Not Settlements, and Not Watermelons

Two weeks ago, inspectors from the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of National Economy went from one vegetable shop to the next in Ramallah and El Bireh, warning proprietors not to buy or sell watermelons grown in Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. Prior to that there was a similar directive regarding melons. Although buying watermelons and melons from the Arava, within Israel proper, is permitted, the ministry's clear preference is for Palestinian-grown produce: melons from Jericho, and watermelons from the Jenin area (which will arrive in local markets only about a month from now ). Furthermore, in early April there was a sweeping instruction to shopkeepers: For the entire month it was forbidden to buy or sell onions that were not grown locally.

The rationale behind the instructions is to encourage the Palestinian farming sector, as well as to remind people of legislation initiated by the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (in the absence of an active Palestinian Legislative Council ), and signed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas on April 26, 2010, which forbids Palestinian companies and residents of the territories from trading in products of services from the settlements. The law had established the Al Karameh National Empowerment Fund, a part of the National Economy Ministry, which with much fanfare and the participation of hundreds of youth launched the campaign last year to keep out products from the settlements.

It is true that hidden away in certain vegetable stores in Ramallah and El Bireh, it is still possible to find forbidden watermelons; indeed, epicures assert that watermelons from the Jordan Valley simply taste better. "You might be able to sell the ones from Jenin in refugee camps, but not here in Ramallah," explains one greengrocer, noting that both kinds go for NIS 4 a kilo. Melons from Jericho, however, do satisfy customers' tastes, he adds, and therefore there is no need to deal in contraband. But his customers prefer Medjool dates – produced by settlements in the Jordan Valley, marketed by the Diklaim company and costing about NIS 28 a kilo at his shop – to the dates marketed by a Palestinian company from Jericho, at NIS 15 a kilo.

In a crate inscribed in huge letters with the name of the importer, Tekoa Farms, ginger roots have been sitting and drying out for about a week, and displayed on one shelf are plastic bags of radishes from the settlement of Maon. According to the greengrocer, many prefer them to the "baladi," or local, variety. It is doubtful the customers read Hebrew, and apparently in this case – unlike that of the watermelons – even the merchant didn't realize these were products from settlements.

It would, however, be a mistake to conclude from these agricultural products that the Karameh fund campaign has failed. In supermarkets and other shops, food products and various household products manufactured in settlements have disappeared entirely in recent months. The one-time large-scale purchase of gravel and asphalt from Israeli-owned quarries in the West Bank has also been stopped (though here, too, there are ways around the ban if one is willing to risk hefty fines and confiscation of the materials ).

Since the law was issued and the banning campaign was launched by the Karameh fund, children have been keeping an eagle eye on their parents to make sure they aren't buying settlement products. For example, if the origin is not stated on the label, the product is immediately suspect. Likewise, if there is no label in Arabic. There are also, of course, conscientious adults who from time to time check whether the stores they frequent are observing the rules.

"At the end of 2010 we declared [PA-controlled areas in] the West Bank to be free of settlement products," says Hitham Kayali, head of the Karameh fund. "But of course there are always deviations, just as there is in our struggle against sales of food products and medication that have passed their expiration date."

Kayali says he receives calls from businesspeople in the PA's private sector thanking him for his efforts: The campaign against the settlement products has eliminated a significant competitor from the market and enabled them to expand their enterprises. He notes that there are a number of settlement products that initially appeared in the list of forbidden goods, but have been removed from the list – after the manufacturers, who perhaps used to have a production line, a storage facility or a marketing agency in a settlement, proved to the PA that they had cut their previous ties to it.

"Sometimes," Kayali adds, "we also get phone calls from Israeli companies, who tell us about their competitors who have connections in one way or another with the settlements." Moreover, it turns out, he claims, that most of the products that have passed their expiration date or have forged labels originate in the settlements, "so this isn't just a matter of a national or an economic issue, but also a health hazard that it is our duty to eliminate."

When the Karameh initiative was launched, there was talk in the PA about stopping Palestinian employment in settlements. Very quickly it became clear, however, that this was a blow the public could not handle. It will be possible to discuss such a concept, according to sources at the National Economy Ministry, only when the Palestinian economy is able to create a significant number of jobs. They stress that they still staunchly support the principle that everything having to do with the settlements, including employment or construction in them, damages their national aspirations.

