As Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands grinds on, economics and commerce are becoming new battle lines, an embargo being the latest weapon of resistance for Gaza and the West Bank.
A small demonstration in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in March 2015 might not have seemed like much – with a symbolic mound of Israeli-sourced groceries being dumped in the street – but it marked the moment when Palestinians began to officially boycott Israeli products for the first time in two decades.
The idea of a boycott is not new, of course. For over 10 years activists around the world have been urging an embargo of Israeli and foreign companies which profit from the occupation. But the ferocity of last summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza, which attracted widespread international condemnation, has helped galvanise the movement known as Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The BDS campaign is internationally supported and wants to emulate the success of the comprehensive international embargo that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
For the campaign to have that degree of impact both supporters and sceptics in the international community have to be convinced that collective economic pressure will bring results.
With the Israelis so implacable that clearly is not going to happen overnight, but BDS has always appreciated the importance of Palestinians themselves participating in any embargo; even if – as filmmakers Mariam Shahin and George Azar found out for People & Power – their capacity to take part has long since been limited by the very occupation they want brought to an end.
By Mariam Shahin
One of the peculiar things about visiting Palestine is how many Israeli items one finds in the supermarkets and on the shelves and racks of shops all across the West Bank and Gaza. It is surprising only because the “peace process” that began in the early 1990s never took off.
Invasions, bombardments, urban warfare and siege actually intensified in the years after those now distant discussions began, instead of the withdrawal-to-defined borders, independent statehood and a partnership in a peace of equals that many were hoping for. Under those circumstances, you might think, the last products that Palestinians would want to buy would be Israeli ones.
In truth, Palestinian commerce had long been hostage to the occupier – a satellite that for 50 years has been forced to revolve around Israel’s larger and more advanced economy. Palestine imports nearly $5bn worth of goods and services from Israel annually, which remarkably makes it the second biggest purchaser of Israeli products in the world.
Few Palestinians are happy with this arrangement, but there is little they can do about it on their own, being locked into a relationship of almost total economic dependency by the Paris Protocols, an often forgotten sub-section of the Oslo Agreements of the mid-1990s.
The terms of the protocols are stark: where any external trade is permitted, with countries such as Jordan and Turkey, it is strictly limited and controlled. The kind of free trade seen in the rest of the world is a chimera here.
Never mind that it would mean saving money, gaining greater independence and opening up the Palestinian economy to a wider range of ideas and services, or that Israel would have to stop treating the Palestinian markets as “dumping” grounds for their grade B and C and “almost out of date” products – or even that open markets would allow for greater choice, competition and accountability to the consumers. Such things are not to be … or not yet at least.
Currently Palestinians have to accept the goods and services which Israel allows them to have and from where it allows them to obtain those things – be it water or fuel or food products or much else besides.
So while many Palestinians sympathise with the boycott and applaud those in the international community who want to persuade consumers in Europe, the US and elsewhere to think twice before buying Israeli goods, they know this often is not an option in Palestine itself.
Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement which is trying to orchestrate a successful embargo, told us that the campaign’s aim is to end to the occupation by pressuring Israel commercially, culturally and academically – much as happened with the successful boycott against apartheid South Africa. He believes it can only be effective when external and internal stakeholders combine in applying that pressure – hence the necessity for Palestinians to be involved.
But Bashar al-Masri, perhaps Palestine’s biggest investor, thinks it is hypocritical to call for a boycott of Israel. He advocates calculated cooperation for the benefit of Palestinians – however slow, costly and arduous that benefit may be.
His West Bank Rawabi Project, a new city which is meant to house 40,000 people has suffered losses by having to wait for over a year to get Israel’s needed permission for access to water. He resolved that problem by having Israeli business interests lobby on the projects behalf – a process that has also now allowed him to ensure there is a sewage treatment plant in place.
His critics complain that this sort of dealing is just “normalising the occupation” and contrast Rawabi’s impressive new sewage arrangements with those of Ramallah – the working capital of the Palestinian Authority. Its municipal authorities, which support the boycott, have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Israeli permission to bring in the necessary parts to build a new treatment plant of their own.
As the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza comes close to half a century, the Palestinian struggle for independence and equality is as vibrant as ever – a sometimes curious combination of protest, boycott and a tenacious drive to succeed in daily life and business dealings, whatever the difficulties.
Israel may be able to utilise both carrot and stick in controlling Palestinian life, but that does not mean people here will ever accept the indignities and suffering that have been forced upon them. Even those who think the boycott is the wrong way to get it never stop dreaming that an free and equal Palestine will one day be theirs.