January 05, 2011 Settlement products: Boycott PA style

Many US activists are becoming increasingly involved in the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement as a nonviolent tactic to change Israeli policy through economic and political pressure and creative education and actions. Much is available on the internet, including the 2005 BDS call from Palestinian civil society and the PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Our day in Ramallah started out with a presentation and discussion with Omar Barghouti, a political analyst, cultural critic, electrical engineer, former dancer and choreographer, and one of the founders of PACBI. Although he gave an elegant and compelling analysis, much of his work is readily available in the US so I am going to comment on our next meeting.

Hitham Kayali, the general coordinator of Al Karameh National Empowerment Fund, an engaging and articulate 30 something, sat at the end of a long conference table and presented the Palestinian Authority’s plan for Palestinians to boycott all Jewish settlement products. In April 2010, the Law to Ban and Combat Settlements Products was passed as part of a governmental plan to build functional state institutions, a functional economy, and to encourage local Palestinian produce. Ironically as my attention is distracted by a rooster crowing, I notice a large Jewish settlement visible from the window. Because there has never been an official economy, settlement products in Palestinian shops are often outdated, expired, or without quality control.

Hitham outlines the challenges starting with the settlements which utilize Palestinian land and resources and block Palestinian production through unfair competition and false labeling. I am amazed to learn that settlement dates are even marketed in Iran with Palestinian labels! Settlement industries get special tax breaks and also are famously known for dumping their industrial waste into the adjacent Palestinian lands, circumventing environmental laws and threatening the health of Palestinians. Only 16% of the “Palestinian consumer basket” is local produce. Thus, a fund was created by the Palestinian private sector and matched by the PA to create the legislation prohibiting purchasing settlement products. At the political level there is total consensus that settlements cannot be part of a peace deal.

The next step was a public awareness campaign to educate and motivate the population. I peruse through the “Guide to Combating Settlement Products,” a glossy brochure with pages of over 100 products, with the identifying company and settlement. I am caught by the many US companies that have branches in the settlements or products that are frequently in our own stores: Nature Valley granola bars made by General Mills in Atarot, pastry and flour made by Pillsbury in Atarot, Brita water filters made by Soda Club in Mishur Adumim, carbonation machines made by Soda Club in Mishur Adumin, cosmetics by AHAVA in Mizpi Shalom. The lists include food, wine, furniture, electronics, and building equipment. Globalization is starting to have an even more sinister feel for me. I am also struck by the amount of industrial production that occurs in the settlements which frequently have new Jewish or Russian immigrants looking for work or poorly paid Palestinian workers.

The next step in the project was door to door campaigning and in May 2010, the Fund reached 70% or 350,000 homes in the West Bank. There were approximately 3000 volunteers starting with Prime Minister Fayyad and other governmental officials. They also targeted all Palestinian shops, gave them product guides, and introduced the Medal of Dignity if the shop was free of settlement products. A competition was created for 5th to 7th grade students to express what to say to Palestinian business men who continue to market settlement products and are using the best 50 messages for future education.

As of last week, Palestinian markets were free from settlement products and this will be monitored by various consumer protection and health and agricultural ministers.

The next challenge is to cut off other economic ties to settlements as 20,000 Palestinian workers are compelled to take settlement jobs, despite major risks, due to the lack of employment in the West Bank. We learn of the 23 year old Ahmad Draghmeh who was killed 1/2/11 at the Hamra checkpoint near Nablus on his way to work in a settlement. Initially media reports said he tried stabbing the soldiers, then the IDF confirmed that he was not armed, but was holding a glass bottle, then the story morphed: the soldiers were scared he might try to stab them with the bottle. Now all is “under investigation” which usually goes nowhere. The man was on his way to work.

The PA has created a grace period in recognition of the lack of work alternatives and another labor fund has been established to reintegrate laborers into the Palestinian economy.

While I sympathize fully with these efforts, it is difficult for me to fully understand how Palestinians can establish a viable economy when the Israeli government controls all imports of raw materials, construction materials, building permits, movement of workers, and exports. Hitham explains this is all part of an international campaign. In 2009 the Norwegian pension funds had four billion dollars invested in settlement products alone and now the pension funds are actively involved in the divestment movement. Hitham jokes that “Avigdor Lieberman is the biggest blessing for Palestinians” because he is open about his racist anti-Arab intentions and generates support for Palestinians.

The painful irony is that Palestinians will still have to buy many Israeli goods, partly because of Israeli control of all imports and partly because they are bound by the Paris Protocols which forbid boycotting Israeli products. Hitham comments, “Whoever signed that was drunk.” Another disturbing fact is that the vast majority of goods now trickling into Gaza are settlement products as well.

Another bizarre twist in this story is that there is support for this effort within Israel by liberal two staters who are against the settlement project and see this as a challenge to the settler movement.

While I hear much criticism of the PA on the ground, and a sense that this effort is perhaps too little too late, I suspect that boycott PA style is an important piece in the puzzle to create political change in this impossible place.

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