Boycotting Israeli dates is working and we need to keep going

This Ramadan, make the right choice and do not buy dates from companies that exploit Palestinian land and labour.

Dates in Israel Reuters
Workers ride a tractor at the dates plantation near the Israeli settlement of Naama in the occupied West Bank on September 11, 2019 [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Throughout the 1930s, a Zionist settler and founder of the Kinneret kibbutz by the name of Ben-Zion Israeli travelled the Middle East to collect cuttings of palm trees. In many cases, he had to smuggle them illegally out of the countries he visited – Iraq, Persia, Egypt – as they were considered a national treasure and it was forbidden to export them.

Those smuggled cuttings have helped establish large plantations across Israeli territories. Palm groves were planted from the Red Sea in the south along the Dead Sea, and as far as the Sea of Galilee up north, which has given the Israeli date industry its nickname “the industry of the three seas”. Since Israel occupied the Palestinian West Bank in 1967, it has also established date plantations in its illegal settlements in that portion of the Jordan Valley.

According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2017, Israel produced 136,956 tonnes of dates with an export value of $181.2m.

This industry is highly exploitative and much of its operations happen in illegal settlements, so its products must be boycotted. Approximately 40 percent of Israeli dates today are grown in illegal settlements. Because of the gruelling work involved in picking dates, Israeli settlers bring in low-paid Palestinian labourers to do the difficult work. Israeli farmers are also known to employ Palestinian children.

Date-picking in the Jordan Valley is a hazardous business. Workers have to climb high ladders and work up there for hours. They are exposed to high temperatures, which put them at risk of heatstroke, and when they get injured, they often are not afforded healthcare or compensation. Workers, including children, are forced to work long hours and fulfil quotas before they are able to go home.

Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, not only grow these palm plantations on stolen land using exploited Palestinian labour, but they also divert water resources away from Palestinian villages, leaving them struggling to get water for drinking and irrigation. Under the strain of military occupation, the native Palestinian date industry has found it difficult to compete with Israeli dates flooding the local and international markets.

There are five major Israeli date companies that export to the United States and Europe: Hadiklaim and its brands Jordan River and King Solomon, Mehadrin, Galilee Export, Carmel Agrexco and Agrifood Marketing with its brand Star Dates.

Hadiklaim, Mehandrin and Carmel Agrexco all have operations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Hadiklaim and Carmel Agrexco have been accused of using child labour and paying Palestinian workers less than the minimum wage.

It is important to note that if you buy Medjool (Medjoul) dates in Europe or the US, there is a good chance they were grown in a settlement or from Israel proper. Unless it is from a trusted Palestinian source like Zaytoun or Yaffa, you could be eating a date that contributes to the dispossession of the Palestinian people. California dates, such as Orchid Dates and Best Fresh Produce, provide good alternative options as well.

American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) initiated the first-ever nationwide boycott of dates produced in settlements during Ramadan 2012. In coalition with our chapters in New York, New Jersey, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago, and Sacramento, as well as partners in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, AMP answered the 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions by urging grocery store owners to remove Israeli dates from their shelves.

Since then, tens of thousands of postcards and brochures have been distributed to stores, mosques, and communities nationwide. Consumers have answered the call and the boycott is working.

According to Economic Research Service data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, Israel’s exports of dates to the US have dropped significantly since 2015. Whereas 10.7 million kilogrammes (23.6 million pounds) of Israeli dates entered the US market in 2015-2016, only 3.1 million kilogrammes (seven million pounds) entered the US market in 2017-2018. The boycott is working and it is having a detrimental effect on the Israeli date industry.

This Ramadan, make the right choice and boycott dates that exploit Palestinian land and labour and contribute to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.