The movement to boycott Israeli goods linked to settlements has been boosted by “Scarlett syndrome”, say activists, after the high-profile controversy over the film star Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream.
Pro-boycott campaigners believe they will benefit from the celebrity furore, even though Johansson – faced with the incompatibility of sponsorship of SodaStream, which has a factory in an illegal settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and her role as a goodwill ambassador for Oxfam – broke links with the charity.
The row follows mounting pressure, especially from Europe, where NGOs, trade unions, churches and others are forcing their governments to take action.
The number of European corporations who have severed or reviewed links with Israeli companies which operate in settlements is accelerating; the European Union is taking an increasingly tougher line; and the boycott movement is gaining traction in the United States, where it has previously struggled to win support.
Estimates about the potential economic impact differ, but the alarm in Israel is palpable, as demonstrated by the furious reaction from Binyamin Netanyahu’s government when John Kerry, the US secretary of state, recently warned of more boycotts if current peace talks with the Palestinians fail.
The issue is uncomfortable for the 500 Palestinians who work in SodaStream’s factory at Mishor Adumim, an Israeli industrial park built on expropriated Arab land, part of a 1,300-strong mixed workforce.
“We are against the boycott idea,” said Nidaa, a Palestinian from Jericho, sitting next to an orthodox Jew on the production line. “It would destroy us. Yes, this place is a settlement, but that’s normal. It’s easy to get here and it’s a good place to work.”
Others agreed. “This is about our jobs. It’s not about politics here,” said a colleague. “Palestinian independence is a long way away.”
But, according to Omar Barghouti, founder of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, “the political atmosphere has changed towards enforcing international law. Israel’s impunity is being eroded. BDS is growing tremendously and that is affecting decision-makers everywhere. We are changing the discourse.”
BDS, insisted Barghouti, was “no coalition of lefty intellectuals” but was supported by Palestinians across the political spectrum, including nationalists and Islamists. Many advocate a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, while others, including Barghouti, argue for a “secular democratic state” that would replace “apartheid” Israel – though how that would happen given the balance of forces remains unclear. According to the sociologist and writer Salim Tamari, an advocate of two states, “the problem is that among many BDS people, there is no endgame”.
A weakness of Palestinian strategy is that a boycott of Israel on the ground has never made much headway. Shops in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are crammed with Israeli produce even when Palestinian goods are available at equivalent prices. “If foreign banks are standing up for our rights, what are we doing?” asks Mahdi Abdel-Hadi of the Passia thinktank.
Barghouti counters this by speaking of the “colonisation of the mind” and sheer dependence on the occupation. “We don’t expect the criteria that we ask in Britain, Johannesburg or New York to apply in Ramallah or Jerusalem. We are a captive economy. Israel has over decades destroyed our industry and agriculture and confiscated our water resources. We do not expect our economic institutions to completely boycott Israel. That’s unrealistic.”
Barghouti described his own attendance at Tel Aviv University, where he did an MA in philosophy and ethics, as a “private matter”.
Al-Haq, a human rights organisation based in Ramallah, drew a distinction between boycotts, which it said were based on a moral judgment, and divestments based on the application of international law.
“Boycott is both a loaded and a vague term,” said Wesam Ahmad of Al-Haq. “It can mean everything to everyone. If you tell someone not to buy a product in a supermarket, you’re not presenting a legal argument but a moral argument.”
But the work of the two organisations were complementary, said Ahmad, with Al-Haq focusing on the potential legal liability of a corporation or body, and employing rather more low-key tactics than the high-profile, high-pressure BDS approach to celebrities and public figures.
“We tell companies they may be contributing to a violation of international law. A company then has to make a risk assessment in order to protect its reputation and stock value in the event of a legal complaint – to ask itself what the cost is of continuing such activities,” said Ahmad.
According to Hanan Ashrawi, one of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s most eloquent voices, a boycott “is one way of engaging with and standing up to the occupation, and empowering individuals to take action”.
She added: “It’s gaining traction all over the world. We saw how effective it was in the South African struggle. It sends a very clear message that this occupation is costly in moral and economic terms. And if governments don’t want to hold Israel accountable, the people will.”
Not surprisingly, the boycott issue is hotly debated in Israel. Avraham Burg, a doveish former speaker of the Knesset, wrote approvingly in Haaretz that Israel “will remain helpless when confronted by a [Palestinian] civil rebellion that moves the discourse from who’s stronger/tougher/more resilient to a discourse on rights and values. For this we have no answer.”
Other liberal commentators have suggested that one way of bringing home the cost of occupation for Israelis would be for EU countries to impose visa requirements. A controversial 2011 law banning support for boycotts is a constraint on public discussion. But Tom Segev, one of the country’s leading historians, says: “There has to be a situation where as many Israelis as possible understand – not through the use of terrorism – that their own lives are affected badly by the occupation.”
On the right there is anger and defiance and much talk of the “delegitimisation” of the Jewish state by the BDS movement. Naftali Bennet, Netanyahu’s economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, says Israel can live without peace with the Palestinians and will not succumb to economic pressure. “We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against antisemitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not for them to be their amplifier,” was his blunt response to Kerry’s warning. EU labelling of products from West Bank settlements triggers emotive references to yellow stars – the humiliating emblem Jews were forced to wear by European antisemites – and to the Nazi Nuremberg Laws.
The financial impact is already being felt. Last year Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley lost $29m, or 14% of their income, because supermarkets in the UK and Scandinavia are shunning their peppers, dates and grapes.
Yair Lapid, the finance minister, has warned that even a limited European boycott could cost Israel $3bn a year and destroy 10,000 jobs.
At SodaStream’s settlement factory, meanwhile, it was back to siphon production as usual this week, as the glare of the international spotlight faded. Outside the plant – an Israeli munitions factory in a previous incarnation – a modernist sculpture records the words of the Prophet Isaiah, exhorting peace. “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The boycott wars, however, look set to go on.
Scarlett Johansson row has boosted Israeli settlement boycott, say activists