Despite ban, Israeli products still abound on Ramallah store shelves
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Despite ban, Israeli products still abound on Ramallah store shelves

‘If the PA wants to boycott Israel, it should stop security coordination, not tell people to stop buying sour cream,’ says Palestinian vendor

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: A Palestinian activist places a sign to boycott Israeli products at a supermarket in Bethlehem, West Bank,  February 11, 2015 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
Illustrative: A Palestinian activist places a sign to boycott Israeli products at a supermarket in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 11, 2015 (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A boycott imposed by Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement on Israel’s main food manufacturers may have officially taken effect on Wednesday, but just one mile away from the presidential palace here, vendors were noticeably unmoved.

Popular snacks like Osem’s Bamba peanut butter snacks and Elite’s Tapuchips potato chips stood on display, unabashed, outside grocery stores around al-Manara Square. Meanwhile, Strauss milky chocolate pudding and Tnuva yogurts were cooling in refrigerators at the back.

“The Israeli products sell better than the Arab ones and their quality is higher,” said Fawzi, 23, who operates the cash register in a small grocery on al-Nahda Street. Reluctant to divulge his real name for fear of reprisals, he was nevertheless unequivocal in his criticism of the new Palestinian policy.

“People aren’t convinced by the boycott,” he explained. “Most see it as a foolish game, a ploy to placate the public; not as a genuine patriotic move. If the PA sincerely wanted to boycott, it would have blocked the trucks from entering [the Palestinian territories] at the crossings.”

On February 9, Fatah’s High Committee for Confronting the Israeli Measures announced the boycott of six major Israeli food and drink manufacturers — Strauss, Tnuva, Osem, Elite, Prigat and Jafora — warning merchants to remove the products from their shelves within two weeks or face confiscation. The move was declared as retaliation for Israel’s decision to withhold some $200 million in Palestinian tax revenues since early January. On Wednesday, Fatah committee head Mahmoud Al-Alul told the press that sanctions against insubordinate vendors would commence on Thursday, the Palestinian daily Al-Quds reported.

A Palestinian man walks by a grafitti sign calling to boycott Israel seen in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 11, 2015 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A Palestinian man walks by a grafitti sign calling to boycott Israel seen in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 11, 2015 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Fawzi accused his leadership of picking on the little guy rather than tackling the most significant aspects of Palestinian cooperation with Israel.

“I support the boycott, but not by dealing with the small stuff and leaving the big,” he said. “Stop the security coordination, and the next day Israel will succumb. The PA can implement a more effective boycott through matters it controls, like halting previous agreements, rather than telling people to stop buying sour cream.”

During the war in Gaza over the summer, he noted, people spontaneously refrained from buying Israeli products with no instructions from above, simply as an act of solidarity. But now he viewed the boycott campaign as a decoy, meant to divert public rage to Israel instead of the Palestinian government.

“If an intifada were to break out, there would be no PA left to collect taxes,” he said.

A leaflet signed by the High Committee for Confronting the Israeli Measures warns Palestinian merchants to rid their shops of Israeli merchandise by February 24 photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel
A leaflet signed by the High Committee for Confronting the Israeli Measures warns Palestinian merchants to rid their shops of Israeli merchandise by February 24 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

A few days ago, Palestinian youth belonging to Alul’s High Committee handed Fawzi a sheet of paper demanding him to rid the shop’s inventory of Israeli products by February 25 or face confiscation. That demand was reiterated on Wednesday by Salah Haniyeh, head of the Palestinian consumer protection association, who told the media that enforcement of the regulations would be stringent across the West Bank.

“The danger lies in the existence of these products in merchants’ storage rooms,” he was quoted by Al-Quds as saying. “But we will not allow their continued sale; we will confiscate them by force. The expiry date of dairy products is short, so the merchants have no excuse for not disposing of them within days.”

Haniyeh warned Palestinian manufacturers and retailers against price hikes, which some vendors have already reported.

Not far from Fawzi’s shop, Iyad, the owner of a small mini-market, said there was no alternative to the Israeli Tapuzina line of fruit juices. “The other stuff just isn’t tasty,” he said.

Nevertheless, he has scaled down orders of Israeli merchandise in anticipation of an official Palestinian decision. “When the merchandise runs out of stock I won’t order it again. I’ll wait and see what happens. If a decision is made [to boycott], we’ll comply. But otherwise, what can I do? The public wants it, and if they don’t get it from me, they’ll go to my competitor.”

No Israeli company on the Palestinian blacklist would agree to say whether they have suffered financial harm since the boycott was declared earlier this month. But one official, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to comment on record, said that his company was unscathed by the move.

Israeli-manufactured ketchup bottles crowd the shelf of a Ramallah grocery shop, February 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Israeli-manufactured ketchup bottles crowd the shelf of a Ramallah grocery shop, February 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

The boycott was intentionally left to civil society and political movements, not the Palestinian government, for two main reasons, he opined. First, value-added tax on sales, worth 18 percent, is funneled by Israel to the PA coffers, and is worth millions of shekels. Second, he said, Abbas is unable to enforce the unpopular decision at this stage.

“He will use an all-out boycott as the last bullet in his gun,” the official said.

‘I support the boycott, but not by dealing with the small stuff and leaving the big,’ Fawzi said

Meanwhile, a few merchants have decided to go against market rules and rid their shops of Israeli products for reasons of principle. Hamdi, 27, who works at a grocery store in Manara Square, said the owner removed all Israeli merchandise during the war in Gaza.

“Every Israeli product has an alternative, even if of lesser quality,” he told The Times of Israel. “It can be Palestinian or it come from Turkey, as long as it’s not Israeli.”

Hamdi said the customers have been very understanding to the boycott, and will habitually buy alternatives to Israeli foodstuff, with the exception of Tnuva milk.

“Maybe they suspect we put something in it,” he laughed.

Sawsan, a 22-year-old mathematics student shopping in one of the stores, said she was encouraged by the boycott campaign, even as its implementation remained partial.

“This is the least we can do to harm Israel,” she said. “I like the idea, but shops won’t unite to boycott. Arab merchandise could certainly replace the Israeli.”

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