Civil society in the lead
by Sam Bahour
When politicians face failure what do they do? Step down? No way. Not in Palestine at least. Over and over again the Palestinian leadership has hit a cement wall (no pun intended) in its attempts to lead the Palestinian people to freedom and independence. And with every colossal failure, the leadership looks to Palestinian civil society for direction.
The first intifada was adopted to cover for the failures in Lebanon, and the second intifada was adopted to cover for the collapse of Oslo. The current Palestinian Authority boycott of Israeli settlement products is no different. The boycott is the scaffolding that the PA is attempting to erect and climb in order to retake a leadership position. The dilemma PA leaders face is that it is very possible that they may be expending efforts to build a scaffold that others may climb to assume leadership of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence.
With an insignificant political constituency on the ground, a failed election campaign, and engaged in creating what many fear is a police state in the making, the PA finally jumped on the boycott bandwagon that civil society has struggled to assemble over the past several years, if not decades.
The PA’s newly realized dedication to cleanse Palestinian markets of Israeli settlement products comes at a time when Palestinian markets are overwhelmingly dependent on the Israeli economy. This structural dependency is not new; it was nurtured over decades of direct occupation all the way up to the Oslo agreement. The Oslo period would have been an ideal time for the PA to set the tone that settlements–all settlements, but especially those in East Jerusalem–are not a negotiable issue but are illegal under international law and have no place in a peaceful solution. But that did not happen.
As a matter of fact, the PA not only ignored the illegal products from these settlements for many years, it also ignored the Israeli services that infringed on Palestinian markets, the most notorious being the unlicensed Israeli telecommunications operators who used their settlement-based infrastructure to provide service to all Palestinian areas, A, B and C. This infringement on the Palestinian marketplace not only caused real losses to the licensed Palestinian operators, who at the time had a monopoly license to provide services to the Palestinian areas, but it allowed for an economic fact on the ground to be created and take root. This fact was, and is, no less an obstacle to peace than the settlements themselves.
Today’s boycott of settlement products is not a new effort, nor was it designed by the PA. It is a product of the hard work of dozens upon dozens of civil society players in Palestine and abroad. The build-up to today’s boycott comes from a two-pronged civil society strategy.
The first prong is a global campaign that is much more comprehensive than just addressing settlement products. It is known as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Campaign and emerged from a unified call from Palestinian civil society on July 9, 2005. The last few years have witnessed a series of successes for the BDS campaign that have surely not gone unnoticed by the PA.
The second prong of the strategy is a multitude of efforts that promote local production. The most notable of these efforts is the Intajuna (“our production” in Arabic) project: a donor- funded project that is managed by the Palestinian private sector player that designed it. This effort can be seen everywhere–retail points of sales, building and construction materials, and most recently in the produce markets. Intajuna provides a depth of analysis and campaigning that goes far beyond the traditional slogan of “Buy Palestinian”.
It is on the backdrop of the BDS Campaign and efforts like Intajuna that the PA had its boycott awakening. The effort is welcomed by the public, and the PA is setting a good example of how non-violent efforts can be amplified when formal leadership assumes the role of leadership grounded in the community. Civil society leaders also welcome the PA’s efforts, but are more cautious in their analysis because they understand that the Palestinian leadership has abruptly stifled mass civil society efforts in the past, the first intifada being the prime example when it ended with the Oslo accords.
But as this all plays out, Palestinians and those in solidarity with them are taking some satisfaction in watching the settlement enterprise run in circles trying to figure out a way to stop the boycott. Perhaps more interesting is that there are those in Israel itself, including the Knesset’s Economic Committee, who are running in the same circles, most likely in an attempt to raise the stakes now so that the boycott does not expand to include all Israeli products and services.
If past experience is any guide, the Palestinian leadership will end up bear-hugging the entire BDS campaign approach in due time, given that the tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions are much more powerful non-violent methods than negotiating in vain with a government bent on ethnic cleansing.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American management consultant living in Ramallah.
Written for Bitterlemons