“An underdeveloped people must prove, by its fighting power, its ability to set itself up as a nation, and by the purity of every one of its acts, that it is, even to the smallest detail, the most lucid, the most self-controlled people.” –Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism.
There is an echoing sentiment here in Ramallah that Israeli milk is more “tasteful” and “nutritious” than Palestinian milk. The same goes for wine, apples, dates, juice and just about everything else … except for maybe olives. In fact, Palestinian shopkeepers even stock Israeli-made milk at the front of their store while Palestinian milk sits in a crate collecting dust in the corner.
Palestinians do this for two reasons: one, they truly believe their senses, the other – possibly more understandable than the first – is because selling Israeli products yield a much higher profit.
A recent study by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, an organization that aims to promote Palestinian products, found that Palestinians within the higher socioeconomic strata tend to buy more Israeli goods than those in the lower strata.
Appropriating the colonialist brand seems to imply prestige (a product, perhaps, of the inferiority complex) but if you push this aside as a psychological result of colonialism and consider the economic dependency Palestinians are forced to live with, one way to overcome the subjugation of the colonialist-settler (thus racist and discriminatory) policies would be to boycott Israeli products. Besides forcing Palestinians to consume their own products, it would promote and develop a domestic industry and manufactured goods. The Palestinians must ascertain that they can have a functioning society without being indebted to Israel.
This is, essentially, what the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is about. Using Apartheid South Africa as a model, a coalition of Palestinian groups felt compelled to combat Israel’s economic power over Palestine and created the BDS in 2005.
Besides placing political pressure on corporations to divest from Israel, BDS focuses strongly on its consumer boycott efforts. According to the BDS website, this serves to put “pressure on companies whose exports are linked to some of the most evident aspects of the Israeli occupation and apartheid.”
One of BDS’s many campaigns is to target stores that sell Israeli products and persuade them to stop stocking them. While much of the campaign is based on Israel’s exports to the West, activists here in the West Bank also try to deter Palestinian shopkeepers from selling produce that is grown in Israeli settlements. (Again, these yield more profit for Palestinians.) It is highly unlikely, though, that Palestinians will collectively and instantaneously dump their Israeli products for Palestinian manufactured goods and produce because an activist tells them so. They want to know if there is proof of sustainability.
A BDS Victory: Enter the story of Veolia and the light rail.
In 1902 Theodore Herzl wrote in Altneuland that the future of Jerusalem would be made of “modern neighborhoods with electric lines, tree-lined boulevards” and that Jerusalem would become “a metropolis of the 20th century.” A century later his vision is materializing with the Jerusalem Light Rail project (JLR). When (and if) completed, the light rail will conveniently accommodate Jewish-Israelis, connecting West Jerusalem to Jewish settlements. The light rail travels through Palestinian neighborhoods but makes no stops in them. Also, as one Israeli blogger put it, “… all the windows have been reinforced to be resistant to stones and Molotov cocktails.”
But officials are now facing a major setback. In June Ha’aretz reported that Veolia, a French transportation company that was to operate the light rail post-construction, abandoned the project because of the “political pressure” it was facing: a direct implication of the BDS “Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign.”
Founding BDS member Omar Barghouti said, “Veolia’s reported intention to withdraw from the illegal JLR project gives the BDS movement an important victory: success in applying concerted, intensive pressure on a company that is complicit in the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, enough to compel it to withdraw from an illegal project. This may well usher in a new era of corporate accountability, whereby companies that are profiting from Israel’s illegal colonial and racist regime over the indigenous people of Palestine will start to pay a real price in profits and image for their collusion.”
The pressure from human rights activists and lawyers throughout Europe battered Veolia, costing it multiple contracts – a loss that amounted to more than seven billion dollars. From Stockholm to Bordeaux, companies dumped Veolia on account of its stake in a project that violates international law. Association France-Palestine Solidarité (AFPS) took Veolia, along with Alstom – the engineering enterprise behind the light rail – to a French court. AFPS filed the complaint against Alstom and Veolia in 2007, arguing that the 8.3-mile project violates international law since East Jerusalem is not sovereign Israeli territory. “Our main argument is that the light rail project is intended to serve illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and thus it’s part of illegal settlement infrastructure and by being involved in project, the French companies are violating international law,” says Azem Bishara, an attorney with the Negotiation Support Unit in Ramallah.
When the Arab League organized a boycott of Israel after its colonization of Palestine in 1948, Arab countries refused to deal with Israel by boycotting their products, services and even refusing to allow Israelis into their country. Lebanon and Syria are the only countries that allegedly adhere to the boycott today, as they have yet to sign trade agreements with Israel. The Israeli Chamber of Commerce reported Israel was losing an average of 10 percent in export revenue per year when the boycott was in its prime. This spearheaded the fight by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to pressure Congress to pass an anti-boycott legislation. In 1977 then-President Jimmy Carter, who now advocates the window-dressing of Palestinian national independence, signed a law that would impose a fine on American companies that cooperated with the boycott.
It seems safe to assume that this legislative effort by AJC indicated that it, at least, believed the Arab League boycott was having some effect.
American and European companies used similar calculations and campaigning to pull out of South Africa over 20 years ago, but how do we know anti-boycott Israeli investors won’t target companies like Veolia? Whether or not Veolia goes through with its withdrawal, the question remains: is it really a victory? And how can an effective boycott promote economic independence so that Palestinian milk will no longer end up in stores’ dustbins? These are questions the boycott campaign has to confront.
Sousan Hammad is a Palestinian-American writer based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.