Boycotting Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On a dusty road at the edge of Nablus’ old city, Abu Mahmoud eagerly hands out a fistful of Palestinian-made chocolates, encouraging his customers to try them.

While waiting for his customers' reactions, his enthusiasm quickly overwhelmed him.

“There are lots of places to buy chocolate from in the Arab world!” he bellowed.

Abu Mahmoud then watched expectantly as his customers inspected the chocolate bricks, made mushy by scorching summer heat.

“The settlements are a big problem here,” he added in a more conspiratorial tone.

Abu Mahmoud’s storefront window, like thousands of others in the West Bank, is adorned with a yellow sticker that reads: “Your Conscience, Your Choice.” It’s part of an effort by the Palestinian Authority to boycott all goods made in Israeli West Bank settlements. Palestinians view the settlements as usurping their territory and much of the international community considers them illegal.

And it’s why Abu Mahmoud now exclusively carries Palestinian chocolate.

The movement is grassroots to the bone. Many Palestinians have been observing a boycott of settlement goods for years. The Palestinian Authority, however, formalized the boycott this year, decreeing punishments for those who stock settlement goods on their store shelves and, in the last few weeks, deploying a small army of volunteers to inspect shops across the territory.

Five such volunteers recently showed up at Joe’s supermarket in Ramallah to check for any outlawed goods. They didn’t find any.

“There were not too many goods from the settlements,” said Yazan Tartir, who works at Joe’s. Tartir noted that before the inspection, he only had to pull a few yogurt and biscuit products from his shelves.

According to the new law, those who violate it would be subject to five years in prison and a $22,000 dollar fine.

Despite the Palestinian Authority’s new hard line on dealing in settlement goods, Palestinians seem to be welcoming the measure. Many Palestinians have even said they would like the boycott to extend to all Israeli goods.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me because there are still a lot of Israeli goods on the shelves. They only banned settlement goods. Why don’t they ban everything?” asked Rafaat Bargouti, a manager at Bravo supermarket.

“Why do we bring Israeli products? Why do we benefit them?” added Yazir.

Palestinian welfare is so intertwined with Israel, though, that the boycott of settlement goods is already presenting some downsides and a total boycott of Israeli goods could be an economic disaster.

About 22,000 Palestinians work in the settlements and many might face layoffs if the boycott has the desired effect. Reports that settlement factories have already had to scale back production in response to the boycott have only added to concerns that some Palestinian laborers might soon be out of a job.

Still, most Palestinians seem undeterred.

“Everything they made in the settlements, now they can make it here and create job opportunities,” Mourad Seneef, a manager at Brazil market, said about Palestinians who might lose their jobs.
“Salam Fayyad will employ these people,” he added, invoking the name of the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, who has been spearheading the boycott effort.

Israel, for its part, has many means of economic retaliation at its disposal if the boycott seriously threatens settlement economies. The Jewish state still controls over 500 checkpoints in the West Bank, which it can shut down as it sees fit. And it dictates Palestinian access to Jordan — an important trading partner for Palestine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed little patience for this latest display of Palestinian civil disobedience.

“We have removed checkpoints, eased the lives of Palestinians and are working all the time to advance the Palestinian economy,” the prime minister told reporters in May. “Despite this, the Palestinians are opposing economic peace and are taking steps that in the end hurt themselves.”

Even as economists and political analysts alike wait to understand the full impact of the heightened boycott, the move has already generated considerable street-level enthusiasm, with more and more yellow “Your conscience, Your Choice” stickers popping up around the West Bank every day.

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.