Boycotting Israeli settlement products: tactic vs. strategy
A spate of recent news reports on international companies moving out of the occupied Palestinian territory (
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 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 occupied Palestinian territory (
In reality, though, EU countries have for decades looked the other way while
According to an article in 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 the 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 Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (
In fact, while the Palestinian
At a practical level, as argued above,
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 labelling 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 of 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 of the free-Tibet activists 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
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 (