Israel fights back on calls for boycott

Israeli authorities have decided to take action against calls around the world to boycott Israeli products: “The boycotters are bound to pay the price – in both the public and political arenas.”

al-monitor A Palestinian worker sticks Intajuna ("Our Products") stickers on Palestinian goods in a supermarket in Ramallah, Aug. 2, 2009.  Photo by REUTERS/Fadi Arouri.

Topics covered

sanctions, israeli economy, israel, gaza strip, business, boycott of israeli goods, bds

Aug 19, 2014

The summer of fighting in Gaza has rekindled the wave of boycotts and protests against Israel the world over, and it seems that the distinctions made in previous protests are becoming blurred. While in the past, calls were made for a ban on products from the [West Bank] settlements, these days, even companies operating within the Green Line find themselves under attack — and this, for no other reason than being Israeli. Among the latter are ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd., major food manufacturers, Diamant Toys-AMAV Ltd. and others.

“Not every call for a boycott is a boycott in practice,” says Amir Ofek, director of the Civil Society Affairs department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He explains that most boycotts are of the type known as “bully boycott” — where a business owner seeks to shun [threatened] violence — rather than boycotts driven by political identification with violent demonstrators. “There are independent boycott initiatives, as well, which persistent field work succeeds in removing from the agenda,” Ofek adds. “The shift to an all-out call for a sweeping boycott of anything Israeli, the violence and specifically, the anti-Semitic statements made every now and then, reveal the true face of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. And while it has its sympathizers, there has also been growing criticism of the movement, which helps us to keep up our struggle to curb the phenomenon as far as possible.”

Besides discreet, behind-the-scenes activity, Ofek says, an open public activity is carried on, delivering a strong message. “It is by no means a unilateral game. Those calling for a boycott are bound to find themselves under attack — on the part of the public, the media, and the political sector. A certain British theater that refused to host a Jewish film festival due to ‘the Israeli Embassy’s support of the festival,’ confident that no commotion would follow, soon discovered its mistake. When faced with demonstrations, revocation of donations, negative media coverage, and even messages from the corridors of power, it realized how wrong it was. Likewise, the BDS organizations in Rome went on the defensive, appealing to the public not to classify them as racists. Even organizations that considered [anti-Israeli] divestment have been forced to publicly renounce the global BDS movement. And the trend will strengthen. We will act with resolution to make it clear to the advocates of boycott that there is a price to pay.”

The initiatives are local but cross countries, continents

About three weeks ago, pro-Palestinian activists in the United States launched a campaign aimed at preventing ZIM vessels from docking in the port of Auckland, California. On the Facebook page they opened [under the heading “Block the Boat”], they explained that they were a coalition of activists calling for ''a blockade on the Israeli ZIM ships, in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” and that as long as Gaza was under naval blockade, every effort should be made to sabotage Israeli marine transportation services. A similar protest was held back in 2010, some three weeks after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. At the time, 500 demonstrators managed to stop ZIM ships from unloading their cargo at the port of Auckland for 24 hours, creating a human wall to keep away the port workers and deny them access to the ship.

This time around, ZIM was ready for the protest, and repeatedly changed the arrival time of its ZIM Piraeus container ship at the port of Auckland, originally slated for last Saturday, apparently in order to confuse the protesters. The protesters, for their part, delayed the scheduled demonstration time and again, but finally held it in the absence of the ship. “The delay is in itself a victory,” said Mohamed Shehk, one of the organizers of the blockade. “We estimate the loss of ZIM at $22 million per day of delay.”

“We are familiar with these boycotts,” says Israeli Sea Officers' Union Chairman Avi Levy. “It started following the Marmara incident — when, in South Africa and other places, ZIM vessels were not let into their destination ports.” Protesters are currently organizing to prevent the docking of still other ZIM ships in the Washington state ports of Tacoma and Seattle in the coming week. They also hope to stop ZIM vessels from arriving in Vancouver, Canada, and thus totally block the access of the company’s ships to harbors along the West Coast of America.

According to the comment made by ZIM in response, “The company is working in full coordination with the local authorities, and has full confidence in their ability to ensure the ongoing operation of ZIM vessels.”

