South Africans will soon be able to buy Palestinian farm produce, thanks to the efforts of a 35-year-old occupational therapist in KwaZulu-Natal.
Human rights activist Khatija Rasool spent six weeks in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement in 2008. “I spent a lot of time with the farming communities there – supporting with replanting olive trees on farms that were destroyed by soldiers or settlers, facilitating access to lands due to restrictions by Israel and accompanying when farmers were harvesting or seeing to their lands,” she said.
“Palestine is predominantly a farming community and a vast agricultural landscape dominated by olive trees. These farmers, and Palestinians in general, inspired me to look at ways of supporting them other than charity. They are just ordinary people wanting to provide for their families and live their lives.
“They feel a lot of pride in their produce, especially the olive oil. On more than one occasion I had Palestinians pouring their own homemade olive oil into plastic bottles and insisting I take it back to my country because it’s so beautiful and Palestinian olive oil is the best in the world.”
An inspired Rasool contacted the non-profit Zaytoun Community Interest Company in the United Kingdom, which has been importing Palestinian farmers’ produce since 2004.
After six months of research and negotiations, she has launched a local branch of the organisation and is waiting for her first shipment of produce, which includes olive oil and dates.
According to Zaytoun director Heather Masoud, the products are labelled “Palestinian”.
There is a controversy in South Africa about how Israeli products from the occupied Palestinian territory should be labelled. Last month, Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies stated in the Government Gazette that he would issue a notice requiring traders in South Africa not to label products from the territory “incorrectly” as products of Israel.
Pro-Palestinian activists and organisations such as trade union federation Cosatu have welcomed the announcement. But the Inkatha Freedom Party said in a press statement that it was “detrimental to our national interest, trade relations, economic growth and employment generation”, whereas Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said the politicising of the issue resulted in unnecessary conflict among South Africans.
“We believe that a more consultative process, with more than one interest group with an unashamedly pro-boycott agenda, prior to the Government Gazette notice would have yielded a less emotively confrontational approach.”
She said the board promoted a negotiated two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side. “We believe trade between both Israel and Palestinians and South Africa is important to promote economic growth in all regions.”
Rasool said she was attracted to Zaytoun because it was based on the concept of fair trade. “Fair trade basically means the concept of paying producing communities in developing countries the correct amount for their products, ensuring the conditions they’re working under are safe – for example, they are not using child labour or unsafe equipment – and ensuring all people involved in the production process are paid a fair wage and treated justly.”
Lubna Nadvi, a lecturer in political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an activist too, said the legal and moral framework was important in terms of the trading of goods. “Products made in an unethical environment should never be seen as acceptable, or bought and sold, because the human rights of innocents are being violated in the making of such goods.
“Zaytoun’s efforts should be supported because they are trying to improve the economic conditions of Palestinian farmers and traders, who have been totally devastated by the Israeli occupation and economic deprivations they have been subjected to.”
Palestinian Taysir Arbasi, an olive grower, agreed. “Palestine is mainly rural, so farming is an essential activity to sustain livelihood. We were cultivating olives and selling them at a lower price than their cost of production before. We were forced to sell them to Israeli traders at very low prices just to be able to keep up with cultivating the trees to protect our lands from confiscation and to get some basic goods to live on.”