Otherwise Occupied / Palestinians Start Food Fight as Boycott Intensifies

Although Palestinian boycotts of Israeli products only have a marginal impact on the Israeli economy, they do serve a greater social purpose.

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A poster at a Ramallah store calling for the boycott of Israeli goods. "Do not pay for the bullets that kill our children, we want the occupation to lose," the poster reads.
A poster at a Ramallah store calling for the boycott of Israeli goods. "Do not pay for the bullets that kill our children, we want the occupation to lose," the poster reads.Credit: AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Tnuva and Osem products are disappearing from the shelves of Palestinian grocery stores and supermarkets. However, the shop owners are boycotting these and other Israeli companies, more because several high-ranking Palestinians have publicly embarrassed them than out of patriotic fervor. It began about three and a half weeks ago, when the National Committee against Israeli Punitive Measures announced a campaign to boycott the products of five Israeli companies for as long as Israel held on to Palestinian tax revenues it had collected at the international borders.

The committee, which is headed by high-ranking Fatah member Mahmoud al-Aloul, gave the stores two weeks to clear their shelves. In the meantime, after some people ridiculed linking the end of the boycott to the return of the tax funds, a statement was made that the boycott would be indefinite.

The committee is not a governmental one and the boycott is not legally binding – unlike the boycott of products from the settlements, which is enshrined in an official government decision (supervision of this boycott was stopped, however, due to lack of desire or funds, and it is only partially observed).

At the end of the two-week period, the committee members went to several grocery stores and supermarkets, accompanied by the media (including Israeli journalists), and publicly humiliated vendors who had failed to comply. And last Monday, Fatah youth members confiscated a truck carrying Tnuva milk, worth several tens of thousands of shekels, and spilled the milk in the middle of al-Manara Square, Ramallah. It took three water tanks from the municipality (using at least 30 cubic meters of that precious fluid) to clean up the public space. Several passersby hurried to save a few of the bags and cartons of milk. When people asked why the milk had been spilled instead of being given to a refugee camp, for example, the Fatah youth answered that doing so would have made it possible to claim they had stolen the milk for themselves.

In principle, there is support for the boycott of Israeli products. This is both to encourage Palestinian local products and manufacturing, and to broadcast to Israel and Israelis that, no, it is not business as usual. But the forceful manner in which the National Committee and the Fatah youth enforcing the boycott are acting has drawn criticism and complaints.

“This is the first time high-ranking Fatah members have been hurt by Israeli punitive measures [which forced salaries to be cut because of the delay in transferring the tax monies], so they decided to act,” was the unflattering assessment of some former Fatah activists. They also said that “Fatah and its high-ranking personnel are politically marginalized, so they are looking for any way to stand out.” And, of course, there were those who raised the inevitable question, “And have they given up their VIP cards?” This question refers to documents provided by Israel that grant the high-ranking members some leniencies in movement.

I heard a further explanation of the committee’s actions from several young people (who have no need to be scared into boycotting the products of the “Zionist entity”). They said the hidden motive is to throw out the marketing companies and replace them with different ones that are owned by close associates. Even if this explanation for the National Committee’s action is groundless, it shows how deeply the current of suspicion runs of the class that it represents. Maybe it would be better if the high-ranking members engaged in the boycott invoked health considerations as well: to explain that milk, particularly that which is full of hormones, is unhealthy; and that Bamba snacks, which are full of fat and salt, are unnecessary, too.

Vegetarians overnight?

The PLO Central Council met last week in Ramallah, but one of its resolutions – to boycott all Israeli products – is an empty one, as economists from the Palestinian Authority are well aware. It is true that one can do without many of these products (who on earth needs Israeli chocolate and chewing gum, or mineral water from the Golan Heights or Ein Gedi?). It is also possible – even within the framework of the restrictive Paris Protocol on economic relations – to import them directly from abroad, rather than through Israeli importers.

But there are many products that have no replacement, and importing them from abroad will make them more expensive. What about meat, for example: A Palestinian economist told me that 97 percent of the meat and chicken that Palestinians consume is purchased from Israel. Can anyone envisage the Palestinians giving up meat and becoming vegetarians immediately? He told me that, so far, every boycott of Israeli products (including those from the settlements) has not reduced the amount of Palestinian imports from Israel by more than about five percent.

But even if abstaining from most of the products has not harmed Israel’s economy, the activity on behalf of the boycott is important. A boycott allows large-scale participation by people in the act of rebellion, without lifting a stone or firing a shot.

The roughshod military-colonialist occupation sticks its hands into every facet of human life and disrupts it: from cradle to grave, and beyond. There is no way to respond individually to every such violent act of disruption. A boycott redirects the feelings of anger and hatred, and the desire for revenge – which are justified, natural and understandable – into channels of mass action (what is surprising is the small number of individual violent expressions of those justified, natural and understandable feelings).

Whatever their motivations may be, the high-ranking members’ boycott initiative (an echo of popular, not official, initiatives) is evidence of the changes in the internal Palestinian political climate. And it is definitely not the last word.

Amira Hass tweets at @hass_haaretz

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