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International companies perceived to be supporting Israel as it wages war in Gaza are facing boycott campaigns in Lebanon, triggering a debate about whether such action causes more harm to Lebanese business owners.
On Thursday, about a dozen university students stood at the entrance of a McDonald’s branch in Beirut, calling for a boycott of the fast food chain after its franchise in Israel last month donated free meals to Israeli soldiers taking part in the Gaza war. A simultaneous protest took place in front of a Starbucks branch.
“It’s a symbolic stand to raise awareness,” said Abbas Atout, 22. “We just want people to know that there are some companies in Lebanon that support Israel or its policies.”
Lebanon has imposed a total boycott of all Israeli companies and products since 1955, but some Lebanese say this is not enough in a globalised economy where thousands of conglomerates and corporations are linked to Israel.
The McDonald’s franchise's announcement that it gave free meals to Israeli soldiers, caused ripples of anger across the Middle East, where other franchises distanced themselves from the action.
In mid-October, people stormed several McDonald’s locations across Lebanon, although the Lebanese franchise is not owned by the same company as the Israeli franchise.
In response to the controversy, the global fast food chain’s parent company last week rejected “inaccurate reports” over its position on the Gaza war.
“McDonald's Corporation is not funding or supporting any governments involved in this conflict, and any actions from our local development licensee business partners were made independently without McDonald's consent or approval,” it said.
McDonald’s franchise model, in which restaurants are independently owned and operated, has led to much confusion across the Middle East, with many customers condemning the company for the Israeli franchise’s actions.
“We’ve seen some positive effects [of our protest],” Mr Atout told The National. “There was one family who was eating there, but after we told them about how McDonald’s supported Israeli troops they got up and left the restaurant.”
The student group in Beirut passed out flyers with a QR code directing users to a website on the anti-Israel boycott movement and the war in Gaza.
Among other claims, the students' website says sportswear maker Puma “contributes to sports-washing” by sponsoring the Israel Football Association and that Caterpillar, maker of earthmoving machinery, and computer firm Hewlett Packard “provide the Israeli military with technology and equipment used to destroy Palestinian homes or spy on the occupied population”.
“The least we can do is show these money-hungry corporations that genocide is not good for business. When they feel the financial cost of endorsing Israeli terrorism, they will be forced to change their policies,” a statement on the website says.
“We did a lot of research to see which were the biggest companies with the biggest customer base who were operating in Lebanon before we decided to boycott them,” Mr Atout said.
As he spoke, a police officer guarding the McDonald’s outlet put a hand on Mr Atout’s shoulder and turned to The National's reporter.
“We’re all brothers in this cause, and I told them they can have their protest here – but they have also to remember that these are Lebanese livelihoods,” he said.
“The workers are not the ones supporting Israel.”
Economic disadvantage for Lebanon?
The politics of boycotting companies and corporate franchises is complicated in a country like Lebanon – already suffering a deep economic crisis.
Tony Nehme, a consultant and member of the Lebanese Franchise Association, said there was no way of quantifying whether boycotts of certain international companies in Lebanon has worked.
“So many crises are happening at the same time that have affected business in Lebanon – the conflict in south Lebanon came on the heels of the war in Gaza. Institutions based in south Lebanon have already lost 90 per cent of their income,” Mr Nehme said.
A popular boycott of places like McDonald’s would devastate Lebanese supply chains: McDonald’s uses bread from Lebanese businesses chicken from Lebanese businesses, and employs around 1,400 people in Lebanon, he said.
“The public needs to understand that boycott affects the Lebanese economy first and foremost before it affects anything else. The investors are Lebanese, the employees are Lebanese, the investment is money from Lebanon, and the supply chain is Lebanese.”
But Rami Salami of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel – Lebanon’s leading boycott campaign – explained that the issue goes beyond local economic consequences.
“Franchises in Lebanon should pressure on the parent companies [that provide franchise licenses]. It’s on them to find a solution to the problem – because simply put, they are tied to a company that supports Israel.”
“Our job is awareness. Ultimately it’s people’s choice whether they want to boycott or not. When a dietitian says to people ‘you should stop eating fast food for the sake of your health’, would we condemn the dietitian for ruining the lives of workers and the McDonald’s franchise owners? No. It’s an individual’s choice to choose how they want to balance between a political cause and any negative fallout it may have on the local economy.”
But local campaigns should also be wary of boycotting companies due to rumours and false accusations.
In the Arab world, Starbucks has wrongly maintained a reputation for supporting Israel – although the company closed all its cafes in the country in 2003. The company is not present on any boycott lists.
“The reason it’s still boycotted is because people don’t have the right information,” Mr Salami said.
He said there was an impression that its former chief executive, Howard Shultz, “has individually financially supported Israel. But that doesn’t mean the company also supports Israel. So until now, we don't have Starbucks on our boycott list”.
However, Starbucks garnered outrage for perceived support of Israel when it sued its US union, Starbucks Workers United, for trademark infringement after the union expressed support for Palestinians on the social media site X, formerly Twitter, last month.
Passing cars honked in support of the Beirut students as they protested outside the McDonald’s outlet wearing traditional Palestinian scarves and waving Palestinian flags.
As another of the protesters, Ahamd Tayyar, spoke to The National, he was approached by a man who identified himself as Mahdi, an Iranian.
“I have a question,” Mahdi said. “Why are you boycotting McDonald’s? Is it because they support Israel?”
He rejected Mr Tayyar’s explanation.
“Boycotting McDonald’s won’t do anything,” he said. “To free Palestine, you need to wage jihad. Why don’t you go do jihad?”
When The National asked if Mahdi planned to wage jihad, the man pointed to his backpack, indicating that he was travelling.
“Inshallah,” he answered. “But first I’m going to go inside that McDonald’s, and I’m going to eat a burger.”