This past June in Montpellier—France’s 8th largest city—over 100 activists from 9 countries gathered for the first European Forum Against Agrexco. Delegates from Italy, UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and Palestine joined French organizers for two days of workshops aimed at strengthening the boycott campaign against the Israeli agricultural export giant. Agrexco is Israel’s largest fresh produce exporter. 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 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), explained that the campaign against Agrexco includes a 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, irrigating with stolen water, and working 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. During the boycott workshop, activists presented a review of the campaigns and actions taking place in 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. Also, in Belgium last May, over 400 people in 22 cities filed a complaint with the police, citing Agrexco’s complicity with violations of international law. In France, the new Agrexco terminal at the port of Sète became a catalyst for the movement, with a mass demonstration of over 1,500 people, a remarkable number for a BDS action. Campaigns are also underway in Sweden and Norway. In Sweden activists presented the national co-op with a dossier on Agrexco’s activities who then promised to investigate. In Norway, the campaign focused on the local importer, who is consulting with attorneys on the question.
Michael Deas, European coordinator for BNC, underlined the importance of boycotting Agrexco as a company and not just the products it exports from illegal Israeli settlements. Aside from problems of traceability—Agrexco has been caught on numerous occasions mislabeling products or mixing settlement produce with that from the Israeli side of the Green Line—purchasing any Agrexco product means supporting a company profiting from the occupation and apartheid policies of the Israeli government.
The involvement in the French campaign of two farmers’ unions—Confédération Paysanne and Via Campesina—keep the issues of sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty at the forefront. Michael Deas also underlined the role Palestinian farmers have and can play in the campaign. In fact, Palestinian farmers’ unions were crucial in helping expose a propaganda stunt organized by Agrexco in France, claiming that boycotts of Agrexco products damaged Palestinian farmers in Gaza.
The legal workshop, with the presence of three Palestinian attorneys from the Palestinian Bar Association, concentrated on possible court actions against Agrexco. While several countries—Belgium, UK, 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 Sète and found clear cases of fraud. 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 there were invoices for dates from Jordan Valley declared to be “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 November 26, 2011.
It’s important to remember that behind the data and numbers, this is about people’s lives. The land confiscations, the stolen water, the house demolitions, the checkpoints make it impossible for Palestinians to develop their own economy. These policies serve to drive the Palestinians from their land. Companies such as Agrexco not only turn a profit, but also provide a direct economic incentive to maintain the occupation and continue apartheid policies.
Rafeef 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, who returned to work for the new owner because he just couldn’t give up his land. And how Palestinian produce figures in the minds of refugees, denied their right of return. Rafeef concluded the forum with an open invitation to her house in Haifa once Palestine is free and she can return home. The campaign to boycott the products of Carmel Agrexco is a step along the way.
Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. 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 [email protected].