Creative resistance in fair trade conferencing

Palestinians harvest olives in the occupied West Bank. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

One of the goals of the ongoing Israeli military occupation of Palestine is to dampen and, over time, completely destroy the incredibly resilient spirit of Palestinians. But, as it stands, this amazing strength of mind and resoluteness continues to present itself as the biggest obstacle to a complete Israeli takeover of Palestinian land and identity. In the face of so much injustice, when it would be so easy to give up and proclaim defeat, Palestinians resolve instead to carry on their struggle for land and self-determination. Regardless of how debilitating and damaging the occupation is, they continue to live as best they can and to find creative ways in which to resist occupation while improving their common situation under the unjust circumstances in which they find themselves.

This unique determination and resistance was most recently exhibited during the very successful and well-attended second national fair trade conference in Palestine, which coincided with the inauguration of the Palestinian Fair Trade Network, made up of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), the Fair Trade Development Centre, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UWAC), the Palestinian Farmer’s Union, and Holy Land Cooperative Society — with Oxfam Great Britain as a supporter. From 16-18 March, representatives from Palestinian non-governmental organizations and cooperatives, farmers, academics and politicians, along with representatives from fair trade organizations and solidarity groups from Japan, Europe and North America, gathered amid the blossoming landscape of al-Zababdeh, Jenin, to discuss “Market Potentials for Palestinian Fair Trade Products.”

Given the difficulty for Palestinians to engage in any kind of trade — especially at the national/regional level where the majority of their market is — the fact that a national conference on fair trade even took place, let alone the creation of the fair trade network, is commendable. Israel has made it very difficult for the West Bank to trade both regionally and internationally by imposing restrictions on, and barriers to, trade. It has also flooded the Palestinian market with cheap Israeli goods, creating an incredible amount of competition locally, while forbidding Palestinian products from being sold in the Israeli market. Trade in the Gaza Strip, in contrast, has been completely forbidden under the crippling Israeli-imposed siege that has now lasted more than two years. Sadly, because of movement restrictions, farmers and cooperative representatives from Gaza were unable to attend the conference, which, according to Saleem Abu Ghazaleh, Director of the Fair Trade Department of PARC and one of the conference organizers, was the weak point of the conference. “When we talk about fair trade in Palestine, we are obviously talking about fair trade in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” he said, “so the fact that there is no Gaza representation is very detrimental.” This absence could be felt throughout the conference, with whispers of “They [the people of Gaza] are in our hearts,” frequently heard. In spite of these dispiriting setbacks, however, there continues to be a groundswell of energy and dedication being put towards the advancement of fair trade and sustainable development agendas.

Fair trade in Palestine is definitely a model worth fighting for. For a people who have been made dependent on aid, much of it conditional and all of it more destructive than helpful, the concept of a homemade economy, based on principles of equality and justice, is not only appealing but also essential. Fair trade also plays a significant role in the Palestinian struggle for land and independence because, as stated in a presentation given by Dr. Taha Rifai from UWAC during the conference, it works to “protect indigenous seeds, maintain control over food sources, and ensure food security.” Furthermore, as explained by Saleem Abu Ghazaleh, fair trade is the best way to support, create opportunities for and sustain small and economically marginalized producers in the agricultural and handicraft industries in Palestine, both of which play a huge role in Palestinian culture, tradition and, therefore, identity.

The conference was attended by a number of partners from France, Italy, Canada, Belgium, Japan, Switzerland and the US, who are involved one way or another in importing fair trade Palestinian products. Their presence and participation, despite the difficulties even they faced by coming into Palestine, was testament to their solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people. However, while supporting fair trade in Palestine is a great way to show solidarity, it is also, according to CTM [Cooperazione Terzo Mondo) Altromercado, Italy representative Giorgio Dal Fiume, more generally about fostering a “relationship between producers and consumers,” no matter where they are from. This reciprocal relationship benefits producers, consumers, small communities, countries, the global community and the environment.

Crucial to this reciprocal relationship is the concept of transparency, which ensures accountability, openness and communication. The importance of transparency to the function of fair trade was clearly reflected in the attendance and participation of every stakeholder in the chain of Palestinian fair trade — from producer to consumer — during the conference. Also central to the integrity of fair trade is the fair and equal representation and participation of women, which was demonstrated in the high attendance and active contribution of women in the conference.

The themes that kept resurfacing throughout the conference were that of unity and cooperation — generally important topics of conversation in Palestine these days. The idea to unify many of those working in the fair trade sector in Palestine by creating the PFTN was, in effect, a response to suggestions made at the last fair trade conference, which pointed out that a united strategy on fair trade was lacking in Palestine, and that a true and serious partnership needed to be established in order to move forward with any sort of momentum. Furthermore, Tarik Abu Laban, board member of the Palestinian Olive Oil Council, affirmed that in order to be successful, strategies need to be based on the principle of collectivity. During his presentation he drove this point home when he said, “I advise all the farmers that this is the only solution. It can’t be done alone. It needs to be done collectively.” Certainly, the 900 active cooperatives in Palestine are, for the most part, models of what unity and cooperation have the potential to achieve — namely, justice, equality and sustainability — or, in other words, success.

Considering the success already achieved in the fair trade movement in Palestine, it is easy to imagine how it might take off if there was no belligerent Israeli occupation. Instead of becoming discouraged by thinking of what could and should be, however, the focus somehow remains on what can and will be done now, in order to improve the situation down the road. The second national conference on fair trade was inspiring on so many levels, but mostly because it reflected a unified Palestinian voice, as well as dedication and perseverance. By stepping up and taking initiative, the fair trade movement has effectively demonstrated that it is taking the survival of Palestine (reliant on the survival of its culture, traditions and identity) out of Israel’s hands, effectively putting it back into the safety of Palestinian hands, where it belongs. In a land of unfathomable injustice, it is this type of creative resistance, a far cry from what the world thinks of when they picture Palestinian resistance, which has the power to affect the most positive change.

Gen Sander currently lives in Ramallah, West Bank. She works in the Fair Trade Department of PARC and teaches a beginner’s photography class at Aida Refugee Camp.