Fruit and vegetable exports are crucial to the Israeli economy. A consumer boycott of agricultural produce exerts direct economic pressure where it matters
Men of the Salmi family salvage some belongings from the rubble of their home in the Gaza City district of Zeitoun. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
If you’re not in the habit of checking the country of origin on fruit and vegetables to minimise food miles, you may not have noticed just how much Israeli produce is in our shops and supermarkets. At the moment, there are piles of new potatoes (though it’s hard to see why anyone with a scrap of environmental awareness would buy these when our indigenous main crop spuds are still firm and abundant), and that’s just for starters.
If you go out today and buy avocadoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, Medjoul dates, sharon fruit (persimmons), chillies, oranges, pomegranates, grapefruit or fresh herbs, it’s extremely likely that they will be Israeli. Most of this produce carries country of origin labelling or is branded as Carmel, Bio-Top or Jaffa. In the herb category, there’s room – intentional or otherwise – for confusion. Increasingly your dill, tarragon or basil may be labelled as ‘West Bank’. This is not a Palestinian alternative to the Israeli option; it comes from Israeli settlements in Palestine’s occupied territories.
Israel’s sunny climate enables Agrexco to tap the resources of its Carmel growers most of the annum. By lining up other complementary supply sources – such as fruit, vegetable and root crop growers located in countries in the Mediterranean basin, South America, and Africa – the Carmel label is available year-round
An expert in air-freighting with a base near Heathrow, Agrexco supplies the UK with everything from sweetcorn, rocket and radishes through to melons, strawberries and kumquats, so delivering the ‘permanent global summertime’ of horticultural produce that food retailers have educated British consumers to expect.
As a business, it’s impressive, but I don’t intend to buy any of it. For people aware of the recent horror that unfolded in Gaza and the emerging evidence of the scale of destruction, this cornucopia of fruit and vegetables represents a ready-made target for taking personal action in our daily lives to express disapproval at Israel’s ongoing aggression against the Palestinian people.
We can use the same tactic against Israel that was so effective in showing up South Africa as the apartheid state it once was. The parallels with South Africa are striking. Writing in the Guardian, Naomi Klein recently reminded us of the words of Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent South African politician, who said in 2007 that the segregation he saw in the West Bank and Gaza was “infinitely worse than apartheid”.
So what, exactly, is he talking about? While we have been munching our way through its avocadoes, Israel has demolished Palestinian homes, evicted their occupants and expropriated their land and water resources. It has illegally colonised productive Palestinian land with waves of settlers. A boycott of Israeli fruit and vegetables, as opposed to other sorts of boycott (academic, sporting), is particularly apt because horticulture has been a major plank of Israeli expansion. Medjoul dates in the Jordan Valley, for example, base their operations on confiscated Palestinian land, in contravention of international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
As if that wasn’t enough, Israel has effectively imprisoned Palestinians with checkpoints, an illegal wall and an oppressive system of travel permits and colour-coded identity cards, so scuppering Palestinian economic development. As OXFAM told the House of Commons International Development Committee (pdf), 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, which costs the Palestinian economy 3% of its GDP a year.
Left to develop its agricultural economy, Palestine could be a fertile and productive land. Olive oil used to be a profitable export crop but according to the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem, over 500,000 ancient olive trees have been bulldozed and cut down since 2000 (see zaytoun.org) to make way for the construction of Israeli settlements, settler-only roads and the Separation Wall. Yet in recent years, and despite all the odds stacked against them, marginalised Palestinian growers have produced good extra virgin olive oil, recently gaining organic status for some of their production.
Palestinian growers tenaciously produce the Nabali green olive (pickled in the Palestinian tradition with olive oil, water and salt) tree-ripened black olive, the Middle Eastern favourite Za’atar (a herb and seed mix of wild thyme, toasted sesame and sour-tasting sumac berries), Medjoul dates from Jericho, and the celebrated large, sweet ‘Om Al-Fahem’ almond grown in Jenin. All this is available through the ethical business, Zaytoun. It also used to sell couscous from a women’s co-operative in Gaza, but even before the latest bombardment, Israel’s tightening seige of Gaza made any type of export from that area impossible.
With intractable political conflicts, sometimes it’s hard to see how individual action can make even the slightest difference. But fruit and vegetable exports to Europe are crucial to the Israeli economy, representing 80% of that country’s total exports. The UK is its largest market, eating up a 60% share. Carmel Agrexco itself is 50% owned by the Israeli state, so a consumer boycott of agricultural produce exerts direct economic pressure where it matters.
By refusing to buy Israeli produce, ethically-minded consumers can be part of the wider Boycott Israeli Goods campaign (BIG) and add to the international condemnation of Israel’s tactics in Palestine. The reasons for a boycott precede the most recent open conflict and are ever-more important. Even if the current shaky ceasefire holds, Gaza will still be an open prison and Palestine will still be a country whose food economy is actively sabotaged by its powerful neighbour. Just at the moment, many people don’t have any appetite for Israeli produce. A boycott gives us something to do about it.