I’m driving along the High Street in Knaphill, past Coral the bookmakers and Woking Grill, with its universal frontage advertising kebabs, burgers and chicken. Past Bem Coffee and Hobbsie’s Barber Shop with its faded barber’s pole. Past Chop Suey House, Knaphill Café, and the unimaginatively named Your Local Store. It’s a typical high street in a typical commuter village. It’s all very normal.
I am west of Woking, twenty-five miles south-west of London on my way to Goldsworth Park, an estate of 3,000 homes complete with pub, play centre, football pitch, and a Waitrose supermarket where your first two hours’ parking is free.
It is all very ordinary except for the pictures of dead children – forty-two of them.
The Flowering of Apartheid
Historic Palestine is blessed – it is fertile land, and the indigenous population were some of the planet’s first farmers. Palestine and its neighbouring countries, collectively referred to as the Fertile Crescent, kick-started traditions of subsistence and food sovereignty, some of which continue to this day. Pre 1948, seventy percent of Palestinians lived as subsistence farmers, and that connection with the land, passed down from generation to generation, remains core to Palestinian identity and culture. The extent to which Palestinians have ‘grown from their land’ cannot be underestimated.
The state of Israel was synthetically grafted onto historic Palestine. Bullied by the colonial powers of the day, the United Nations issued its infamous and flawed Resolution 181 in 1947, which arbitrarily allocated 11,100 square kilometres or forty-two percent of historic Palestine to what they referred to as an ‘Arab state,’ and 14,100 square kilometres, or fifty-six percent of historic Palestine, to a new ‘Jewish state.’ The remaining two percent (Jerusalem) was naively deemed an ‘international zone.’
It is unlikely that this one-sided act, which created a new sovereign state within an existing territory, would be considered legal today.
Despite the resolution being without precedent, Israel’s founding fathers felt it didn’t go far enough. Zionist militia went on to purge and occupy an additional twenty-two percent of what the UN had classified as Arab land. By 1949 Israel constituted seventy-eight percent of historic Palestine. The remaining regions of Ghazzah and the West Bank would be occupied by Egypt and Jordan respectively until 1967, after which they would be occupied by Israel.
Maintaining the colonial settler state requires the bloody and violent butchering of the umbilical cord attaching Palestinians to their land. Natural resources have been appropriated, villages mercilessly emptied, and Palestinians are regularly denied access to their homes and farms. Palestinians are forced to go through humiliating Arab-only check points, are barred from Israeli-only roads and neighbourhoods, and their general movement is ‘permitted’ by a draconian, discriminatory, and degrading ID system. The fertile land of historic Palestine is now also a land of apartheid.
In 2023 European Union President Ursula Von der Leyen claimed Israel had “literally made the desert bloom.” She was incorrect – Palestine has been flowering since around 11,000 BCE, long before the creation of Israel. The only new flowering has been the flowering of apartheid.
Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair is known for many things – his mastery of agriculture isn’t one of them. And yet in 2019 his institute, modestly named the Tony Blair Institute, released a Commentary Paper offering an insight into how “Israel Transformed the Agriculture Sector.” We are informed that while “some factors of success are unique to Israel and not replicable” others are transferable. The paper goes on to offer “five insights for Africa.” It’s not clear why Africa has been singled out – perhaps the unnamed author just felt it was a lost continent in need of white colonial wisdom.
None of the insights are innovative and there is no mention of Israel’s ongoing illegal land appropriation, water theft, or Palestinian labour exploitation. But it is the third insight that takes me to Goldsworth Park and a Waitrose supermarket on a Saturday afternoon.
Boycott in Suburbia
According to Trading Economics, exports to the United Kingdom from Israel totalled approximately £2.5 billion in 2022, of which edible fruits, nuts, peel of citrus fruit and melons were approximately £40 million, edible vegetables and certain roots were £17 million, vegetable, fruit and nut food preparations were £13 million, and beverages, spirits and vinegar were £6 million.
The UK Department of Business and Trade tracked fruit and vegetable imports from Israel to the value of £100 million for the four quarters ending Q2 2023.
The uptick in agricultural imports from Israel is by design according to the Blair Institute paper, because its “unequivocal market-oriented approach” focuses on “the international export market for economic growth.”
