January 06, 2011 Who profits from the occupation?

As we learn more about the BDS movement, a critical question emerges: what companies are involved with which activities that ultimately sustain the occupation? In Tel Aviv we meet Dalit Baum, an Israeli member of the Coalition of Women for Peace and specifically, the group Who Profits? She explains that the organization was developed to understand the economics of the settlement project. A short haired woman with intense black eyes and an ironic sense of humor, she states that the project aimed to investigate corporations directly involved in the occupation, to figure out the specifics, the financial interests, and who is making money from whom. After meticulous research, four years later they have a website, whoprofits.org, that has a partial data base listing approximately 1000 companies.

The criteria for inclusion on this list involves work in building settlements, marketing settlement goods, using industrial space within settlements, providing crucial services to settlements such as transportation, and providing equipment to the military such as for building walls and checkpoints. She notes that Israel has exploited the Palestinian labor pool and the Palestinian market, it is a captive market where Israeli policies have shut down much of the competition. For example, Palestinians are only allowed to grow agricultural products that are not as profitable as Israeli products and do not compete in European markets when compared to Israeli goods.

Who Profits is a unique grassroots organization that does impeccable economic research with careful documentation using concrete proof with governmental and company documents. They are very careful to stay within the letter of the law, as any suit for damages would be disastrous in the Israeli courts. An example of their work involves “Crossing the Line,” a fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that crosses the Green Line into the West Bank in two sections. The Israeli neighbors did not want the train and noise near their property so the project was moved and this will entail almost the entire destruction of the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa. Painfully there is now a petition to the world from the Palestinian village to put the train on land that is ALREADY expropriated. The train is being built by European and American companies.

Then there is the issue of financing of the occupation. All six Israeli banks are directly involved in supporting settlements. Dalit reminds us that you cannot separate the economy of the occupation from the economy of Israel from the economy of the US for that matter. For instance, Soda Stream, an Israeli company that makes carbonated water, just went public on Nasdaq.

She turns her attention to what does it mean to boycott settlement markets. She describes 18 tycoons that control the large corporations that are involved and notes that if they start losing money, they will pull out of the settlements. She describes living in Israel both as frustrating but “We feel effective.” As an example, her group will go to a checkpoint, they will document the infrastructure, the telecommunications, etc, and then google the companies, do the appropriate research, and put the information on the website. “Direct action with no gas! We use our privilege to see the occupation.” They also go to security industry exhibitions and meet with people eager to sell a host of weaponry. She focuses on crowd dispersal, what is called in the business, “nonlethal weapons” although everyone knows that these weapons can be lethal in high enough doses or with direct impact. For her she feels this is personal, as an activist who has been faced with tear gas and other methods used at demonstrations.

Another aspect of this macabre business Dalit describes is weaponry produced in the US. Because the US gives Israel an enormous amount of money to buy American military equipment, there are now Israeli entrepreneurs who establish companies in the US and then benefit from the largesse of our tax dollars. Thus there are many forces within the US that have strong economic interests in maintaining this lucrative arrangement where the US is basically financing its own war industries. This lead a group of activists, after a demonstration, to return empty tear gas canisters to the US ambassador. They were promptly arrested for possession of weapons, but the charges were later dropped.

Dalit reminds us that there is a lot to be done in the US and any effort contributes to the cause. It is important to pick strategic targets that also involve an educational component. She feels boycotting computer companies or generic drug companies, for instance, are not strategic activities. She is very optimistic, both because this movement is lead by Palestinian activists and because there is a response in the Israeli Knesset that implies that people in power are worried. The Anti BDS law in process will make individuals personally liable for any damage to companies. The Association Law aims to outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign entities that might lead to charges of war crimes against Israelis. The Fighting Terrorism Law targets any Israeli or Palestinian activist who does any activity against Israeli soldiers or State symbols, and vaguely and obscurely defines all of these activities as terrorism. This could include nonviolent, legitimate resistance to the occupation. The Prohibition on Instituting Boycott Law will criminalize Israeli citizens who support local and international BDS activities. Recently the Knesset began an investigation of the funding of NGOs.

Dalit sees these rightwing trends as plunging into fascism and of particular concern is that these anti-democratic assaults are originating in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of a democratic society.

I leave this meeting with the sense that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the US which is actively enmeshed with the military machinery and corporations that make the Israeli occupation possible. In addition, the “only democracy in the Middle East” seems to be heading rapidly in an dangerous direction; I wonder how many “Israel right or wrong” supporters fully appreciate this and when will supporting the actions of the Israeli government become untenable to a wider group of people. I am impressed that a small group of thoughtful and dedicated activists can have such a significant impact on the process. I only hope that the next time I visit Israel, I will not be visiting them in prison.

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