Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Is the West Bank boycott beginning to turn the corner?


By Ruairi Henchy - January 22, 2015
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Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [BDS]
Tags: [BDS]

Bravo supermarkets grabbed headlines last autumn when the company announced that it was initiating a complete boycott of Israeli produce. Bravo is the first Palestinian supermarket chain to do so, a significant step given that it is the largest chain in the West Bank. But was this a temporary publicity stunt to capitalize on nationalistic feelings during last summer’s war in Gaza, or will the boycott continue? The Palestine Monitor spoke to the Marketing Manager of Bravo, Yousef Sider, to hear the latest.

Yousef took me for a quick tour of their main Ramallah store in the Plaza Mall in the Al Baloua’ neighbourhood of Ramallah. He pointed out the sections where Israeli produce used to dominate but has since been replaced with alternatives from Palestine, Jordan and elsewhere. He made it clear that there are still some Israeli products on the shelves as Arab or foreign alternatives simply cannot be found. For example, baby milk formula has to be sourced from Israel due to quota requirements in the 1994 Paris Agreement (annex to the Oslo accords). Also, certain fresh produce has to be sourced from Israeli farmers, as most of the arable land within the occupied West Bank, particularly the fertile Jordan Valley, has been appropriated by illegal settlements.

We want to give Palestinians the option to free their stomachs of this occupation, while at the same time working with Palestinian industries to build alternatives.

For practical reasons, then, a total boycott of Israeli goods the likes of which the Palestinian BNC (the Palestinian national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions committee) calls for internationally is not possible in the West Bank for the time being, as Palestinian industries are still lagging in certain areas. Additionally, Bravo does not boycott Palestinian producers within present day Israel or international companies that produce some of their stock within Israel. However, the overall amount of Israeli produce on the shelves in Bravo still is less than 5% of all the stock on sale.

The boycott has also been a boon for the Palestinian economy, with local producers reaping the benefits of increased demand. The dairy sector has been particularly affected, with the switch to Palestinian produce seeing dairy factories around Hebron significantly expand their production and hire more workers. Al Jebrini dairy, for example, have even begun producing new flavoured yoghurts to fill the gap in the market left by the withdrawal of their Israeli counterparts. Other Palestinian companies have also seized the opportunity to begin producing new items with Al-Arabi and Golden food bringing new chicken schnitzels, among other items, into circulation.

Five months since the initiation of the boycott leaves Bravo space to reflect on the decision and its merits. It has not been an easy process. The supermarket chain dropped seven major Israeli suppliers almost overnight, and has since had to find around 15 new suppliers to meet its customers’ demands. In the first month or so there were more than a few cases of empty shelves due to supply problems, but these issues have been mostly ironed out by now. The chain is still vulnerable to supply shortages however, as even goods coming from neighbouring Jordan may have to wait at the border for up to a week in order to gain clearance from Israeli authorities.

Apart from the task of replacing suppliers, the boycott decision has hit Bravo’s profits hard, with the company down 800,000 shekels (approximately $203,215 USD) in the final quarter of 2014 when compared to the previous year. Some people within the organization, concerned at the alarming fall in profit margins, were beginning to question the wisdom of a continued boycott. Indeed, many other Palestinian supermarket chains instigated a boycott during the Gaza war under intense customer demand, only to drop it again after a month or so. A visit to Maxmar or any of the other major supermarket chain in the West Bank will show that Israeli products are to be found in abundance in all departments. However, during a recent board meeting, Bravo decided to continue with the boycott, confident that they will return to profit within the next year as they smooth out all the remaining supply difficulties and find better quality substitutes for Israeli goods.

However, the key factor cited by the board to continue with the boycott was the on-going steadfast support of their own customers, although not everyone has been in favour of the initiative. Indeed, Yousef believes that for all the new customers their stance on the boycott gained Bravo, they have lost an equal amount due to the continued demand for many Israeli goods. Quantitative research carried out by the Bravo marketing department found that 18% of the customers would like to see certain Israeli products returned, but with no promotions for them. Only 5% of customers favoured the complete return of Israeli produce, including promotions on a par with all other items. This strong customer sentiment has convinced the company to continue with the boycott for as long as its customers continue backing them, and until the occupation is brought to an end. 

Yousef insists, however, that the decision is mainly an ethical and humanitarian one. He points out, for example, that Bravo does not try to market itself as the brand that boycotts Israeli produce. That decision, he believes, must be made on an individual basis. “This is an individual’s decision to make, and it’s wrong to try to sell the idea of resistance. We just want to send out the message that not only do they occupy our land but they also occupy our bodies. So we want to give Palestinians the option to free their stomachs of this occupation, while at the same time working with Palestinian industries to build alternatives.” 

The latest figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics show that imports to Palestine from Israel fell by 8.9% in October 2014 when compared to figures from September that same year. It remains to be seen, however, if these figures will hold steady, and to what extent Palestinian industries can sustainably compete with and ultimately replace Israeli produce on shelves throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

The situation is perhaps even more complicated for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestine Monitor spoke to a number of shop owners in the old city about the question of a boycott but the response was almost uniform. Most businesses run by Palestinian Jerusalemites are on a much smaller scale than the likes of Bravo supermarkets in the West Bank. So for these small shops and cafés it’s totally impractical to find alternative suppliers abroad for the limited range of products they offer their customers. The boycott continues at an individual level, of course, amongst all those for whom the memory of the Gaza war is still fresh and the trials of the occupation a daily reality. Time will tell whether the conditions for a more organized boycott will manifest themselves.

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