In Britain and Ireland, local actions and initiatives against Israeli products have been stepped up. Ireland's largest supermarket chain, SuperValu, last week ordered all its 232 branch managers to get rid of Israeli goods. However, a day after the move was publicized, it announced that the reports were baseless. “SuperValu is not involved in the boycott of Israel. We have a policy of not taking a stand on international issues,” the statement it released said. At the same time, the supermarket chain did not deny that it had ordered the removal of Israeli products from the shelves.

In Belfast, protesters removed Israeli merchandise from stores of the Sainsbury's and Asda supermarket chains, and while at it, they shot videos of the happenings. The videos they then uploaded to the Internet have gone viral. Last Saturday, a branch of the Tesco supermarket chain in Birmingham, UK, was vandalized. Some one hundred protesters charged into the store, threw Israeli products on the floor, and shouted at employees and customers.

The Irish Mandate Trade Union issued a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli food products, thus joining Unite, the largest trade union in the country (and in the entire UK), which had already called for such a boycott. In Dublin, a branch of the Smyths toy store chain, the largest in Ireland, hung a sign declaring that it had removed from its shelves the products of Diamant Toys-AMAV Ltd. (based in Ashdod, in southern Israel), as well as other Israeli-made products. The chain management claimed that it was a local initiative of the store employees, and the sign was subsequently taken off.

“It all began when images of the destruction in Gaza were broadcast on the Irish TV,” explains Kobi Diamant, a co-owner of the company. “I took it really hard, as I know the owner of the chain. I called him, and it turned out that he was completely unaware of the story, and, indeed, the next day the products were put back in place. It is a welcome step, but unfortunately, a drop in sales is already evident in the field. Each round of fighting only makes it worse.”

In Auckland, New Zealand, some 100 people demonstrated last Friday outside the offices of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund — the government pension fund — in protest of its investments in Israeli companies such as Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL). The latter, they claimed, was producing white phosphorus used in the bombing of Gaza. Some of the protesters chained themselves to the management table, on the 12th floor of the office building, and demanded to speak with the Fund’s chief executive Adrian Orr. And this, after Orr announced earlier in the day that the Fund had no intention to remove ICL from its portfolio, arguing that there was no evidence that the company’s products were used against the people of Gaza.

Various similar initiatives, all having the same aim, have been undertaken in many other countries since Operation Protective Edge was launched [in early July].

For the first time, Israel to be boycotted in the West Bank

A new campaign in the West Bank calls on consumers to avoid buying Israeli goods. And while there were numerous initiatives in the past seeking to persuade the Palestinians to boycott products manufactured in the settlements, it's the first time a boycott is being called against all Israeli-made goods. Last week, a number of supermarkets in Ramallah started to remove Israeli products from their shelves.

Yet, the Palestinians in the West Bank are almost completely dependent on Israel for the supply of electricity, gas, and water. What’s more, 65% of the Palestinian imports come from Israel. It emerged from data released by the Ministry of Economy that in 2013, the volume of trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) amounted to some $4 billion, $3.44 billion of which are accounted for by imports of Israeli goods. And since the overall volume of Israeli exports in that same year totaled $56.8 billion, Israel’s exports to the West Bank represent a mere 6% of the overall Israeli exports.

As part of the [anti-Israeli] campaign, activists are going from one store to another and attach labels to Israeli-made products, which carry the following message in Arabic: “When you buy this product, you are contributing to the Israeli army.” Several [Palestinian] radio stations announced that they would advertise free of charge stores boycotting Israeli goods.

“At the moment, there is no evidence that it is an organized initiative of the Palestinian Authority,” a source familiar with the trade relations between Israel and the PA told [Israel’s daily business newspaper] Calcalist. “These are all local initiatives, originating in the field. However, there has been a decline in sales. All the same, I believe it will not last for long, mainly due to the lack of alternative sources. After all, what are they going to do? Buy from Jordan? Or from Saudi Arabia? Their products cannot match up to the Israeli goods. The population in the territories has grown accustomed to a certain standard. I have heard of Palestinians who already asked the suppliers to pack the products for them in a way that would not betray their Israeli origin.”

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