On the sunny April afternoon I’m invited to check out the fortnightly protest against Ahava’s Covent Garden store, it’s clear that this week – perhaps more than most weeks – emotions are running high. It is just one day after the body of peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni was found by Hamas forces in an abandoned Gaza house, allegedly murdered by radical religious fundamentalists, and it’s clear that this tragedy is serving to add yet more fuel to the animosity between the opposing sides gathered here.
I arrive on Monmouth St just after midday to the sound of one of the boycott protesters yelling “fascists” at the Israel supporters. A few minutes later a minor scuffle breaks out, ending with several police officers holding one of the pro-Palestinian activists against a wall while two of the Israel supporters begin shouting “Hamas terrorist” in his direction. Moments later one of them guffaws “Vittorio sleeps with the fishes,” and soon, the handful of protesters on either side of the metal barricade are trading insults; “No Nazi boycott in Covent Garden!” shouts an Israel supporter. “That’s right; go home” retorts someone from the Palestinian side.
Having researched the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement before coming here – a movement that advocates non-violence – I have to admit the level of agitation on display from both groups of protesters takes me aback. While the passion on both sides is undoubtedly emblematic of how much the activists care about the Israel-Palestine issue, at several points the trading of insults between the two groups seems almost comical; at one stage three men stood watching the commotion next to me whisper to one another “is this actually serious?”
And yet, as curious as these scenes might seem to the average Londoner, this is serious. Ahava is the target of this boycott action not simply because it is an Israeli-owned company, but because the beauty products it sells in over thirty countries worldwide are manufactured in Mizpe Shalem, an Israeli settlement roughly six miles inside the Israeli occupied Palestinian Territories. As Rose, one of the pro-boycott activists tells me a little later in a quieter café on Shaftsbury Avenue, “every time someone purchases those products they’re supporting that illegal settlement, and helping to entrench the occupation of Palestine. This conflict does not happen in a vacuum, it persists in part because this kind of economic support from the West.”
And that is the point of the BDS movement – to stop international complicity in the sustained Israeli occupation of the West Bank which both undermines the human rights of Palestinians and holds the region back from attaining a meaningful peace. But more importantly, it wants to remind us that it is a conflict we can do something about, in this case simply by being more conscious about where we shop.
But is it working? The Palestinian solidarity protesters say yes. For a start, just two weeks ago Ahava announced that this particular shop will close in September as a result of the protests which, Rose tells me, the boycotters see as a victory; “this will be one less place taking money from London shoppers and investing it in supporting Israeli settlements”.
What is more significant perhaps is that Israeli authorities are taking notice of this campaign. Last year, Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute presented a report to the Israeli Cabinet singling out the BDS movement as one of the most significant global forces threatening the security of the Israeli state (something I blogged about at the time). Furthermore, when I asked Omar Barghouti – one of the movement’s founders – about the Reut Report at last month’s 6 billion ways conference, he stated that Israeli authorities had responded by tabling a motion in the Knesset last year stating that any boycott activity targeting Israeli companies should be made illegal. The law hasn’t passed, yet, but with that kind of alarm-bell it’s no wonder some pro-Israel supporters are working hard to fight the movement.
However, when it comes to Ahava, it’s worth questioning whether this ‘success’ is as clear cut as it may seem. For a start, the closure does not reflect a decision on the part of Ahava to pull out of the UK altogether; in this case their landlord has simply decided that the protests are causing too much disruption to the wider area. Ahava may simply relocate elsewhere, which suggests that this is perhaps a somewhat less noble victory for civil disruption caused by the animosity between these two opposing groups of protesters, and not a true signal that the BDS message is succeeding in educating people and affecting public opinion.
Furthermore, as I stand watching the taunting from both sides, I can’t help but think that were the tone of these protests more consistently in line with the reasonable and non-violent aims of the movement, even in these trying circumstances, it might be more successful in doing so. And half way through the protest, something powerful happens which proves this point.
For just one minute, the boycott protesters turn their backs on their pro-Israel opposition and hold silent vigil in honour of Vittorio Arrigoni. The street, previously noisy and chaotic, packed with the sound of offensive jibes and campaigners enthusiastically thrusting leaflets in the hands of bemused passers-by, becomes deafeningly quiet. The Israeli supporters stop shouting, watching the vigil with what seems to be a mixture of interest and confusion, and a group of London shoppers approach a police officer and ask him what’s going on. He explains in hushed tones that people are protesting against Ahava because they support the Palestinians. That someone from the protests was killed in the region, which is why everyone is more upset than usual. And for a moment, it feels like we all get it.
Ahava is important. But isn’t finding reasonable means of educating people about the situation in Palestine, of engaging in intelligent discussion and rising above the knee-jerk reactions that have fuelled this conflict for decades, even more so? Shouldn’t our protest movements reflect this ethos, and not just in words and grand statements, but in behaviour too? I think so. Regardless of the provocation. And particularly when Londoners are watching.