Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – She can hardly read, but five-year-old Yumna Zama’reh knows which products she should and shouldn’t buy at the supermarket.
A few weeks ago, she threw her favorite brand of crackers in the trash after her mother pointed out it was an Israeli product. “As long as there’s a substitute, I won’t let Israeli products into my house,” said Tasneem Amro, Yumna’s mother.
The family began the boycott during the Israeli war on Gaza last summer, said Amro, 35. “I sat down with my girls and explained the concept of boycott. They were already on board because of what they heard about the war,” she said.
The Zama’rehs, like many other Palestinian families, continued to boycott Israeli products after the war ended, although the boycott campaign lost some of its momentum after a ceasefire was announced on August 26.
But boycott returned to the forefront when Israel decided to withhold tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA), after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acceded to the Rome Statute last December, making way for Palestine to become a member of the International Criminal Court.
Three months later, the amount withheld exceeds $420m, which makes up two-third of the PA’s revenues.
The amount is used to pay monthly salaries of most of PA’s civil servants. For the past three months PA employees have been paid only 60 percent of their salaries.
In February, a committee representing factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), trade unions and popular associations announced the boycott of six major Israeli food companies in the West Bank.
“We’re reacting to an Israeli government decision to withhold Palestinian tax revenues,” said Abdullah Kmeel, a PLO member and one of nine members of the national committee. “They’re withholding our money, but they are losing money too…We’re satisfied with the public response. Most shops have stopped stocking Israeli goods.”
Although the boycott was widely welcomed by Palestinians, its scope and its implementation have been criticised.
The committee’s boycott was cautiously welcomed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls on participants to refuse to buy Israeli products or invest in Israeli companies until the country complies with international law and respects Palestinian rights.
A statement issued by the BDS added that it hoped for steps beyond the boycott, calling on the PA leadership to suspend security coordination with Israel. BDS also opposed the fact that the boycott appeared to be temporary.
There's no legal basis to the boycott campaign. If they are serious, the effort should be official and organised. It's neither.I'm all for boycott, but it should happen gradually and there needs to be an alternative.
The chairman of the committee, Mahmoud Al-Aloul, said the boycott is conditional on the return of Palestinian tax revenues withheld by Israel.
On a Monday afternoon earlier this month, dozens of activists in Ramallah intercepted a distribution truck for Tnuva – one of the six boycotted companies. A truckload of dairy products, worth around $20,000, was unloaded in the city’s main square, and cartons of milk and yogurt were destroyed.
This was the seventh time, since the latest boycott’s launch, that activists in the West Bank stopped distribution trucks and destroyed their products, in a bid to deter distributors and shop-owners alike.
“The message was that this campaign is serious,” Kmeel said.
But the seizure and destruction of Israeli goods has drawn criticism: Some suggested that the products should have been distributed to needy families, while others complained that the two weeks given by the boycott campaign was not enough time for shop owners to sell their stock of Israeli products.
Such “thuggish” actions, some argue, could stain BDS’ reputation which portrays itself as a respecting human rights movement.
“There’s no legal basis to the boycott campaign,” said an owner of an upscale Ramallah supermarket, who asked to remain anonymous. “If they are serious, the effort should be official and organised. It’s neither.”
The supermarket owner said he lost around $10,000 by choosing to take Israeli products off the shelves before they were confiscated and destroyed by activists. “I’m all for boycott, but it should happen gradually and there needs to be an alternative,” the owner said.
He’s not the only one who supports a gradual boycott. Many Palestinians believe that people should be convinced of the necessity of a boycott, not temporarily forced into it.
“It’s a process. Children have to grow up to this,” Amro said. “In the future, it”ll become a taboo.”
The Palestinian leadership indirectly encourages the boycott of Israeli products. A resolution recently passed by the PLO’s Central Council supports the boycott of Israeli goods, and the PA boycotts products made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. However, a general boycott of Israeli products is not official governmental policy.
“Our policy has been to encourage local product,” said Azmi AbdulRahman, the director general of policy and economic studies at the Palestinian Ministry of Economy.
This plan, which has been in place for two years, aims to increase the share of national production (the percentage of goods purchased in the West Bank that are also produced in the West Bank), to 25 percent by the end of 2015 and decrease unemployment from 24 percent to lower than 20 percent.
Several economists, however, say the goal is not to replace the Israeli products with foreign imports as this would be a more expensive alternative that does not only leave lower-income Palestinians with less options, but also gives Israel more powers since it controls all borders and crossings.
Boycott, they say, is both a challenge an opportunity.
“We started seeing an increase in investment in food manufacturing, especially in dairy production,” AbdulRahman said. “But it remains humble and insufficient, and the Israeli occupation policies are to blame.”
The PA imports around $4bn in goods from and through Israel every year, making up 80 percent of its total imports, the other 20 percent come through Jordan.
Meanwhile, Palestinians export around $740m in products annually.
The large trade deficit is mostly blamed on Palestinians’ inability to access their resources as well as the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation. A 2013 World Bank report estimated the costs of Israel’s control of over 60 percent of the West Bank at $3.4bn a year.
The financial effects of the boycott, if it lasts, remain to be seen. Nevertheless, both those who approve and those who criticise the current effort agree that boycotting is an important tactic in the Palestinian struggle.
“It all boils down to the money,” Amro said. “Boycott could be more efficient than throwing rocks.”