Boycott of Israeli Foodmakers Only Harms Palestinians

They’re just hurting themselves, but one has to feel for them – nothing else they've tried has worked. Pity they never tried to build a functioning economy

David Rosenberg
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Bamba, and giant Bamba - a peanut puff that's become quite the staple snack. It's made by Osem, which the Palestinian boycott encompasses.Credit: Haim Taragan
David Rosenberg

The Palestinian boycott of Israeli food makers began last week, with roughly equal amounts of brutality and confusion. Yet for all the bravado its organizers broadcast, there was a much bigger element of despair.

The brutality was expressed in the bands of Fatah activists marching into groceries and checking shelves to see whether packages of Bamba peanut-flavored snacks or Tnuva milk were still on display, and issuing thinly veiled threats to reluctant store owners who failed to remove them quickly.

“We will visit businesses and explain to their owners that they are partners in our goal to boycott Israeli products," Halil Falanh, a member of the boycott committee in the Ramallah district, was quoted in Ynet as saying. He promised he would use undefined “pleasant” methods to enforce the boycott, although some of his colleagues threatened to confiscate goods.

In any case, the enforcers' strategy of educating merchants about their national duty by forcing their way into shops was itself intimidating, even if it fell short of violence.

The confusion was even more evident. The boycott enforcers talked about banning six companies, when in fact two of them (Strauss and Elite) are the same company. Nor is it clear why other big Israeli companies like Unilever Israel or Central Bottling (Coca-Cola Israel) were exempt. The deadline for complying seemed a little hazy and mechanisms for enforcing it awkward and too patently easy to evade. The whole thing came off as, a show of face designed for media consumption.

Not exactly a popular move

Palestinians have every reason to want to shun Israel, but the store inspections by quasi-official vigilante groups made clear that there was no upwelling of Palestinian support for a boycott.

That’s where the despair comes in. In Europe and America, politically engaged college students, performance artists and cooperative-grocery-store activists – the kind of people who form the core of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement – may find it personally gratifying to swear off Israel. It costs them nothing: none are likely to have ever knowingly bought an Israeli product, held shares in an Israeli company or been invited to Israel to perform or exhibit. They can take the politically correct stand by signing a petition or voting on a resolution at no personal cost.

That’s not the case for the Palestinians, who depend on Israel for goods, services and employment. By one estimate, 70% of the processed food Palestinians consume comes from Israel, so boycotting even some products entails a huge personal sacrifice.

And to what avail? Only about 3% of Israeli food sales come from the West Bank, and most of that is for basic, low-margin products. The CEOs of Israeli food companies won’t be lobbying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to transfer the Palestinian tax receipts he has frozen, which is the ostensible reason for the boycott.

More than two decades after the Oslo peace process began, the Palestinian state in the making is frozen. The Palestinians not only have no state, what they do have is an Islamic theocracy in Gaza and a Putin-like government in the West Bank where democratic norms exist only on paper. Israel’s settlements are chipping away at whatever prospects remain for a Palestinian state. Their economy is limping along, providing neither jobs nor prosperity. The International Monetary Fund estimates that a fifth of the West Bank labor force is unemployed and that the economy will shrink 2% this year.

In Gaza, the situation is many times worse. Palestinians are entirely reliant on a less-than-generous Israel for their well-being.

The last man on Earth to care

The fact is the last man on Earth to care about the Palestinians, or at least to take an active interest in them, was John Kerry and even he seems to have moved on to other issues.

Israelis have effectively handed over the Palestinians to the settlers, quietly ignoring the growing settlements and the political and economic costs they are imposing on Israel. Another intifada might wake them up, but is more likely to make them reject a political settlement with such a bunch of crazed killers.

Europe says the right things about negotiations and settlements but has done virtually nothing to back up its words. The Arab world is preoccupied with the indigestion of the Arab Spring – Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, Al-Sisi’s counter-revolution in Egypt and the anarchy in Libya – and with Iran. In any case, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t a thinking Palestinian who doesn’t look at the violence and dictatorships that have emerged from the great hopes of the Arab Spring and doubt how the Palestinian national struggle is going to end.

You have to feel for the Palestinians. They have tried everything over the past century: terror/armed struggle, direct diplomacy with Israel, political pressure via the United Nations and the BDS movement. They have sought the backing of the Arab world, the Third World, the United States and Europe.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say nothing has worked. Palestine has won the world’s recognition, even in Israel, as a legitimate nation that deserves a state. It has formed the basic institutions of a functioning state. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, travels the world and even at times to Israel as the leader of a country, not a liberation movement.

To their credit the Palestinians themselves show far more national consciousness than their brothers and sisters in long-established states like Iraq, Yemen or Libya. Still, most national struggles last a decade or two, not a century with no imminent prospect of success.

The great despair has translated into angry frustration that celebrates the Hamas missile attacks on Israel last summer in a war that caused far, far more Palestinian causalities and left vast swaths of Gaza in ruins. Palestinian national aspirations have shrunk into acts of futile vengeance.

It’s a pity that about the only thing that the Palestinians haven’t tried is to quietly build a functioning economy and efficient government in the shadow of the occupation.

Of course, they will get no help from Netanyahu’s Israel, which sometimes talks about economic development preceding a political settlement but doesn’t mean it. The separation barrier and the checkpoints are serious burdens.

But that doesn’t mean economic development can’t happen. The West Bank has assets it can work with, namely that it sits astride a relatively big and strong economy with a very low unemployment rate that needs skilled and unskilled labor. Moreover, aid money is still flowing, even if less than before. Palestine has the skills and capital of its diaspora to draw on. And, if Israel’s elections bring in a more moderate government, it may even get some real help from Jerusalem.