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An Israeli clothing store set to open in the West Bank city of Ramallah has set off a firestorm of protests on social media and in the Palestinian press. Fox, a chain that sells women's, men's, and children's wear, has stores in ten countries and supermodel Bar Refaeli as its longtime face. Posters of a smiling Refaeli recently went up at the site of the future Ramallah store with a "coming soon" message — but the news was greeted anything but warmly.
Fox clothing is popular in the Palestinian territories, both in the West Bank and in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where it is stocked by a variety of local retailers. But the Ramallah store, set to open next month, is different in that it would be the first own-brand Fox store anywhere in the Palestinian territories. Although the distinction might strike some in the West as academic, in the Middle East, every economic decision is complicated by history, politics, and identity. Some Palestinian consumers appreciate Fox's inexpensive clothes. Others resent the brand as a symbol of Israeli imperialism and the inequalities of trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Associated Press reports:
The economies of Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank remain deeply linked, despite limited Palestinian self-rule in parts of the territory where more than 90 percent of Palestinians live. Israeli companies sent $3.8 billion in goods and services to the West Bank last year alone, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. That makes the territories Israel's third-largest export market, ahead of world economic powers like the United Kingdom and China.
But Palestinians complain that security restrictions imposed after the Palestinian uprising in 2000 have made that trade a one-way flow. Palestinian goods are carefully inspected at Israeli border checkpoints. Israel's military governing body in the occupied territories also limits the number of work permits issued to Palestinian laborers that allow them to cross into Israel.
Boycotts of Israeli goods and divestment from Israel have long been promoted by the pro-Palestinian movement as a means of increasing pressure on Israel to participate in the peace process and move towards Palestinian independence. (After all, divestment and boycotting worked in apartheid South Africa.)
Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian activist, has argued against giving Israeli companies opportunities unavailable to Palestinian ones. "Israel doesn't allow our companies to have branches in Haifa and Jaffa, why should we allow their companies to have branches in Ramallah?" he asked.
The symbolism of Refaeli as Fox's brand ambassador is also a source of contention. Refaeli has appeared in tourism ads for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Her Israeli charity work includes hospital visits to injured Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and her public image abroad, including in Palestine, is closely identified with the state of Israel. Which is ironic, considering that within Israel, Refaeli has attracted criticism as a draft-dodger. Those same Foreign Ministry ads were condemned by the I.D.F., which called Refaeli an inappropriate choice of spokesperson because she legally evaded national military service. In the Palestinian Territory, Refaeli is too Israeli. In Israel, she's not Israeli enough.
Fox's C.E.O., for his part, says the Ramallah store will open as planned, regardless of any protests.
— Jenna Sauers