Agrexco forum a milestone in Europe’s BDS movement

Earlier this month in Montpellier, France, more than a hundred activists from nine countries gathered for the first ever European Forum Against Agrexco. From 4-5 June, delegates from Italy, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Palestine joined the French organizers for two full days of workshops aimed at strengthening the boycott campaign against the Israeli agricultural export giant.

Agrexco is Israel’s largest fresh produce exporter and European markets account for the vast majority of their sales under the brand Carmel. The Israeli government’s 50 percent stake in the company as well as their marketing of 60-70 percent of the fruit and vegetables grown in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have made Agrexco a prime strategic target for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Rafeef Ziadah, representative of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), recalled that the campaign against Agrexco includes all three components of BDS: boycott of Agrexco products, divestment via suspension of commercial agreements and sanctions through legal procedures. Agrexco’s complicity in a broad range of human rights violations, profiting from crops grown on stolen land, irrigated with stolen water and worked with child labor, also provides the campaign with ample opportunities to reach out beyond the Palestine solidarity networks to find allies in other social justice movements.

The forum centered on two parallel tracks with the objective of ridding European supermarkets of Agrexco products: boycott campaigns and court actions.

BDS movement building in Europe

During the boycott workshop, activists presented a review of the campaigns and actions taking place in the various countries, including lobbying retail chains and co-op member meetings, actions at supermarkets and trade fairs, airport blockades and Italy’s very first BDS flash mob (Boycott Agrexco: Flash mob in Rome, Italy against Agrexco).

In Belgium last May, more than 400 persons in 22 cities filed a complaint with the police citing Agrexco’s complicity with violations of international law (“National Complaints Day against AGREXCO in Belgium,” War Starts Here, 14 May 2011). In France, the new Agrexco terminal at the port of Sete became a catalyst for the movement, with a mass demonstration of more than 1,500 persons, a remarkable number for a BDS action.

Campaigns are also under way in Sweden and Norway, even though campaigners there were unable to send delegates to the forum. In Sweden, activists presented the national co-op with a dossier on Agrexco’s activities and the co-op promised to investigate. In Norway, the campaign instead focuses on the local importer, who is consulting their attorneys on the question.

Michael Deas, European coordinator for the BNC, underlined the importance of boycotting Agrexco as a company and not just the products it exports from the illegal Israeli settlements. Agrexco has been caught on numerous occasions mislabeling products or mixing settlement produce with that from the Israeli side of the green line, Israel’s internationally-recognized armistice line with the occupied West Bank. Aside from problems of traceability, purchasing any Agrexco products means supporting a company profiting from the occupation and apartheid policies of the Israeli government.

Involvement of Palestinian farmers’ unions

The involvement in the French campaign of farmers unions, Confederation Paysanne and Via Campesina, keep the issues of sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty at the forefront. Michael Deas also underlined the role Palestinian farmers unions have and can play in the campaign against Agrexco. In fact, Palestinian farmers unions were crucial in helping to expose a propaganda stunt organized by Agrexco in France, claiming that boycotts of Agrexco products harmed Palestinian farmers in Gaza (“PARC renounces the utilization of its name by the Israeli company Agrexco,” 31 January 2011, Agricultural Development Association).

The legal workshop, with the presence of three Palestinian attorneys from the Palestinian Bar Association, concentrated on possible court actions against Agrexco. While a few countries — Belgium, UK and Italy — are currently exploring legal action, the French case has already produced an important result.

An agent of the court inspected customs documents for the Agrexco ships docking at Sete and found clear cases of fraud (“French court reveals fraud committed by Carmel Agrexco as campaign gathers momentum across Europe,” 18 February 2011). A 2010 decision of the European Court of Justice ruled that products from Israeli settlements are not eligible for preferential trade tariffs under the EU Israel Agreement. Yet here were invoices for dates from the Jordan Valley declared to be of “Israel Preferential Origin.” This proof of fraud, from none other than a court official, will be vital to campaigns throughout Europe.

The two-day forum succeeded in bringing together campaigns across Europe with the goal of coordinating our actions and strengthening the movement for an Agrexco-free Europe. The first step of the newly-formed, European-wide network will be a Global Day of Action Against Agrexco set for 26 November 2011.

With all the extremely useful, though highly-technical, talk of legal cases, corporate structures, local affiliates, commercial trade agreements, distribution networks and others, it is important to remember that behind the data and numbers, this is about the lives of people.

The land confiscations, the stolen water, the house demolitions, the checkpoints all make it impossible for Palestinians to develop their own economy. A reasonable person can draw but one conclusion: these policies serve to drive the Palestinians from their land. And companies such as Agrexco not only turn a profit, but also provide a direct economic incentive to maintain the occupation and continue the apartheid policies.

Rafeef Ziadah talked about the first time she saw a Jaffa orange in a UK supermarket. She could smell the sweet aroma, but she couldn’t buy it. She thought of her grandfather, evicted from his land, but who returned to work for the new owner because he just couldn’t give up his land. She illustrated how Palestinian produce figures in the minds of refugees, denied their right of return.

Ziadah concluded the forum with an open invitation to all to her house in Haifa, once Palestine is free. Once she can return home.

And the campaign to boycott the products of Carmel Agrexco is a step along the way.

Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy. She can be reached at steph AT webfabbrica DOT com.