Palestinians go the Gandhi way

Since its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, Palestinians have been intimately connected with Israel’s settlement enterprise. Palestinian construction workers have built these settlements, Palestinians have worked as cleaners, handimen and gardeners in them, and Palestinians have found employment in settlement industries.

Palestinians not involved with the settlements have condemned their compatriots but no official action was taken against them from the time the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1996 until in December 2009 when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced a boycott of settlement goods and a ban on employment in the settlements.

Officialdom took its time because the PA did not want to risk angering Israel while there was any possibility that negotiations might result in the establishment of a Palestinian state. But private individuals and groups declared unofficial boycotts of not only settlement products but also Israeli goods.  These were not very effective. But in 2000, during the opening weeks of the Second Palestinian Intifada, or Uprising, a group of Palestinian individuals formed a movement to promote a boycott of settlement goods.

Humble beginning

One of the founders of the movement, Salah Haniyeh said: “We were not connected with the PA and worked at the grassroots level. We did not have the legitimacy to go to shops to ask them to stop stocking settlement products. This depended on the owners of factories and shops”.

“We made an awareness campaign through students and women. The women were particularly important because they decide what to buy for the home and family. The boycott succeeded with some Israeli settlement goods: softdrinks and bottled water.”
The picture changed once the government became involved. This month it launched the ‘National Dignity’ campaign. Thousands of volunteers wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan, “Don’t let settlements into your home,” went into Palestinian towns and villages and handed out a well-produced 88-page guide listing settlement goods, services and manufacturers included in the boycott and describing how to participate. Palestinians are asked to sign the ‘karama’ or ‘dignity’ pledge to replace settlement with local products.

In January, Fayyad announced the creation of the Karama Fund, to which the private sector had contributed $2.25 million to find new jobs for Palestinians leaving settlement employment. Another $1 million was allocated by the government to the fund. Last week the Palestinian minister of labour called for the expansion of the fund to $50 million to provide for half salaries to Palestinian labourers for a year until they can get new jobs in the Palestinian territories.

Haniyeh said, “At first, workers thought they would be the biggest losers. They felt they would not get the same salaries in the Palestinian private sector.” There is also a cultural dimension to this issue. Palestinians prefer to work in settlements than in menial jobs in their home communities.

On April 26 President Mahmoud Abbas signed a law for the boycott of settlement products and the law was enforced immediately. The ministry of public housing announced it would not use settlement materials in projects. Fruits and vegetables being sold in the West Bank were seized and burned. At least one settlement-based factory closed. Among the beneficiaries of the boycott are the watermelon farmers of a Palestinian village in northern Israel and the date growers of Jericho.

To complement the ‘Dignity’ campaign, a consumers’ protection society was established to oversee quality control and pricing of Palestinian products. “This is very important,” stated Haniyeh. In 1987 during the first intifada, we boycotted Israeli goods. Palestinian factories opened but after six months we saw that the products were not good quality and prices were high. Now we have institutions for standards and a hot line to the consumer protection society.”

He made the point that a boycott of settler goods and a ban on settlement employment does not violate the 1996 Paris protocol which governs freedom of movement and trade in the occupied territories or international law which regards the settlements as being illegal.

“We are beginning a popular battle, like the campaigns waged by Gandhi for Indian independence. The situation here is changing. The protests every Friday against the settlements and walls in the West Bank village of Bil’in have inspired 20 villages to join in. A small village can change the world.”

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