Why boycotting went bust

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Back in 1988, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza learned to do things they never had before – can their own tomato juice, plant cucumbers, onions and peppers in their backyards and even make their own mayonnaise – anything that would ward off the temptation of buying products with Hebrew labels.

Those were the days of the first Intifada. Early on, the Unified National Command – the underground leadership of  the uprising – called on the Palestinians in the occupied territories to boycott all Israeli products and to form popular committees to produce their own.

Thirteen years later, the Palestinian leadership é this time a public one é has tried to revive this form of popular resistance that was at least partially successful the first time around.

Ibrahim Abu Ein, a member of the Fateh regional committee in Ramallah, says the call for a boycott in this Intifada was primarily a political move. “After the Intifada began, the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel became one of hostility. So it was necessary to make such a call.”

Abu Ein elaborates, “If we are going to resist them in every way possible, we must also do it at the level of their products.” He mentions Israel’s aggressive war against the Palestinians and its military superiority. “This is one tool of  resistance [against that force].”

But things did not work out as planned. While the majority of Palestinians were for the most part willing during the first Intifada to give up their Osem cookies and Tnuva butter, substituting them for oftentimes less than satisfactory locally-made substitutes, this current uprising has yielded less willingness.

“People are just not aware enough,” says Aziz Halaweh, a  long-time employee of Zabaneh’s grocery store in the center of Ramallah. “Even when there is a local substitute, people still buy the Israeli merchandise.”

Zabaneh’s, owned by one of Ramallah’s oldest families and one of the city’s most reputable places to shop, is no exception. While the store is known for its rare assortment of imported foods, ranging from Swiss Mocha coffee to Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, the shelves of the tidy store are predominantly stocked with products made in Israel.

Halaweh lays the bulk of the blame on the consumer. “If a person comes into the store to buy a certain Israeli product and doesn’t find it, he or she will just go somewhere else. When we have products on our shelves that don’t get sold, we just stop bringing them.”

His comment brings to light an underlying assumption among many Palestinian consumers today. Even when there is a local alternative, he implies, consumers still won’t buy it because Arab production just isn’t up to par.

“See this milk,” points Halaweh, at a neatly stacked pile of  milk cartons on the floor of the store. “Although there is a  good local Palestinian alternative,” he says indicating to a similar pile with a different label, “people don’t think local products are good enough.” And so they buy the Israeli brand.

A shopper at Izhiman’s grocery store a few blocks away confirms this notion. “If there were local alternatives of equal quality I would definitely buy them,” she says as she lays out Israeli-made candy on the counter before the cashier. “But there aren’t many local products and even when there are, they are not top quality.”

Dirar Tayem, the co-owner of Balqis cosmetics store, says there are other reasons for the boycott’s failure. He says that the ban of the first Intifada was a partial success because people knew and needed less.

“Today, the average person on the street has different demands, they want different things.” He attributes this to the technology information boom over the past decade. “People see advertisements for clothes, food and cars on satellite and over the Internet. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have these things.” So, he says, “people just won’t settle for things that are locally-made.”

Tayem says merchants want to boycott Israeli products and would be willing to do so – if only there was a viable alternative. “We would be lying to ourselves if we said there was,” he maintains.

But he does not blame Palestinian industry for this shortcoming. “Even if we did directly boycott Israeli products, the fact remains that all the raw materials come from Israel. And even if we just brought in imported goods, all the borders and crossings are still controlled by Israel.”

But Abu Ein says he is not concerned by the boycott’s lack of success. “Our call for a boycott was not a ‘win or lose all’ tactic.” He says the national forces did not demand that all Israeli products should be boycotted, but only those that have a reasonable local alternative. “We did not want the people to feel like they are at a dead end.”

It is the rest of the Palestinians that Abu Ein is banking on. “There was a considerable percentage of people who did adhere to this call,” he says, although he estimates that this percentage still falls below the halfway mark. It’s true, he admits, that “there are many people who still don’t have faith in Arab products.”

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