products was effective there is another reason it would not work. Palestinians shop on the Israeli side because it saves them money. Furthermore, they can pay by credit card and take advantage of clearance sales, all of which are not utilized by Palestinian merchants to attract consumers.
We also enjoy the variety of choices, the unified prices (i.e. no exhausting bargaining), the warranties, the ability to return the purchases and the more comfortable shopping experience, in the sense that you can come to look or compare prices without feeling obliged to buy.
But what if I didn’t possess a permit? I would obviously have to shop in the West Bank. A few months ago as I was shopping in Ramallah for a pair of jeans. A shop worker actually told me she liked my figure and has always wished she had a slim body like mine. I thought she was trying to talk me into buying them. But what if a shopper wasn’t slim? To be fair, she was just trying to give people a physiological push! I saved myself the embarrassment of having to say I didn’t like the jeans and told her I would definitely come back to buy them.
Shop owners and employees in the West Bank don’t like it when customers leave without buying anything, and I didn’t want to be remembered as a “not-alwaysbuying” customer, and then not get good service next time.
Of course, I never went back.
Although the idea of boycotting Israel, as a state occupying Palestinian land, might seem tempting to Palestinians such as myself that are committed to a peaceful, non-violent resolution, one cannot expect any Palestinian to break the bank and sacrifice the pleasure of shopping for the sake of showing solidarity with Palestinian merchants.
However, I still cannot comprehend how BDS activists can shop in an Israeli mall. It makes no sense.
If there is a point to that campaign, then I guess we should, for example, also refrain from using Israeli Internet (which is better than the Palestinian one). But if shopping in Israel doesn’t entail any political loss, why do we insist on enforcing a ban on it as if it’s a social taboo? If boycotting Israel does not make any sense, or have tangible effects, I don’t get the symbolism.
To shop or not shop? I think shop!