RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — While young Palestinians in Hebron are burning tires and throwing stones, Ziad Toame is taking a different approach to the struggle.
Mr. Toame has been tasked with implementing the Palestinian Authority’s new boycott of all goods produced in Israeli settlements. The campaign started late last year, but Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched the campaign into the limelight last month with the public burning of $1 million in products made in Israeli settlements and confiscation of them from the shelves of Palestinian shops. A week later, he announced a “National Dignity Fund” aimed at helping support the availability of Palestinian produce in local markets as well as abroad.
“We’ve struggled in every way. But the main cause now is really a political issue, and we’ve decided that one way to fight is to fight against all settlement products,” says Mr. Toame, director-general of the Ministry of National Economy’s Department of Industry, Trade and Consumer Services. Toame’s job includes overseeing an 80-member monitoring team that roams West Bank cities and villages, looking for goods to confiscate – and violators of the ban to report.
Palestinian industry has been heavily curtailed under Israeli occupation. So perhaps it’s no surprise that loads of products made in some of the approximately 120 settlements in the West Bank – from produce and dairy to diapers, soap and paint – make their way to Palestinian customers. Competing Palestinian products are available for some products like produce, but distribution is more limited for Palestinian companies. Other products – cloth, door locks – can be harder to trace, and are made in Israeli industrial zones based in the West Bank.
Toame also charges that settler food products are “dumped” on the Palestinian market when they’re nearing expiration date, and sold at rock-bottom prices. “If they weren’t dumping so many products on the Palestinian economy, it’d be much better,” he says.
Settlement-based manufacturers and farmers took an additional hit today when a European Union court ruled that settlement goods do not qualify for duty-free import into the EU, unlike products made or grown in Israel proper. Today’s ruling, the first of its kind, made it clear that only goods made within Israel’s pre-1967 borders would qualify for duty-free status. The EU has had several run-ins with Israel over this issue, and Israel agreed in 2005 to include a code on “Made in Israel” products. The importer could then use the code to check where precisely the manufacturer or grower is based and purchase accordingly.
A campaign with teeth?
Not stopping at simply raising public awareness, the PA is also giving the campaign teeth. Toame’s office has drafted a law, signed by Mr. Fayyad and awaiting the signature of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that would make it illegal for Palestinians to sell settlement products, on pain of heavy fines and jail time.
The idea, Toame says, is to go after big distributors, and not consumers. But many small businesses say that is easier said than done. Not all products are easily replaceable in terms of quality; for others, there isn’t enough Palestinian production to meet demand.
“I just found out that the dates I have been selling come from the Jordan valley settlements,” says Said Mohammad, who runs an open-air vegetable market in the old city area of Ramallah. “I will not buy them again, even though they are in great demand – and they are delicious. But the settlers stole our land, and this economic boycott is an extremely important route to fighting back.”
Mohammad Shini, the manager of a supermarket in Al-Bireh, near Ramallah, says that many Palestinians were not aware of what they were buying.
“Many supermarkets were buying goods without realizing that the merchandise came from the settlements,” he says. “Now that we’re aware of it, we’re doing our best to stay away from settler produce.”
PA must help develop industries
But Omar Deek, who owns the busy Zain Mini-Market, said that for the boycott to be effective, the PA must help the development of industries offering equally high-quality products.
“We have stopped buying diapers that come from the settlements, even though it’s the best quality and no Palestinian manufacturer has an equally good product,” Deek says as he rings up a customer. “The PA should encourage industry growth in order to fight both Israel’s and the settlements’ merchandise coming into our market. And, we need to activate the quality-assurance departments in the government in order to urge Palestinians to adhere to high-quality standards. Palestinian industry suffers from lack of monitoring on its merchandise, which brings down the level of the goods produced in the PA areas.”
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel sees the PA campaign – particularly the burning of Israeli goods – as counterproductive.
“The Palestinians would be much better off if they dedicated their efforts to the development and prosperity of their own economy, rather than boycotting and destroying the products of the other sides’ economy,” he said.