DAMASCUS, May 2 (IPS) - Nineteen Arab countries have agreed unanimously to reactivate an economic blockade of Israel. Economic boycott of Israel was agreed in 1951 but has remained largely ineffective. It has slackened particularly since the launch of the Middle East peace process in the early nineties.
The Arab nations decided at a three-day meeting in Damascus last week to revive boycott as a peaceful weapon to help secure Palestinian rights.
The meeting was organized by the Central Office for the Boycott of Israel, set up in Damascus 50 years ago by the Arab League with the aim of isolating Israel economically.
Representatives of Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Libya, Somalia, Comoros, Morocco, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Djibouti attended the meeting.
The decision follows an agreement among Arab leaders at their summit in Lebanon in March that an economic boycott should remain official policy until there is a ''halt to Israeli aggression against unarmed Palestinians.''
Tunisia, Morocco, Oman and Qatar which used to have some economic links with Israel have now responded to resolutions at the Lebanon summit.
The boycott is planned at three levels. Primary boycott requires member states of the Arab League to refrain from doing business with Israel. That will not apply to Egypt and Jordan, who have peace treaties with Israel.
At the secondary level it prohibits trade with companies which have a branch, agency, factory or plant in Israel. Finally, the so-called tertiary boycott is against firms and countries that do business with Israel indirectly, or have some Israeli links.
The Damascus office is believed to have blacklisted more than 10,000 such companies. The list that is updated periodically. The Damascus office says several American, Asian and European companies are on the list. But no names have been released.
For the Arabs, the economic pressure they can bring is about their only remaining weapon in the absence of military clout to force concessions from Israel.
''The participants expressed their conviction that economic boycott of Israel and expanding (the boycott's) geographical boundaries...constitutes a peaceful, active, legal and noble tool for deterring (Israeli) aggression and bolstering world peace and security,'' Ahmed Khazaa, commissioner-general of the boycott office said after the meeting.
Syrian delegate Mohammed Ajami said ''officials also agreed on working to expand the boycott to encourage Islamic and European countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to adopt similar measures.'' Syria has been the chief advocate of the renewed boycott, with the backing of Iraq and Libya.
The boycott could cost Israel around three billion dollars a year in lost earnings, the Damascus office says. It claims that Israel has lost 48 billion dollars due to the boycott over the last 50 years.
Israeli economists assessed in 1991 that Israel had lost 400 million dollars.
The once influential Damascus office has held only two meetings since 1993 when the Palestinians signed a peace deal with Israel. Most meetings due twice a year could not be held for lack of quorum.
Arab representatives who now want to take these meetings seriously agreed that the next regular decision-making meeting will be held in October.
In the Gulf States leading clerics are urging people to boycott hundreds of U.S. products ranging from Big Macs to Levi's jeans in support of the Intifada.
Several non-governmental and civic organizations, student bodies and professional associations are already urging citizens to buy local and European alternatives to U.S. goods.
Copyright 2002 IPS