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Boycotting settlement products: a serious policy or playing for time?

January 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm

By Hani Al-Masri

The Palestinian Authority’s campaign to boycott products made or grown on illegal Israeli settlements deserves support. It is an important economic and national move, and an indication that Palestinians could once again act as one people which might – just might – encourage others to deal with them as one people. The campaign may be long overdue, but better late than never. It could also signal a new beginning by the PA that is qualitatively different to the last 17 years of talks giving nothing except more settlements and more settlers; or it could be a temporary blip through which the PA is playing for time.

Credit must be given where it is due. This requires paying tribute to the heroes of the boycott movement and other popular resistance activists who continue the struggle in places like Bil’in. Their efforts are represented in calls for academic, economic and international boycotts of Israel, as well as resistance against normalisation of relations and the pursuit of Israel to be brought to account for its illegal occupation and crimes against the Palestinians. All of these are initiatives carried out by individuals and local groups because the central leaderships and the PA were not convinced of the viability of combining the negotiation strategy with popular resistance. Further, the leadership did not realize the importance of such resistance but were banking on negotiations alone as the route towards the end of the occupation and the establishment of the state of Palestine.

The lack of any appreciation of the importance of popular resistance in various forms – giving priority instead to armed resistance   led to a situation in which armed resistance was stopped even though it is an indisputable legal right and duty. The failure of negotiations to-date and the cessation of armed resistance (or its suspension until further notice), is what has led to the increasing awareness that negotiations alone cannot achieve national rights. In turn, this has opened the way for the adoption of popular resistance in all forms, including boycotting settlement goods.

As long as Palestinian workers are engaged in building settlement projects (as perhaps the only means of employment open to them) it is not a natural move to a complete boycott, especially in such a short period of time. However, it will happen gradually and it must not stop until there is an end to all forms of dealings with settlements and the settlers. In the meantime, there will be mistakes but we need to learn from them while having the vision that the boycott will be introduced gradually, meaning that there will be overlapping phases in the process.

In this context, we can take advantage of what came up in online discussions with Dr. Hassan Abu Lebda, the PA’s Minister of the Economy, which provided a range of questions and ideas that must be taken into account if the settlement boycott campaign is to be successful.

For a start, the campaign must be seen as part of the national struggle to end the occupation and achieve independence, and so it must be strategic, not tactical. It must not be seen as simply a means of putting pressure on Israel to resume negotiations, but as a genuine means of exercising economic muscle. This prospect is strengthened by the fact that the Israeli government and opposition are upset by the boycott to the extent that they have launched a counter-campaign of threats and promises.

However, we must not be lulled into a false sense of power about this, because not everyone in the international community is with the Palestinians in this respect. The US, for example, could “recommend” that the boycott be ended or weaken it so that it is symbolic rather than an effective campaign. Israel, of course, could again use its massive military force to bring the boycott to an end. The Quartet would not accept the failure of the negotiations solely on the basis that the Palestinians are boycotting settlement goods, and could be “forced” to take counter-measures, including the withdrawal of financial inducements for the PA.

If Israel is able to combine settlement expansion, aggression and negotiations, then the Palestinians should be able to combine negotiations and resistance, or even be content with resistance and the boycott if the negotiations continue to be a waste of time. The lack of any frame of reference and a clear obligation to stop the settler colonialism suggests that they will be.

Secondly, the Palestinian Authority cannot move from a state of cooperation, coexistence and political, cultural, youth and economic partnerships with the Israelis, to a state whereby the PA is boycotting the settlements without a dramatic revision of its policies to convince the average Palestinian   the silent majority   that what the PA wants is serious and in the interests of the people rather than just playing for time until direct negotiations resume.

Until that happens, we must take the following steps:

i) We cannot invite Palestinian workers in the settlements to join the army of unemployed and manage their own affairs without viable alternative options. That would be a gross dereliction of duty by the PA, which has to act in line with the Palestinian Labour Law.

ii) We can focus more on preventing imports from and exports to the settlements. Businessmen can be asked not to carry out construction work within the settlements with immediate effect (subject to legal liability). We can also hold accountable all Palestinians who issue false certificates of origin for Israeli goods, some of which are produced in settlements, and bring them to justice.

iii) Serious attempts must be made to create new job opportunities, giving employment priority to those who work in the settlements; the boycott should lead to more jobs in Palestine for Palestinians. It is possible, while waiting for new jobs to be created, to establish an unemployment fund.

iv) There must be an integrated national economic plan based on the establishment and development of a steadfast economy and institutions to service it. It does not make sense to boycott settlement goods while importing Israeli goods worth millions of dollars to the Palestinian market. We must boycott all Israeli goods that have viable local and foreign alternatives.

v) Action to improve the quality of the Palestinian products must be taken so that those who follow the boycott do not have to put up with poor quality merchandise, either locally sourced or from China or elsewhere.

Thirdly, the success of the boycott campaign cannot be based on business profit and loss accounts, but must be judged on the basis of national profit and loss. So the campaign cannot be delayed until all alternative jobs are available for workers in the settlements, or until the quality of all Palestinian goods is improved. And it can’t be stopped if Israel carries out its threats or if direct negotiations resume, or Israel links the release of prisoners and the removal of barriers, etc., to the end of the campaign.

The use of legitimate pressure and active resistance as a strategy must remain constant until the occupation ends and independence is achieved. We need to work together, with the wealthy helping the poor so that the campaign remains potent.

Finally, all Palestinians must take the settlement boycott campaign seriously because it will not work unless it is adopted as a national popular campaign with participation from everyone. The people at the top of the Palestinian pyramid must set the example, so that leaders boycott VIP cards issued to them by the Beit El settlement, which was raised in the aforementioned discussion with the Minister of the Economy. Can we honestly expect the workers to cut their source of income but not ask officials to travel abroad and move within the country without a VIP card? Of course not, so this campaign has to be for everyone, supported by everyone, for the benefit of everyone. If ministers start to feel the effects of the occupation, perhaps they will be in more of a hurry to end the occupation.


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