"Isn't everything [Jewish] on both sides of the Green Line a colony?" I am asked teasingly by a number of Palestinian consumers and merchants who are not deterred from buying settlement products at the Rami Levi supermarket in the Sha'ar Binyamin industrial zone in the West Bank. "What difference is there between a product from 1948-occupied Isdud [Ashdod] and a product from Ma'aleh Adumim?" they wonder.

One El Bireh shopkeeper complains to me that the National Economy Ministry's inspectors "treat me arrogantly, so to spite them, I don't obey their orders." Some say ministry examinations of the origins of products have slackened off entirely. This proves to some cynical Palestinians that the whole Karameh campaign "was just a show, from the outset."

Kayali is sorry to hear about such sentiments, and stresses that the Karameh fund campaign is serious and ongoing. Some Fatah activists, I have been told, are tossing around the idea – as they did in the past – of calling for for a boycott of goods from within the Green Line, which are inundating the Palestinian market. "There's no contradiction in that," Kayali observes. "Every society and state-to-be has the right to protect its products in order to develop. The Fayyad government has set a list of priorities, which it is ticking off gradually."

Political boost

One group that is not cynical about the Karameh effort and its political potential is made up of young people – Palestinians and others – who live in Europe, and have joined and are active volunteers in an organization called Prosper Palestine. In contrast to the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions ) movement, which aims to cut all ties with Israeli companies and institutions on both sides of the Green Line, Prosper Palestine is campaigning only against ties to the settlements. Furthermore, while the BDS movement addresses its efforts at grassroots and non-governmental nongovernmental organizations, Prosper Palestine is focusing on the political echelons in various countries.

"The call for a total boycott of Israel turns off many politicians and other public figures," says a veteran European political activist who assists the group.

A Palestinian activist who is completing her doctoral studies in Europe, elaborates, in a phone conversation: "We aren't asking the politicians to take a new political position. The official European stance is that the settlements are illegal. So, we are demanding deeds, not just declarations. As a result of some pressure against the illegal settlements' products, Europe decided to distinguish them from other Israeli products with labels – rather than prohibiting their marketing. This is tantamount to labeling and legitimizing stolen goods. If someone imports pirated discs from China – the customs people confiscate them and fine him. But the settlement products are being marketed with no problem. We are calling attention to this contradiction, to this discriminatory practice."

A few weeks ago, members of Prosper Palestine held a meeting with representatives of several political parties in Britain as well as in Spain, where they also met with labor union people and other public figures. They presented their hosts with a study they had commissioned – with funding from Palestinian businesses – concerning the extent of British and Spanish trade with companies connected to the settlements. By summer, the study is expected to extend to other countries, including Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries. According to the Palestinian activist, members of the Socialist Party in Valencia are intending to act to boycott settlement products exported there.

Kayali, as the head of Karameh, was invited to speak at the Prosper Palestine meetings with members of parliament, along with Palestine Liberation Organization ambassadors, in both London and Madrid. "Our aim," he says, "is that Europe will adopt procedures to make all trade in settlement products illegal. We are saying to the Europeans: There's no value in your declarations of support for two states if at the same time you are investing in the settlements, not just not buying their products. The decision not to exempt settlement products from customs duties, but to allow their marketing, might make them more expensive. It is like encouraging people to buy a stolen car, but at a higher price. It's shameful."

The struggle against settlement products undertaken by the Karameh fund and others is identified with Salam Fayyad's government and also with Minister of National Economy Hassan Abu-Libdeh. Just before the surprising announcement last week of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, when the establishment of a unity government became something feasible, Haaretz asked Kayali about the fate of the anti-settlement campaign. (Actually, Fayyad's government was officially disbanded on February 14, but continued functioning as a caretaker government while Fayyad and Abbas sought to put together a new government. )

Kayali: "This isn't a matter of individuals. It's a matter of procedure, of an approach that has been internalized in the government ministries. More than being about a boycott of products, it's about building state institutions. We have a law that was passed and a system that works. There are procedures that have been established and the government ministries are acting in accordance with them. Irrespective of who heads them. Those who have violated the law and have been discovered – their cases have been sent along to the general prosecution."

Rumors have already spread that Fayyad will not head the new government, which is supposed to be made up of technocrats and experts not identified with either of the movements. However, when it comes to products from settlements, the Fayyad government has set a goal that a unity government will presumably not want to forgo.  

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