In recent weeks, the US- and Israeli-backed Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has made a show of calling on Palestinians to boycott goods manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Despite the rhetoric of defiance and resistance, and exaggerated screams of anguish from Israeli settler groups, the PA effort actually appears designed to co-opt, undermine and abort the much broader Palestinian civil society campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), and to reassure Israel of the continued docility and collaboration of its puppet regime in Ramallah.
As part of his daily routine of publicity stunts, unelected Ramallah-based “Prime Minister” Salam Fayyad has been seen tossing bundles of settler-produced goods onto bonfires. As for PA “President” Mahmoud Abbas, he recently signed the “Karama” (dignity) Pledge — promising not to allow settlement goods into his house and encouraging others to do the same. PA volunteers have been going door-to-door in the occupied West Bank to distribute lists of settler-made consumer goods that should be avoided.
So far, all well and good. Palestinians and those in solidarity with them should absolutely boycott Israeli products. Since 2005, hundreds of Palestinian organizations endorsed an appeal which “call[s] upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era” (“Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS),” 9 July 2005).
The BDS movement has seen activists all over the world calling — with increasing success — on companies to cease doing business in Israel, to stop selling Israeli products, for international performers not to perform in Israel, for academics to refuse cooperation with Israeli institutions and for cultural institutions to boycott Israeli government-sponsored events aimed at prettifying Israel’s apartheid practices.
Recently, dozens of Palestinian youth organizations, independent as well as aligned with virtually every political faction, inside and outside historic Palestine, issued a joint call under the title “Palestinian youth united against normalization with Israel.” The youth “declare our rejection of normalization with Israel on all levels” — economic, political, cultural and institutional — and their adherence to the principles of the Palestinian independent Boycott National Committee which steers the BDS movement (“Palestinian youth united against normalization with Israel,” 28 April 2010).
BDS represents the broad consensus of Palestinian society, but the PA settlement boycott campaign actually violates and calls on people to defy the BDS call. During a photo opportunity where he affixed a sticker to the door of his house attesting that it was free of settlement goods, Abbas emphasized, “We are not boycotting Israel, because we have agreements and imports from it.”
Similarly the official PA website for the ironically-named “Karama Pledge” states: “Regarding trade with Israel, the Palestinian Ministry of Economy confirms continuing its cooperation as it was agreed at the  Paris summit” (http://karama.ps).
All of this is no doubt under the rubric of the PA’s famous “adherence to signed agreements” dictated by the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN). But the PA website even acknowledges that Israel itself does not abide by agreements and that “Israel forbids any of our products from reaching its markets. In addition, Israel places many obstacles that face Palestinian products waiting to be exported to foreign countries … Israel is even denying Palestinian rights which were agreed in the Paris agreement.”
The PA’s insistence on abiding by agreements Israel constantly violates is further evidence — if it were needed — of the PA’s terminal subservience. Given this reality, the main purpose of its campaign is actually to undermine both the methods and goals of the growing grassroots BDS movement and to preach to Palestinians that they must and should do business with Israel and allow Israeli goods in their markets and cooperate and normalize with Israel unconditionally.
The 2005 Palestinian BDS call states that “nonviolent punitive measures should be maintained” until Israel meets all its obligations to Palestinian rights and international law, specifically: ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab land and dismantling the apartheid wall; recognizing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The PA campaign, by contrast, makes no mention of these goals whatsoever, focusing narrowly on settlements — but even this is an empty commitment.
As part of the PA’s hasbara campaign, Abbas issued a decree threatening large fines and terms of imprisonment up to six years for those who deal in or import settlement goods into the West Bank. Notably this decree does not impose any penalties on Palestinian businessmen who sell goods and provide services to the settlers. In recent years credible allegations have repeatedly surfaced that a number of senior PA and Fatah officials, including most notoriously former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, and their family members have grown rich from selling cement to Israel for construction of settlements and the apartheid wall (or acting as brokers to import cement from Egypt on behalf of Israeli companies). Despite repeated promises that the PA attorney-general would investigate and prosecute such violations nothing has ever happened. Unsurprisingly, Abbas and Fayyad — despite their new found anti-settlement zeal — still seem uninterested in investigating PA complicity.
