TEL AVIV — A summer of fighting in Gaza has reignited a wave of global protests against Israel. Companies operating in Israel — such as maritime cargo giant Zim and major food producers — are finding themselves under attack. But they are fighting back.
"The move to a sweeping boycott of anything Israeli, the violence and mainly the anti-Semitic remarks often heard reveal the true face of the BDS movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions," says Amir Ofek, director of the Israeli foreign ministry"s civil society department.
"This is not a one-sided game," he says. "Anyone calling for a boycott will find themselves publicly and politically targeted."
For example, he recalls a British theater that refused to host a Jewish film festival because of "support from the Israeli embassy." What followed were demonstrations, the withdrawal of donations, aggressive media and messages from the corridors of power. "It proved to them they had made a mistake," Ofek says. "This trend will keep intensifying. We will work vigorously to make it clear to those calling for boycott that there is a price to pay."
Three weeks ago, pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S. began organizing to prevent a Zim vessel from offloading in the port of Oakland, California. On their Facebook page, they characterized themselves as "a coalition of activists calling for a siege on Israeli Zim vessels in solidarity with the Palestinian people." They added that as long as Gaza is under a maritime siege, Israeli sea transport should be targeted.
A similar protest took place in 2010 after Israel's raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Nearly 500 demonstrators had managed to prevent a Zim ship from offloading in the Oakland port for 24 hours by creating a human wall preventing port workers from reaching the vessel.
This time, Zim was prepared, and the arrival time of its vessel last Saturday was repeatedly changed, so as to confuse the protestors. After several attempted delays, the rally eventually took place without the ship. "Even the delay is a victory," says Mohamed Shehk, one of the organizers. "We estimate Zim's loss at $22 million per day of delay."
"We are familiar with these boycotts," says Avi Levy, chairman of Israel's Naval Officers Union. "It started after the Marmara flotilla. At the time, Zim ships were not allowed in South Africa and other places."
Protestors are now preparing to prevent other Zim vessels from landing in the Washington state ports of Tacoma and Seattle this week. They also hope they can thwart their arrivals in Vancouver, Canada, in a bid to completely block the Israeli company from offloading anywhere on the American West Coast.
"The company works in full cooperation with the local authorities in full confidence in their ability to ensure the regular operations of Zim vessles," the company has said in a statement.
In the UK and Ireland, local initiatives against Israeli goods are also on the rise. A week ago, SuperValu, Ireland's largest supermarket chain, ordered the managers of its 232 branches to take Israeli products off the shelves. But the next day, the company reversed course. "SuperValu is not involved in a boycott of Israeli produce," and has a policy "of not taking a position on international affairs," a statement from the chain said. But it didn't deny the initial order of removing Israeli products.
In Belfast, protestors filmed their removal of Israeli goods from the shelves of Sainsbury's and Asda supermarkets, and the YouTube videos have since become viral.
A Tesco supermarket in Birmingham was vandalized last Saturday when about 100 people entered the store, threw Israeli products on the floor and shouted at staffers and customers.
Madate Trade Union in Ireland has issued a petition calling for boycotting Israeli products, thus joining Unite, the largest union in the UK, which had already issued a similar call.
In Dublin, a branch of Ireland's largest toy store chain Smyths erected a sign saying that Israeli-made products from companies such as Diamant Toys had been removed. The chain's management says it was a local initiative by store employees, and the sign has since been removed.
"It started after images of the destruction in Gaza were aired on Irish TV," says Kobi Diamant, one of the owners of Diamant Toys. "I took it badly because I know the owners of the chain. I called him on the phone, and it turned out he wasn't even aware of this, so the next day the products were already back. This move should be praised, but unfortunately, on the ground a reduction in sales is already felt. Every round of fighting only worsens the situation."
Protesting investments too
In Auckland, New Zealand, nearly 100 people rallied last Friday outside the country's sovereign New Zealand Superannuation Fund to protest its investments in Israeli firms such as Israel Chemicals, which they say produces white phosphorus used in bombing Gaza.
Some of the demonstrators chained themselves to desks on the twelfth floor of the organization's headquarters, demanding to speak to CEO Adrian Orr after he had announced earlier that day that the fund has no intention to withdraw its investment in Israel Chemicals, citing no evidence that its products were used against Gazans.
Various initiatives with similar objectives have appeared in many other countries since the beginning of the war in Gaza. And calls to avoid Israeli goods have also surfaced in the West Bank.
Several campaigns in the past tried to persuade Palestinian consumers to boycott settlement produce, but now is the first time such calls have been aimed at any Israeli goods. Last week, a number of Ramallah supermarkets started clearing Israeli products from their shelves.
Activists who visit shops often put stickers on Israeli products that read, "When you buy this product, you are contributing to the Israeli army."
Several radio stations also announced they would allow free advertisement to shops that boycott Israeli produce.
But things are more complicated there. West Bank Palestinians are almost totally dependent on Israel for energy, fuel and water. Even 65% of Palestinian imports come from Israel.
"For the moment, there is now evidence this is a campaign organized by the Palestinian Authority," a source familiar with Israeli-Palestinian trade relations says. "These are local initiatives. There is a reduction in sales, but I believe it won't last for long, primarily for the lack of alternative sources. What would they do? Buy from Jordan? From Saudi Arabia? This could never compete with Israeli products. The West Bank population has gotten used to certain standards. I know of a few cases where Palestinians have already asked their suppliers to pack their groceries in a way that hides they are made in Israel."