Numbers in a balance of trade report are stripped of their context. Too often we know little about the companies generating the exports, and the conditions in which they operate. In the case of Israel, thanks to the Tony Blair Institute we are reminded that proceeds from exports fuel the country’s growth. So are consumers inadvertently funding the apparatus of apartheid? Do purchases in a Woking supermarket normalise a system of cruel and unfair segregation? Worse, in buying Israeli potatoes and avocados, dates and peppers are we legitimising a violent and abusive caste system?
On this Saturday afternoon, amongst the 3,000 houses, the pub, the play centre and the football pitch, thirty people gather outside Waitrose to shine a light on the very real link between the agricultural food stuffs that appear on supermarket shelves and the funding of Israel’s apartheid regime.
The campaigners include a mother of two who had visited occupied Palestine twice and witnessed Israel’s apartheid regime in action.
“It was shocking. I knew it was bad, but I hadn’t realised the scale. You come back from there numb.”
She recounted walking the strictly policed streets of Hebron and its infamous ‘Apartheid Street’ or Al-Shuhada Street, where Palestinians are restricted in their movements based purely on their ethnicity. In May 2023 Amnesty International released an alarming report on the use of facial recognition technology in Hebron as part of Israel’s apartheid apparatus.
“I’m someone who cares about humanity” she says, before busying herself handing out leaflets to shoppers.
I speak to Matt, a higher education manager who has also travelled to Hebron. Matt is a father and a musician, and speaks in a thoughtful manner. On a Saturday afternoon he should be with his kids – instead he is holding a Palestinian flag in one hand and a five-foot-long wooden rod in the other. Attached to the rod are seven black and white photographs of children: a four-year-old, a ten-year-old, a seven-year-old, two eleven-year-olds and one nine-year-old. There is also a picture of a 45-day-old baby. They have all been murdered since October 7th in state-sanctioned bombings of Ghazzah. I look around – there are six other campaigners holding pictures of different children. Forty-two in total.
I ask Matt what happens to the pictures afterwards.
“They are stored at someone’s house until our next action.”
I can’t imagine what it’s like to live amongst these forty-two photos. I am reminded of poet Refaat Alareer, who imagined the souls of those murdered soaring as kites, up high in Ghazzah’s skies. Alareer was himself slaughtered in a rocket attack on December 7th and I hope he is soaring, for the first time in his life moving freely in his homeland.
As haunting as the photographs is the apathy of passers-by. Few stop. For some, death must be local in order to matter.
I talk to John, who works at a local coffee shop. He has a large sign hanging from his neck calling for a full boycott of Israeli products.
“It’s apartheid. It’s the war in Ghazzah … the war crimes, the dead children, the hospital bombings, the dead journalists. That’s why I am here.”
John is right – it’s all connected. Years of oppressive apartheid practices by Israel designed to sever that Palestinian umbilical cord has in fact robbed the Israeli state of its morality and decency. The state has conditioned itself to ‘other’ the Palestinians, to dehumanise and brutalise them. The current government operates more like a drunken lynch mob than a sovereign state.
For too long Israel’s discriminatory actions and policies have gone unchecked, no one has held them to account. On the contrary, some have colluded with them, others cheered them on, and others – consciously or unconsciously – have normalised Israel’s system of apartheid, at the expense of the Palestinians. And that’s the context that is missing from Israel’s export numbers to the UK – but listen carefully and you can hear John provide it. Stop funding apartheid.
Look at The Label
John is standing on the shoulders of those that have gone before him. For thirty-five years consumer boycotts were at the heart of the UK’s South African anti-apartheid campaign, as British high streets were used as economic leverage to bring change to South Africa.
The Look at the Label campaign listed South African brands that were to be boycotted, and pressure was applied to leading UK retailers and supermarkets to drop South African products. The Boycott Movement recognised that ‘economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must mend their ways or suffer for them.’
In 1990 we rid the world of one apartheid regime, but it appears the work of dismantling this instrument of colonial control is not yet complete. One continent and four thousand miles away, on the fertile shores of the eastern Mediterranean, some seven million Palestinians live under apartheid rule. Even senior Israeli and UN officials have acknowledged this. When will the shoppers of Goldsworth Park do so? When will Waitrose and other UK supermarkets follow suit?
On December 28th 2023 Israel’s leading news outlet Haaretz ran a story titled: “Israel’s Deliberate Starvation of Gaza’s Civilian Population Is a War Crime.” It appears food has become a weapon, and the campaigners outside Waitrose are asking you if it will be used to prop up Israel’s apartheid rule, or to demolish it.
Thanks to Patrick Lonergan from West Surrey PSC for his help with this article.
©2024 Sul Nowroz – staff writer