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This Is Why It’s Hard to Boycott Israel

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The drumbeat of boycott is being heard again in Israel, faint, but persistent and disquieting. On June 3 the head of the French cell phone company Orange said he would he would pull the brand from Israel “tomorrow morning” if he could escape the penalties for voiding the contract. A day earlier, the national student union of Great Britain voted to boycott Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the first “a miserable statement” and the opposition leader Isaac Herzog called the rise of boycotts “a new form of terrorism.”

What’s the truth? The boycott movement was actually started by Israelis—Zionist liberals who support Israel’s existence on land it won in the 1948 war that gave birth to the country, but object to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory on the West Bank and Gaza Strip conquered in 1967. The liberals, however, wanted only to boycott goods produced by Israeli companies that operate on Jewish settlements atop Palestinian land—vast truck farms and small factories that profit from what critics call an essentially colonial arrangement.

It’s both a political and a social matter. A lot of the produce found in Israeli supermarket—and lots of the wine in liquor stores—comes from Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and Tel Aviv liberals will remind one another to avoid it, much as many Americans boycotted table grapes in the 1960s, to pressure California farmers to improve the lives of the Mexican migrants who picked them.

Over time, people outside Israel took up the cause—especially in Europe. The continent was once a great champion of the Jewish state, but as Israel became more powerful and the occupation dragged on, people grew more sympathetic to the Palestinians (far more, according to polls, than in the United States). “Solidarity,” says Stein Guldbrandsen, a board member of the huge Norwegian public employee union, Fagforbunde, which has been a major force in the boycott.

Israel exports a lot of produce to Europe, and several supermarket chains there have been labeling the bell peppers and mint grown in West Bank settlements so consumers could avoid buying them if they wish. But Fagforbunde plays at another level. Along with advocates like Norwegian People’s Aid , the union promotes boycotts against whole companies, not just product by product. Any firm that does business with Israel on the West Bank faces “disinvestment” by Norway’s $890 billion sovereign fund. Believed to be the world’s richest, its board publishes a list of shame, naming companies “excluded from the investment universe.” The list includes firms that make cluster bombs, nuclear weapons, cigarettes and (as of Friday) mine coal. The list also includes companies that help build Jewish settlements on the West Bank, deemed a “serious violation” of human rights for contravening the 4th Geneva Convention, which bars settling residents of an occupying power in occupied territory.

How do they know what companies are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? The information is right there on WhoProfits.org, a website maintained by a handful of liberal Israelis operating out of a shabby office in downtown Tel Aviv. The activists gather photos, annual reports and other public information, confirm its veracity, and publish it for the convenience of any investor interested in avoiding companies vulnerable to being labeled part of “the Israeli occupation industry,” as the site calls it. WhoProfits provides one-stop shopping for boycott activists.

“At the end of the day, they read the same website,” says Daniel Reisner, an international law specialist in Tel Aviv, where his firm does a growing business counseling companies on the risks of investing in and around Israel. He prefers not to name those clients. “I find that companies who are accused by boycotters react quite like victims of sexual assault,” Reisner tells TIME. “A: They want to keep it quiet and don’t want to tell anyone, because they appear to be ashamed–this guilt by accusation. And B: They want the matter to be handled as discreetly as possible. They won’t tell the press. They won’t tell the government. They won’t tell the shareholders.”

And yet, none of this amounts to boycotting Israel the country. All these activists—liberal Israeli Jews and ardent Scandinavians alike—take careful aim at punishing companies only for doing business on the West Bank (Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005). Other activists are not so restrained, however. They call for a broad boycott on all of Israel. And that’s where the issue gets difficult, and where Israel actually adds to the difficulty of taking discerning action.

For the last ten years, the most prominent voice for boycotting Israel is a group called BDS—short for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It was begun by a Palestinian in Ramallah, Omar Barghouti, who promotes a campaign of economic isolation and opprobrium against Israel inspired by the one mounted against apartheid South Africa. The group publicizes almost every pro-boycott development around the globe, and in the process frequently appears to take credit for each—even the discreet, surgical decisions of northern European pension funds that say they want nothing to do with BDS. The pension funds, and many other groups, are wary of BDS because its agenda reaches well beyond Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. BDS calls for Israel to allow back Palestinians who in 1948 either left or were driven out of what is present-day Israel—a maximalist position that Israelis understandably say amounts to the destruction of their country.

The Zionist liberals who started all this? They don’t like the sound of that one bit. “Because right now they are boycotting not only the products of the settlements,” says Tamar Hermann, a pollster for the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv resident who has long avoided settler vegetables and wine. “They are preaching for the expansion of the boycott to all Israeli products. For me, it’s problematic.”

What’s more, a broad boycott of all things Israeli offers convenient cover for anti-Semitic feeling —both the virulent strain lately resurgent in Europe, and the latent sort that doubtless accounts for a measure of the extraordinary level of critical scrutiny directed at Israel.

But Israel’s government does nothing to clarify the situation. One of the reasons it’s so hard to enforce a “surgical” boycott on, say, bell peppers grown on a West Bank settlement is that the things are shipped abroad in boxes marked “Product of Israel.” Which is how the Israeli government sees things too. For decades, no Israeli government has chosen to observe the Green Line—the boundary separating Palestinian and Israeli territory in 1967 —as a border. A freeway runs from Tel Aviv to a settlement 10 miles inside the West Bank without a checkpoint. The speed traps are run by Israeli cops. The same big green busses that run on Israeli roads stop at bus stops outside West Bank settlements.

By every important measure—budget, voting, administration—the 200 settlements Israel has built on Palestinian land over the last 48 years are regarded, inside Israel, as part of Israel. Which may be very shrewd, or foolish, depending on how the boycott threat proceeds.

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