While undermining BDS is probably the main aim of the bogus PA campaign it is likely not the only one. The Abbas/Fayyad regime lacks any legal, political or democratic legitimacy. It invested all its efforts into the endless and pointless US-sponsored “peace process” that has made Palestinians worse off by every possible measure. In recent years, independent grassroots campaigns have taken off, including BDS and the popular nonviolent struggles against the West Bank wall and settlements. But just as Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was surprised and alarmed by the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 and moved quickly to try to control and co-opt it, the PA leadership is attempting to do exactly the same now. The PA is not just attempting undermine the independent BDS and grassroots campaigns, but to co-opt them precisely because of their growing power, popularity and legitimacy as liberation strategies, in the hope that some of that legitimacy will rub off on the Ramallah regime.
The Electronic Intifada previously reported on the PA’s middle-of-the-night arrest of Mousa Abu Maria, co-coordinator of the grassroots Palestine Solidarity Project in the occupied West Bank village of Beit Ommar.
Abu Maria, as reported in The Economist, sees the PA’s sudden interest in popular nonviolent resistance as “a veiled bid by Mr. Fayyad to gain control of an independent grassroots movement and to turn the drive for a Palestinian state into a cause without rebels” (“Can Palestinians peacefully build a state?,” 20 May 2010). More generally, US-trained PA paramilitaries continue their harsh crackdown on any sort of independent activism and organizing in the occupied West Bank.
Consider too the irony that the PA has launched its campaign against the settlements at precisely the moment it is engaged in US-brokered “proximity talks” with Israel. The PA had previously vowed not to return to any sort of negotiations until Israel halted all settlement construction throughout the West Bank including occupied Jerusalem. Israel defied requests from US President Barack Obama to stop construction, but instead of standing up to Israel, the Americans pressured the PA to return to negotiations without any conditions or guarantees.
Thus the settlement boycott acts as a cover for the abject weakness of the PA to stick to even its most modest promises, let alone extract real concessions from Israel or its American sponsors during negotiations. Equally clear, it is a diversion. According to numerous reports, Israelis and Palestinians agreed in principle during the proximity talks on a “land swap.” This is not new; it has long been a peace process industry article of faith that in a two-state solution Israel would remove only token settlements while the vast majority, especially those in and around occupied Jerusalem which house at least 80 percent of the settlers, would be annexed to Israel. In exchange for receiving East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank, Israel would give the Palestinians some sand dunes near Gaza (the so-called Halutza Sands) and some remote barren hills south of Hebron.
So while the Ramallah leaders — who have no mandate or authority from the Palestinian people whether under the PA or the Palestine Liberation Organization to negotiate on their behalf — make a show of boycotting settlement goods, their actual agenda is to promote economic normalization, undermine BDS and legitimize the settlements through “negotiations.”
Where the PA does remain firmly committed to boycott is in its support for Israel’s total blockade and siege of the Palestinian people in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. Despite occasional lip service to ending the blockade, Ramallah PA leaders always stress that it should end only according to the terms dictated by the Quartet: that the US- and Israeli-backed PA militias should return to Gaza to police and repress the Palestinians there on behalf of Israel just as they are doing in the West Bank.
The PA in Ramallah has, notably, offered no support to the courageous international flotilla currently en route to Gaza in another attempt to break the blockade amid threats of violence from Israel. Why has the PA not called on its “friends” and benefactors in the “international community” to send their navies to protect this peaceful, nonviolent flotilla and ensure it gets through to Gaza? In practice, PA policy amounts to full support for the siege.
Some people have been impressed by the PA’s anti-settlement campaign considering it a “step in the right direction.” But no one should be fooled. Palestinians and their allies should remain clearly focused on the simple truth that those who continue to coordinate with the Israeli occupation forces to hunt down Palestinians by night cannot don the mantle of popular resistance by day.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.