“Who asked you to boycott Israeli companies?” questions Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist. It may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the on-the-ground economic conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank to hear him say, “We Palestinians are not boycotting them, so what do we need you to boycott them for?”
Bassem Eid was born in the Jordanian controlled part of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1958, and grew up in the Shuafat refugee camp. He became a journalist, and worked for B’Tselem, an Israeli non-profit organization whose goal was to document Israel’s human rights violations in the West Bank. In 1996, he founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, whose mission is to monitor human rights violations by both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. Bassem Eid has spent twenty-six years studying the United Nations organization that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. He told me that his family’s experience was “of Arab leaders promising Palestinians short-term suffering for long-term benefit, since 1948. All we saw was long-term suffering. Everybody is using the Palestinians for their own gain. The United Nations, the Palestinian Authority, and others all make money by keeping us poor and dependent. For them, we are a business.” Mr. Eid is a vocal critic of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. About the BDS activists he observed, “They are trying to survive on the conflict, attaching themselves to it in order to remain relevant. Most of them have no idea what the conflict is about, how Palestinians live with Israelis, or about coexistence.” He has come to believe that economic cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis, even where it involves Israeli-owned enterprises in the West bank, is a key to improving the economic situation of Palestinians and of forging the bonds of economic inter-dependence and trust required the create peace.
Eid’s emphasis on improving the economic conditions of Palestinians, and his willingness to see Palestinians partner with Israelis to achieve this, is exemplified by his current speaking tour. Eid is on a tour of the United States, sponsored by StandWithUs, a pro-Israel solidarity group, with Erez Zadok. Zadok, the Israeli CEO of Aviv Fund Management, invests in Israeli factories that employ Palestinians. Like Mr. Eid, he wonders why the BDS movement would want to deprive Palestinians of their livelihoods.
Erez Zadok invested in SodaStream three years ago. The company’s mission, through its location in the West Bank, was “to make peace, and to also make soda.” Israeli companies located in the West Bank must comply with Israeli law. “Palestinians working for Israeli companies in this region earn five times more than the Palestinians who work for Palestinians’ factories,” he explained. “This money enters the Palestinian economy and goes to private consumption, to buy food, clothes, shoes and other needs. These Palestinians support their families and other circles of Palestinians working to provide them with the goods and services they need,” he added.
Last September, SodaStream shut down its West Bank factory due to pressure from the BDS movement. It relocated to a new factory in the Negev, next to the Bedouin city of Rahat. Three hundred Bedouins now work for SodaStream. The Palestinians who lost those jobs will have a hard time finding a new source of livelihood in a region with 23% unemployment.
The new SodaStream factory is within Israel’s 1948 borders. The BDS movement is still promoting a boycott of its products. When SodaStream was in the West Bank, Palestinians and Israelis worked together under the same conditions, receiving the same benefits, and the same opportunities. Some of them befriended each other, trusted each other, and respected each other. According to Mr. Zadok, “SodaStream manufactured peace, co-existence and normalization between the peoples.”
Bassem Eid and Erez Zadok are working together to achieve peace. They don’t believe that boycotting Israel is the way to get there. Bassem Eid is finding a very receptive audience in the United States. “People are thirsty for first hand information,” he said. “My message is probably upsetting and provoking to many of them.” From his perspective, it’s time to stop blaming Israel for the problems of the Palestinians. “Refugees from every other country have rebuilt their lives after one generation. It’s time for the Palestinians to also pull themselves up and develop,” he concluded.