Saturday, January 17, 2009

Opinion: Boycott Israeli Fruit & Vegetables - Joanna Blythman

Sunday Herald, Scotland, January 17, 2009 - IT'S TIME for a consumer boycott of Israeli produce. There have been around 1000 Palestinian deaths in Gaza in the last three weeks alone, some 400 or so women and children. A further 4500 Palestinians are wounded. We watch from a distance, sickened at Israel's behaviour which is an affront to civilised values. That pre-Obama feeling of hopelessness starts seeping back in to our consciousness. Gaza is carnage, and when Brown and Miliband defend the Israeli state's actions and heap the blame onto Hamas, that old, familiar sense of frustration and impotence kicks in.

But here's a thought. As citizens of the world we can take personal action in our daily lives to show up Israel as the pariah state it is. Our supermarket shelves are laden with Israeli fruit, vegetables and flowers: let's stop buying them.

Unless you actively avoid out-of-season, imported produce, you probably don't check country of origin on labels and might not have noticed just how much Israeli produce is on our shelves. A quick head count this week found potatoes, avocadoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, Medjoul dates, gallia melons, sharon fruit (the Israeli name for persimmon), peppers, chillies, oranges, pomegranates, sweetcorn, radishes and fresh herbs. All of these are clearly labelled as Israeli, apart from the herbs, some of which give their origin as "West Bank". Don't mistake that as a Palestinian alternative to the Israeli option; it comes from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Come Valentine's Day, there will be a flood of Israeli flowers, but where's the romance in blooms from a country whose name now evokes images of dead and bloodied Palestinian children? Through its agricultural exporting company, Carmel Agrexco, which is 50% state-owned, Israel markets not only its own produce, but that of other countries in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Africa. It works as a "category captain" for food retailers, guaranteeing a year-round supply of everything from strawberries and grapefruit to Chinese leaves and aubergine.

Look what's happening to the Palestinians while we chomp our way through this stuff. Israel has dispossessed them and expropriated their water resources and land, illegally colonising it with settlers. Israeli settlements cultivating Medjoul dates in the Jordan Valley, for instance, base their operations on confiscated Palestinian land in contravention of international law and the Geneva Convention. As if demolishing Palestinian homes and evicting their occupants wasn't enough, Israel has effectively imprisoned Palestinians with checkpoints, an illegal wall and an oppressive system of permits, deliberately blocking Palestinian economic development.

Oxfam reports that costs for Palestinians who want to export products are up to 70% higher than for Israelis. Settlers in the West Bank get direct access to markets in and through Israel without the disruptive road blocks and transfers faced by the Palestinians who are obliged to rely on Israeli intermediaries. The revenue from taxes and customs goes to Israel, a further loss to the Palestinian economy of 3% of its GDP a year. Under its Coral label, Carmel Agrexco markets Palestinian produce and says that "the revenue is directly transferred to the Palestinian co-operatives". Palestinian organisations, on the other hand, talk of landless people forced to work in Israeli-owned packing houses where they earn poverty wages and have no employment rights.

GROUND down by the Israeli jackboot, it is amazing that Palestine manages to grow, let alone export any food at all, but the miracle is that it does. The construction of Israeli settlements, settlement roads and the Separation Wall, for instance, has seen olive trees bulldozed. According to the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem more than 500,000 olive trees have been destroyed since 2000, yet Palestine still has some of the oldest olive groves in the world.

In recent years, Zaytoun, a not-for-profit co-operative, has had great success in the UK selling organic olive oil produced by marginalised Palestinian growers in Salfit, Tulkarem, Nablus, Jenin and the Galilee. Through Zaytoun, you can also buy Nabali green olives, pickled in the Palestinian tradition with olive oil, water and salt, tree-ripened black olives, the Middle eastern staple, Za'atar, a mix of wild thyme, toasted sesame and sharp-tasting sumac, Medjoul dates from Jericho and the celebrated large, sweet "Om Al-Fahem" almond grown in Jenin. Zaytoun used to sell couscous from a women's co-operative in Gaza, but since Israel intensified its siege, any type of export has been made impossible.

By refusing to buy Israeli fruits, vegetables and flowers and supporting Palestinian produce whenever we get the chance, we do something practical to express our repugnance at Israel's aggression against the Palestinian people.

Leave those cherry tomatoes on the shelf and you will be part of the wider campaign to boycott Israeli goods (BIG). If, on the other hand, you are one of those Scots who doesn't eat fruit and veg, make a donation to Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). Just £10 buys a mobile blood pack, and they need a lot of those in Gaza right now. That's about what you'd pay for four Israeli avocadoes, two red peppers, one melon and a packet of herbs.

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