Consumerism Is the Continuation of the Occupation by Other Means

The much-touted decision to allow West Bank Palestinians to shop in Israel is not all roses.

There were also those who were unimpressed by the masses of West Bank Palestinians streaming to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, that is, by the Civil Administration's generosity in granting entry permits to Israel during the Id al-Fitr holiday. They were the businessmen in Ramallah. And what was at first a whispered secret turned into the talk of the town.

A few days before the holiday, Nidal, 45, went to get a permit so he could visit his family in Jaffa. The first step: Submit a request for an entry permit to Israel to the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs in Ramallah, one of the creations of the Oslo Accords that left the permits' bureaucracy in place and actually doubled it: What was arranged from 1991 to 1995 directly with the Israeli soldier/clerk now requires the mediation of a Palestinian clerk. Officials from the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs later transfer the requests to the Israeli Civil Administration on the other side of the hill (like Area C, the permits' bureaucracy was supposed to have been temporary according to the Oslo Accords, but the temporary has become permanent and the artificial has become natural, like the sunset ).

"Sorry," the Palestinian clerk told Nidal. "Too many people are asking to enter Israel, there is an excess and permits are no longer being issued."

Nidal understood at first that the Israeli side could not handle the abundance of requests, but a friend revealed to him he was wrong, and that the Israeli side was eager to issue permits. So eager that it is obvious that the soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint had been instructed to be lenient: The line moved quickly and cars (with Israeli license plates only ) crossing the checkpoint were permitted to carry not only the drivers and their children, but also friends with entry permits, who at other times would be required to get out of the car, walk to the gates with the revolving metal doors and wait in a long line for tellers, electronic gates and electromagnetic scanners.

The soldiers were also nice and spoke politely (like the soldiers at the Beit El checkpoint for VIPs in eastern Ramallah who are briefed to also be polite and not just on holidays, and to say "have a nice day" even at night ).

That is how Nidal discovered that the Palestinians were the ones who stopped accepting requests and forwarding them, because businessmen in Ramallah were complaining that even during Ramadan everyone was doing their shopping for the holiday in Jerusalem and who knows what will be during the holiday itself.

"Ramallah was empty," one merchant said with typical exaggeration. True, to an untrained eye the streets of Ramallah and the stores there looked more crowded than ever, but several sources confirmed that merchants' complaints prompted the Ministry of Civil Affairs to halt the flow of requests for permits. A quick inquiry found that this occurred only in Ramallah. Other Palestinian branches in the West Bank, such as in Hebron and Jenin, continued to accept permit requests as usual and forward them to the Israelis.

That's strange: Hebron and Jenin residents do not join the shopping frenzy of the month of Ramadan and the ensuing holiday, and their purchases in Israel do not worry merchants in those cities? And thus another element was disclosed: Ramallah residents discovered that the prices in Israel are much lower than in Ramallah. And yes, this is also true of brand names, as Dunya and her 17-year-old friends discovered at the Malha Mall and on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem. And Sua'd, Dunya's mother, summed it up bluntly: "People realized that in Ramallah they're cheating us." Everything in Ramallah is more expensive, from a cup of coffee in a trendy cafe to children's and teens' clothing and assorted electrical appliances.

The merchants claim in their defense that this is due to the high taxes and the gas and storage expenses which are higher (than those of the Israeli merchants ) due to travel restrictions. But they are not really convincing their listeners. After all, Palestinian citizens of Israel come to shop in Jenin, Nablus and Hebron specifically because the prices there are cheaper than in Israel. And the merchants in those cities suffer just as much from the high costs of transport and travel restrictions as the Ramallah merchants.

The answer is: Many foreigners whose salaries are high and stable flock to Ramallah, and a large segment of Palestinian high-middle class resides in this city and does not check the price tags closely. Hence the difference. Harmed are all the rest, captive consumers of the merchants who take advantage of the fact that they cannot travel to Jerusalem daily and compare prices.

Beyond the consumerist embarrassment that has been discussed at length in the media and on Facebook there is another lingering problem. Since the Palestinian Authority issued a directive to boycott products from the settlements (which unfortunately is not being fully enforced ), there are also logical and welcome attempts to encourage people not to consume Israeli products (or products whose importers are Israeli ). Why is it logical? Because there are Palestinian manufacturers of clothes, shoes, furniture, food and especially fruit and vegetables that should be protected from unfair Israeli competition that leads to loss of jobs or encourages payment of particularly low salaries. It is logical to buy from Palestinian importers who are fighting against the Israeli travel restrictions and whose taxes go to the Palestinian Authority's treasury, and not to the Israeli Finance Ministry.

Why is this welcome? Because it is unreasonable that while Palestinian activists are calling for a boycott of Israeli products in stores in London and New York, there is no similar demand made of the Palestinian public. As South Africa proved, a consumer boycott is an essential part in developing a popular culture of resistance to foreign rule, even if its economic impact on those being boycotted is limited. Indeed, the Palestinian shopping spree in Israeli stores revealed how difficult it is to build a culture of resistance and break 45-year-old habits.

Still, something good did come out of it: Stores in East Jerusalem, which, due to the closure policy, is cut off from the rest of the Palestinian population, benefited also, albeit briefly, from the influx of new customers. And Dunya and her friends, who were searching for brand names in West Jerusalem, discovered that there are some really nice Jews (and heaven forbid that this article should imply that we accept the very existence of the regime of entry permits and travel restrictions which discriminates against people from different ethnic backgrounds, who live on the same strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. )