Walking in the center of Ramallah, it is impossible to miss the message. At almost every lamp post, posters set up by the Palestinian political movement Al-Mubadara, or Palestinian National Initiative, are crying out: “Boycott Israeli goods” and “Don’t pay the price of bullets that kill our children.”
Next to one such poster at the Clock Square is Aziz Halaweh’s Zabaneh Stores.Halaweh recalls how some time ago a group of activists toured the shops in Ramallah trying to convince the owners not to sell Israeli products. For him, the visit caused no problems.
“We have a policy since the 1970s to sell either Palestinian or foreign products whenever we can,” he says.
Last summer’s Gaza war, which left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, prompted Halaweh to empty the shelves of the last Israeli goods, such as milk.
Yet some Israeli products remain irreplaceable.“Our gluten-free bread and lactose-free milk come from Israel,” the businessman says.
“We have no open borders, so we do what we can.”
The new 'strategic threat' for Israel
In early June, Israel accused the French telecom giant Orange
of joining the BDS movement after chairman Stephane Richard declared he would end the company’s business in Israel. At the same time, the British Student Union voted to join the call for BDS.These and other developments prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call the BDS movement a “strategic threat” for Israel and allocate new state resources to fight against it.In the occupied Palestinian territories, the movement, which calls for the complete academic, economic, and cultural isolation of Israel, got new wind in its sails as buyers in the West Bank started boycotting Israeli goods during last summer’s Gaza war.
The six-week long conflict was one of the main reasons why the Palestinian supermarket chain Bravo decided last August to get rid of almost all the Israeli products it was selling. The brand has branches in Ramallah, Hebron, and Nablus.The decision was taken so swiftly that it took a long time to fill the empty shelves.
“Now, one year later, we have managed to replace almost 70 percent of the Israeli products with either Arab or European goods,” says Yousef Sadr, Bravo’s marketing manager. “It hasn’t been easy.”Strong Palestinian support for BDS Boycott calls were renewed at the beginning of this year after the Israeli government refused to pay tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority. The move was designed to punish the PA after it applied for membership to the International Criminal Court.
“The Palestinian boycott of Israeli products is spreading and becoming more entrenched, especially among younger Palestinians,” says Omar Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement.According to a study by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research published in June, 86 percent of Palestinians support the boycott. There are no statistics for Palestinians living outside of the Palestinian territories.
But support might not always turn into action. A tour around some of the smaller grocery stores in Ramallah shows that many still sell Israeli produce, such as juice, canned food, and salads. For the pharmacies, there is often no choice.“We’re with the boycott, but for many products we have no alternatives,” says Samer Toubassi, a pharmacist next to Al-Manara Square. He estimates that about 40 to 50 percent of the products he sells come from Israel.“Palestinians do not have the technology to produce medicine that is used to treat cancer, problems with the immune system, or diabetes, for instance.”
A poster in the center of Ramallah promoting the boycott of Israeli products.
Made in settlements, produced by Palestinians
Some locals do not even stop to read where the goods in their shops have come from.
“I don’t believe in boycotting,” says Mahmoud Jbbarin, a resident of Ramallah. “If we boycott settlement products, what about the Palestinians who work in the settlements?”
“If they can work somewhere else instead, then I’m fine with the idea. But at the moment the Palestinian Authority does not provide enough jobs for the Palestinians.”
According to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 85,200 Palestinians living in the West Bank work in Israel while 24,200 worked in Israeli settlements during the second quarter of 2014. A majority of all the workers, about 60 percent, were employed in the construction sector.In total, this means that about 14 percent of the Palestinian workforce living in the West Bank was working in Israel or Israeli settlements.
Full boycott only from the international community
The Palestinian economy is almost completely controlled by Israel. Due to Israel's military occupation, for example, economic activity in Area C, which constitutes about 61 percent of the West Bank, is severely restricted.According to Barghouti, a full-scale boycott of everything Israeli is not possible under occupation -- much in the same way that Black South Africans were not able to completely boycott the apartheid regime themselves.“We can still call on the world to fully isolate Israel,” he says.Barghouti himself studied at Tel Aviv University, where he was also enrolled as a doctoral student.
In 2009, PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) of whom Barghouti is a founding member, stated that Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinians carrying Israeli ID cards have no other possibility than to study in Israeli institutions and as such cannot be asked to join the academic boycott.The activist declined to give further comments on his choice of university, saying that his personal life was “entirely irrelevant” for the interview.
Unclear effect on the Palestinian economy
The effect of BDS on the Palestinian economy remains debatable, as hardly any data on the topic is available. For some Palestinian entrepreneurs, however, the boycott of Israeli products has been good for business.The Palestinian dairy producer Al-Jebrini, for instance, reports that demand for their products increased about 30 percent following the Gaza war.
“We had to introduce new products, like new types of drinks and cheese, to satisfy the local demand,” a spokesperson from the Al-Jebrini group told Ma'an.He preferred not to be named for fear of reprisals from the Israeli authorities.The company estimates that other reasons, such as lower prices, could also explain their success. Yet they still face unfair competition with Israeli manufacturers.
“We are not allowed to sell our products in East Jerusalem, while Israeli companies can sell anywhere they want. Sometimes Israeli goods here [in the West Bank] are sold through people who do not pay taxes."
Freedom comes with a price tag
Other companies have not been so lucky. For Bravo supermarket, almost a third of their profits used to come from the sale of Israeli goods. Putting Palestinian producers first has meant significant financial losses.
“We’re talking of big money here,” Yousef Sadr, Bravo’s marketing manager, says. Even though the overwhelming majority of customers supported the company’s choice, many were used to buying Israeli products. Some even stopped shopping at Bravo. Despite the challenges, Sadr says that the chain has no plans of going back. But like for so many other local businesses, selling only Palestinian products is not an option either.
“The Palestinian economy is able to produce only 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables it needs,” Sadr says. Although the supermarket is careful not to sell settlement products, the rest has to be imported from Israel. “We can’t do anything about it.”
According to Omar Barghouti, resistance to “Israel’s regime of oppression” comes with a price tag.
“There is always a price to be paid to achieve freedom, justice and equality,” the activist says. “Israel, not the resistance, is to blame for the cost of resisting its oppression.”But under military occupation, consumer choice remains limited. Although many Palestinians seem to willing to sacrifice their economic benefits for the national struggle, a complete boycott would imply impossible choices, like refraining from buying medicine for cancer - or even just a bag of carrots.
By Anna Kokko