There has been a spate of recent news reports on international companies moving out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) to locations inside the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank. The impression is made that boycotting products originating in Israel’s illegal colonies in the West Bank is on its way to becoming mainstream, handing the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement with a fresh, substantial victory. While this development should indeed be celebrated by all BDS activists anywhere, caution is called for in distinguishing between advocating such a targeted boycott as a tactic — leading to the ultimate goal of boycotting all Israeli goods and services — and as an end in itself. While the former may be necessary in some countries as a convenient tool of raising awareness and promoting debate about Israel’s colonial and apartheid regime, the latter, despite its lure, would be in direct contradiction with the stated objectives of the Palestinian boycott movement.
Most recently, the Swedish company Assa Abloy heeded appeals from the Church of Sweden and other prominent Swedish organizations and decided to move its Mul-T-Lock door factory from the industrial zone of the Barkan colony in the occupied West Bank to a yet-unannounced location inside Israel, following the lead of Barkan Wineries, a partially Dutch-owned company that had already left Barkan to Kibbutz Hulda. The fact that part of this kibbutz sits on top of an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village whose name, Khulda, the Kibbutz had — typically — appropriated was not viewed, apparently, as worthy enough to be mentioned in the documents accusing the wine maker of wrongdoing, according to international law.
Moreover, in a noteworthy precedent, The Independent (UK) reported last week that the British government has decided to “crack down on exports from Israeli settlements,” based on the fact that Israel has persistently violated its trade agreements with the EU which provide tariff exemptions only to goods produced within Israel, not in the OPT. Conforming to United Nations resolutions and international law, the UK, its EU partners, along with almost the entire so-called international community, consider Israeli settlements illegal, even a war crime, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and therefore refuse to extend any tariff privileges to their products.
In reality, though, EU countries have for decades looked the other way while Israel exported its colonies’ products as produce of Israel.
According to an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz on the background to this unfolding trade row between Israel and the UK — and potentially the whole EU — Israel had agreed, in past disputes with the EU, to indicate on its products exported to EU countries the geographic origin of its goods. Britain, however, charges that “Israeli companies located in settlements try to get around the agreement by registering company offices within the Green Line,” effectively obfuscating the lines distinguishing settlement products from other Israeli products, thereby breaching clauses in its agreements with the EU that specifically target the former.
Following intensive pressure from British and Palestinian human rights groups as well as from a fast spreading — and quite promising — boycott campaign against Israel in the UK that reached the ivory tower of the academy as well as the largest trade unions, it seems that the British government is finally taking note of Israel’s most obvious and unmistakable illegal practices and trying to work with its partners to put an end to them.
This evolving, commendable British policy, actually a belated recognition of the need to respect and implement a long-approved European policy, shows that the position advocated by the Palestinian BDS campaign to boycott all Israeli products is not only morally but also pragmatically sound. At a most basic level, one would expect the BDS campaign’s ceiling of demands to be rather higher than that of the British government’s.
In fact, while the Palestinian BDS movement has consistently expressed its deep appreciation of every effort to treat Israel as apartheid South Africa was, it views the whole approach of focusing on banning only settlement products as the ultimate goal — rather than as a first, more convenient step towards a general Israeli products boycott — as problematic, practically, politically and morally.
At a practical level, as argued above, Israel has made it extremely difficult to differentiate between settlement and other Israeli products, simply because the majority of parent companies are based inside Israel. Most organic Israeli products, for instance, are produced in the illegal colonies in the OPT but are labelled as products of Israel since the actual companies that sell them are based inside Israel, and that’s where quite often the final packaging (the last phase of the production process) is done. This type of deception is commonplace, especially since Israel is well aware that it is violating the EU-Israel trade agreement and is doing its best to get around the restrictions included in it. The only reason Israel has managed to get away with such blatant violation for so long is not technical but political: shameful — and, unfortunately, quite typical — EU official complacency and treatment of Israel as a state above the law of nations.
Still, some genuine supporters of Palestinian rights may argue, it is much easier to continue to target settlement products with boycott as there is a consensus of sorts on the illegality of the settlements, whereas the same cannot be said about other Israeli injustices that may motivate a more comprehensive boycott, as urged in the Palestinian BDS Call and called for in the final declaration of the recently launched Bilbao Initiative of civil society in support of justice in Palestine. Even if one were to accept this pragmatic argument, the fact that Israel has failed to distinguish between settlement products and other Israeli products should justify — at a tactical level — advocating a boycott of all Israeli products and services at least until Israel adequately complies with the EU requirement of labeling settlement products clearly and accurately.
Politically speaking, though, and even if distinguishing between produce of settlements and produce of Israel were possible, activists who on principle — rather than out of convenience — advocate a boycott of only the former may indicate that they themselves are merely objecting to the Israeli military occupation and colonization since 1967 and have no problem whatsoever with Israel as a state that practices apartheid, or institutionalized racial discrimination, against its own “non-Jewish” citizens and that denies Palestinian refugee rights, sanctioned by the UN. Even if we ignore those other grave injustices committed by Israel, and irrespective of what solution to this entire oppression any of us may uphold, one cannot but recognize the inherent flaws in this argument.
When a state X occupies another “state” Y and persistently violates UN resolutions calling for an end to this occupation, the international community often punishes X and not some manifestation of X’s occupation! Governments aside, international civil society organizations have repeatedly boycotted entire states implicated in prolonged belligerent occupation, apartheid or other severe human rights violations, and not just parts of those states. Was there ever a movement calling for boycotting the bantustans alone in South Africa? Are there calls for boycotting only the Sudanese army and government officials present in Darfur today? Did any activists for the freedom of Tibet ever call for boycotting only those Chinese products made in Tibet?
Forgetting for the moment the fact that it was born out of ethnic cleansing and the destruction of the indigenous Palestinian society, Israel is the state that built and is fully responsible for maintaining the illegal Jewish colonies. Why should anyone punish the settlements and not Israel? This hardly makes any sense, politically speaking. Despite their noble intentions, people of conscience supporting peace and justice in Palestine who accept this distinction are effectively accommodating Israeli exceptionalism, or Israel’s status as a state above the law.
Finally, and most crucially, there is a moral problem that must be addressed in this approach. Ignoring Israel’s denial of refugee rights and its own system of racial discrimination against its “non-Jewish” citizens, the two other fundamental injustices listed in the BDS Call, is tantamount to accepting these two grave — certainly not any less evil — violations of human rights and international law as a given, or something that “we can live with.” Well, we cannot. Why should European civil society that fought apartheid in South Africa accept apartheid in Israel as normal, tolerable or unquestionable? Holocaust guilt cannot morally justify European complicity in prolonging the suffering, bloodshed and decades-old injustice that Israel has visited upon Palestinians and Arabs in general, using the Nazi genocide as pretext.
This whole paradigm needs to be challenged, not accepted as common wisdom.
Therefore, wherever necessary in a particular context, advocating a boycott of settlement produce should be only a first, relatively easier, step towards a full boycott of all Israeli products. It cannot be the final goal of activists fighting Israeli apartheid.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign www.BDSmovement.net.