---> To download the recorded version of this interview, visit:
Ashraf is from Tulkarem, Palestine. He graduated from the Arab American University in Jenin (www.aauj.edu) in the summer of 2007 with a degree in computer information technology. With the student group Green Resistance at his university, he organized a successful boycott campaign which saw Israeli products banned from the campus.
In this interview, Ashraf talks about boycotts as a highly effective tool of non-violent resistance against the occupation, and also reflects on the campaign as part of an international campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid.
Interview conducted by Aaron Lakoff in Ramallah, Palestine on April 19, 2008.
Aaron: I wanted to talk about the boycott campaign at your school. Can you start from the beginning and tell me what kind of Israeli products were being sold there, and why you and other students decided to start a boycott campaign.
Asrhaf: Well first of all, in general, Israeli products are almost everywhere, inside every single Palestinian shop inside the West Bank and Gaza. In our situation at the Arab American University, we had almost no Palestinian products. It was only Israeli juice and Israeli water. So first we started by studying how many students buy Israeli juice and water. At the beginning we thought of focusing on one product which has an alternative, like water or juice, so that this would be more effective. And also for students to understand and buy the other alternative.
So we found out that everyday, 5-6 thousand shekels ($1580 US) goes to Israel only by buying only Israeli juice, which is called Tapuzina. And so if you take the sales taxes, you come up with around 360 shekels which goes directly to the Israeli army. Basically half of the Israeli government's budget goes to the army, so we did a lot of research and tried to find out how to come up with exactly how many shekels goes to the Israeli army so that we could create an awareness amongst students.
So by gathering information and statistics from 2005-2006 on how much Palestinian buy Israeli liquids like water and juice, and we used these figures in our campaign.
Aaron: And when did the AAUJ decide to stop selling Israeli products?
Ashraf: They stopped about a year ago.
Aaron: What were some of the tactics for this campaign? How did you convince other students to get involved?
Ashraf: One of the big powerful ways to create awareness amongst students is statistics and figures on the ground, because most Palestinians are not aware of how much money we're giving Israel through buying their products. And we don't know how much that can really change things, when we know that the first market for Israel is the Palestinians, we can use that as a powerful weapon to change the policy of Israel against Palestinians as a part of the non-violent resistance. And it actually has been used in places like South Africa and India, and it worked. And definitely, 100%, it can work here.
Aaron: What were some of the names of Palestinian companies whose products you could find at your school?
Ashraf: You could find the Israeli juice, Tapuzina. You could find the Israeli water, Ein Gedi. You could find some other products like ice cream, citruses, but we mostly focused on juice or water.
Aaron: I know with some of these Israeli products, sometimes they are manufactured in settlements, or using Palestinian "cheap labour". Was that the case with any of these products?
Ashraf: Definitely with Tapuzina, on the label of the product, it doesn't say exactly where it comes from. It just says "Israel". And there has been a court hearing, and at the court they wanted to say exactly where it comes from, because it does come from a settlement. So far it still says Israel, but it doesn't say where it comes from. The same thing with Ein Gedi.
Aaron: What was the outcome of the campaign? How was it won in the end?
Ashraf: Well, our main focus was on the students. Our future plan or goal was of course to make the university stop brining Tapuzina and Israeli products on campus.
But at the same time, you can have only Palestinian products on campus, but the students can buy Israeli products outside. So basically we were focusing on students and trying to educate them with statistics and numbers – trying to make them see that we are actually supporting our occupier, supporting the Israeli army by giving them our money. And according to Palestinian statistics in 2005, Palestinians spend around 800 million dollars only on liquids – juice and water. 800 million dollars goes directly to Israel. So focusing on this number, if we can stop giving Israel 800 million dollars every year just from their water… it's actually water from settlements which has been confiscated and stolen from Palestinian villages… so by stopping giving this amount of money, 100% it will change something.
Aaron: How many students are at the AAUJ?
Ashraf: This year there were around 4 000.
Aaron: And what are the conditions for people going to school there? What are some of the obstacles that the Israeli occupation has put in place for students?
Ashraf: At the beginning of the first uprising, the first Intifada, most universities were closed. For example, Birzeit University was closed for 6 years. Hebron University was closed as well. This is why I chose to study at the AAUJ. Because when I finished high school, that was the only university that was sort of available, or easy to access. Other universities I would have had to go through checkpoints, or find an apartment. Even at our university we had curfews. The army comes to the universities and sets up checkpoints in front of the gate and stops students from getting their education. So yes, the education system in Palestine has been widely affected by the occupation.
Aaron: So now that Israeli juices and water aren't sold at your university, are their Palestinian products which are being sold in their place? What are the alternatives?
Ashraf: Well, now they are selling Egyptian and Palestinian juice.
Aaron: This boycott campaign at your school is in a wider context of a very large movement here in Palestine for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (against Israel). Can you talk a bit about how you see the campaign at your school, and how it fits in with this larger, worldwide campaign to boycott Israeli apartheid?
Ashraf: Our university was not the only example. At Birzeit University they had a boycott campaign. At some other universities, like An-Najah University, they started a boycott campaign recently. And also in villages like Beit Sahour in the 1980's they had a boycott campaign as well.
I personally feel it's a very powerful way to resist the occupation in a very non-violent way. Obviously everything is about the economy. If the Israeli economy is down, they have to think about that before they do anything else. And if we are the main market for Israel, that's something we can use to resist the occupation.
And the same thing abroad, in other countries in Europe or America or Canada, definitely the boycott and divestment definitely can create some pressure.
[Aaron Lakoff is an independent journalist from Montreal, Canada. He is currently volunteering with the International Middle East Media Center, www.imemc.org, in Beit Sahour, Palestine. He previous reports can be found on his blog at http://aaron.resist.ca]