RAMALLAH // Haytham Karasha was not overly concerned. The manager of a Ramallah branch of the supermarket chain Bravo, he said his store had not stocked any goods that originated in settlements for more than a year, and even then it was only one item, a chocolate syrup.
Efforts to ban products that originate in settlements, said Mr Karasha, would thus have no effect on his shop, where purchase orders already specifically stipulate that such goods are not wanted. But Mr Karasha may be one of the lucky few. As a government drive to boycott products that originate in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories begins to pick up speed, those who profit from a trade that some estimate has a value as high as US$600 million (Dh2.2billion) a year, or a 15 per cent share of the market, are beginning to feel the effect.
On Tuesday, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, could be found tossing confiscated settlement goods on to a fire in the town of Salfit near Nablus. Such goods, Mr Fayyad explained to reporters, support "industries built on confiscated Palestinian land". Settlements, he said, are one of the prime obstacles to Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Boycotting goods that originate in settlements is therefore a "collective responsibility".
"The Palestinian National Authority will be the first supporter, but we must join all our efforts, on official and popular levels, to ensure the continuation of this campaign to clean our markets of settlements' products," Mr Fayyad told the Palestinian Maan news agency. The government drive is in part a belated implementation of a Council of Ministers decision in 2005 that prohibits the entry of any goods produced, manufactured or packaged in settlements.
That decision was reaffirmed in June of last year in a direct request to the ministry of national economy to begin implementation. Not until November, however, did the first confiscations take place and only now is the PA beginning to crank into gear a public relations campaign to raise awareness. The ministry of national economy is due this month to publish its calculations of how big a market share settlement goods have in the occupied territories.
Current estimates for what is essentially a black market, at least on the Palestinian side, are of necessity very rough. The move to ban settlement goods has been welcomed by activists as well as the business sector. Local businessmen have for years complained that local products were being squeezed out of the market in favour of Israeli ones. A move against settlement products would ease some of that competition.
"It's long overdue," said Sam Bahour, a local entrepreneur, about the government effort, which he said "seemed serious". "It is welcome not only from the private sector and the business sector, which have to compete against these illegal products, but also as a private Palestinian citizen, who wants to see settlements removed and dismantled." That the current government, unlike its many predecessors, has actually stepped into the breach and translated words into action has surprised some, but is a reflection of the growing confidence within Salam Fayyad's administration, both in political terms and in its ability to deliver.
A restructured and retrained security sector provides the government with a solid foundation to be able to implement laws, for the first time in years, while the issue of settlements generally has become the overall focal point of Palestinian political efforts. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, is still resisting increasing foreign pressure to return to negotiations with Israel for as long as settlement construction continues. "We now have a motivated leadership," Mr Bahour said. "This government wants to translate the threat that settlements pose to peace in the future by addressing issues such as settlement products and settler violence. I think [the boycott campaign] has potential to pick up huge momentum."
But the process is far from simple. For a start, not all products are labelled with anything other than "Made in Israel", a problem the EU has met in its attempts to regulate imports from Israeli settlements. "There are some well-known labels that we know come from settlements," said Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Authority's Media Centre. "So partially, it is doable, although probably not 100 per cent."
Moreover, there is a perception problem among Palestinian consumers, who in many cases believe Israeli products generally are superior to Palestinian products or products from the Arab world. While banning settlement products will not remove Israeli alternatives from a saturated market - Mr Karasha said 70 per cent of the items his branch of Bravo stocks are Israeli - some hope that banning settlement products is a step toward a comprehensive boycott.
"Ultimately, a larger boycott is what's needed," Mr Bahour said. "But people who have lived under occupation for 40 years have been conditioned to Israeli products. It will take time to remove that conditioning and fill the gap. But step one is the one that no one doubts. Settlement products are illegal and settlements are illegal and we should not be supporting them." Email:firstname.lastname@example.org