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Why does Israel fear a boycott by an ice cream company?

Motorists drive past a closed "Ben & Jerry's" ice-cream shop in the Israeli city of Yavne, about 30 kilometres south of Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2021. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]
Motorists drive past a closed "Ben & Jerry's" ice-cream shop in the Israeli city of Yavne, about 30 kilometres south of Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2021. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]

The giant American ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's announced last week that it is going to stop selling its products in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Such sales, it believes, are "inconsistent" with its values, the company said on its website. "We also hear and recognise the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners."

Ben & Jerry's is known for taking stands on social issues. It took a historic stance in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, for example. Although its factory in southern Israel will continue to operate, it will stop sales in Israeli Jewish settlements, which are illegal under international law.

The decision by the Vermont-based company, which was founded by two Jewish Americans, turned the boycott of illegal Israeli settlements built on stolen Palestinian lands into the latest front for Israel's war against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS is a Palestinian-led grassroots campaign against Israeli businesses, cultural institutions and universities; it has worldwide support and is entirely peaceful.

According to President Isaac Herzog, the former head of the Israeli Labor Party, though, Ben & Jerry's decision is "a dangerous, Nazi-like act of economic terrorism that dehumanises the Jewish people." Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accused the company of siding with "terrorists", and warned the ice cream maker's parent company, Unilever, of "severe consequences".

Israeli envoy to the US and UN, Gilad Erdan, said that, "Businesses are surrendering to BDS pressure and bringing anti-Israel political considerations into their decisions." For Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the decision is a "shameful surrender to anti-Semitism, to BDS and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse." Erdan has sent a letter to 35 American states asking them to activate anti-boycott laws against Ben & Jerry's which would, paradoxically, see the company itself being boycotted by state institutions. Boycotts are anti-Semitic and shameful terrorism… unless they benefit Israel. The hypocrisy is rancid.

READ: Israel's icy reception for Ben and Jerry's

The response is typical of Israeli propaganda which weaponises anti-Semitism to curb valid criticism of the policies and practices of the Zionist state. BDS is an entirely non-violent form of protest against such policies which all too often have a deadly and life-changing impact on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The BDS message resonates with justice-loving people around the world, especially among the young on campuses in the US and elsewhere.

This faux outrage, of course, is intended to intimidate people into avoiding BDS action in support of the people of occupied Palestine. Who, after all, likes to be called a racist anti-Semite? It is, though, a smokescreen intended to divert attention from the very real Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. BDS calls for international law and human rights to be upheld, and for Israel to be held accountable for its actions, which have been described — with good reason, many believe — as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ben & Jerry's is simply seeking to comply with international law. Why does Israel fear this so much if it believes that it does not break the law?

A quick Google search is enough to convince reasonable people that Israel has no respect for the human rights of the Palestinians. The colonial-occupation state's oppression includes extrajudicial killings, detention with neither charge nor trial, home demolitions, land theft and the destruction of agricultural land and produce. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem have to live with hundreds of military checkpoints impeding their routes to schools, hospitals, businesses and places of worship. Those in the Gaza Strip face frequent military incursions and offensives by the Israeli armed forces.

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem described Israel as an apartheid state in January. Human Rights Watch has since said the same thing. Moreover, in 2016, HRW called for businesses operating in the West Bank settlements "to evaluate their operations and to understand the ways they can be benefiting from and contributing to human rights abuses."

READ: Israel PM warns Unilever of 'severe consequences' from Ben & Jerry's decision

Israeli politicians are angry at Ben & Jerry's decision because they know that boycotts work, and can have a domino effect. Indeed, it followed a similar move earlier this month by Norway's largest pension fund which has divested from sixteen companies that work in Israeli settlements. Is this the slippery slope that will see more international companies follow suit?

Ben & Jerry's will continue to operate in the occupied Palestinian territories until its current licence to do so expires next year, so the move will not have an immediate effect and could, in fact, be reversed, as happened with Airbnb in 2018. The latter succumbed to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby in the US and was accused of discriminating against Jews. It reversed its decision after just five months. According to Erdan, Ben & Jerry's will "have a price to pay", including legal action.

If nothing else, the ice cream maker's decision has brought the Palestinian issue and Israeli oppression back onto the international agenda. It was headline news too. This is important, as it highlights Israeli aggression, even against non-violent protest. We need more, not fewer, international companies to do the same as Ben & Jerry's for this very reason.

"Being cynical," explained Hagit Ofran, the director of the left-wing Peace Now settlement watch team, "if a company says it's no longer going to do business in the settlements, another one will show up to take its place. But Ben & Jerry's is an interesting case because it's so popular: this decision reaches into every household in Israel. If some other company stopped importing bulldozers, it's unlikely as many people would notice."

There is a simple way for Messrs Herzog, Bennett, Lapid and Erdan to ensure that they don't need to face boycotts in future: end the occupation of Palestine and the systematic and institutionalised brutality that it entails. No occupation means no resistance — of any kind — to the occupation. It's that easy, but Zionists cannot accept it, because their racist ideology demands as much land in Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians on it as possible. Israel is a racist, colonial state that has never declared where its borders will be, and it won't until and unless its insatiable greed for land is satisfied. It needs the occupation, and its politicians need their lies and intimidation to sustain it. So well done Ben & Jerry's. We look forward to the next boycott announcement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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