Palestinian Sharia judge issues Zara boycott fatwa over event supporting far-right politician

The owner of the franchise in Israel, Joey Schwebel, hosted an event for ultranationalist leader Itamar Ben Gvir, leading to a backlash against the retailer

Antonio Pita
Zara boycott
A Zara store in Jerusalem.Yoni Siboni

The clothing brand Zara has become the target of a Palestinian boycott campaign that has been gathering pace over the past 72 hours, to the point of generating a religious edict from the supreme judge of the Islamic courts of the Palestinian Authority against the purchase of its products, a formal complaint from the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy to the company’s headquarters in Spain, and a series of videos posted on social media in which the brand’s clothing is burned as a sign of protest.

The reason for the backlash against Zara is an event in support of controversial far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, which the owner of the franchise in Israel, Joey Schwebel, hosted last Wednesday at his mansion in the town of Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, as reported by Israeli television broadcaster Channel 12. Ben Gvir has become the center of attention in the elections Israel is holding next week, in which he is running on the Religious Zionist Party ticket. The latest polls predict strong support for Ben Gvir’s grouping, which is forecast to become the third-largest political force in the country.

Itamar Ben Gvir, on a visit to the West Bank Palestinian town of Al Nabi Samuel, last September.
Itamar Ben Gvir, on a visit to the West Bank Palestinian town of Al Nabi Samuel, last September.picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)

Schwebel, by contrast, is a low-key Canadian-Israeli billionaire who often stays out of the spotlight. He presides over Trimera Brands, the company that holds the franchise in Israel for all the brands controlled by the Inditex group, as stated on its website. Trimera operates around 80 stores in Israel’s main shopping malls, mainly Zara and Pull & Bear (24 of each), Bershka (17) and Stradivarius (10). The presence of Massimo Dutti, Zara Home and Lefties is more modest. Schwebel is also the franchisee for Nike and Gap in Israel.

Inditex does not have stores in the Palestinian territories or in the Jewish settlements in the area established outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. The boycott, for the moment, has only had a local and limited effect. Some supporters of the action are directing it only against Zara stores in the Jewish state, while others have extended the protest to Zara worldwide and to other brands of the Inditex group.

Mahmud Habbash, religious and Islamic affairs advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority’s top Sharia judge, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, calling for “the boycotting of Zara products worldwide until the company cancels its contract with its operator in Israel.” Habbash has urged Muslim authorities around the world to join the action, Palestinian state news agency Wafa reported.

Palestine’s Ministry of National Economy announced on Saturday that it will send a letter to Zara’s headquarters in Arteixo, Spain, to ask the company to “be accountable” and clarify its position on the matter.

Zara, which first entered the Israeli market in 1997, has not commented on the controversy. Neither has Schwebel: Channel 12 cited the refusal of the businessman’s family to comment on a “private matter.” Ben Gvir, though, has entered the fray. When Ahmed Tibi, a well-known Palestinian deputy with Israeli citizenship who heads the Israeli-Arab Ta’al party, criticized the “ugliness of Zara Ben Gvir Israel” on Twitter, the ultra-nationalist politician responded with the phrase: “Zara, beautiful clothes, beautiful Israelis.”

Social networks are documenting the protest, which both Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who make up a fifth of the country’s population – among them several members of parliament – and those who reside in the occupied territories or in other countries have now taken up. Faiz Abu Sahiben, the mayor of the largest Bedouin city in Israel, Rahat, has published a video in which he burns a Zara shirt while describing the retailer as a “racist company” for doing business with Ben Gvir.

Sami Abu Shahade, leader of the Israeli-Arab Balad party, said on Saturday that he had addressed a statement to the founder and majority shareholder of Inditex, Amancio Ortega, describing Ben Gvir as “a racist defender of war crimes who the head of your Israeli franchise has received as a guest.” Another Palestinian deputy in the Israeli Parliament, Aida Tuma-Suleiman of the leftist Hadash coalition, said that “the owner of Zara’s [sic] support for Ben Gvir indicates that racism is a contagious disease permeating Israeli society.”

An opinion piece published on Sunday in the liberal daily Haaretz noted that “burning Zara clothes or seeking alternative ways to shop in Turkey does not mobilize anyone and certainly does not weaken Ben Gvir’s strength,” while urging Palestinians with Israeli citizenship – the largest abstentionist group – to influence the political landscape by voting in next week’s elections.

Zara controversies

This is not the first controversy Zara has been involved in. A year ago, one of the brand’s models, Qaher Harhash, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, shared messages sent to him privately on Instagram by Vanessa Perilman, one of the heads of the company’s womenswear design team. Perilman, who is Jewish, wrote that if the Palestinian people “were educated, they would not blow up hospitals and schools that Israel helped pay for in Gaza” and said that if Harhash came out in any Muslim country in the world he would be “stoned.” Perilman later said she regretted the messages and apologized to Harhash. Inditex issued a statement in which it stressed the company “does not condone any disrespect to any culture, religion, country, race or belief.”

In 2014, Inditex was forced to withdraw a Zara T-shirt from the market because in Israel it was associated with the clothing of prisoners in Nazi concentration and extermination camps. The children’s garment was striped with a yellow star on the chest that the company said was inspired by those worn by sheriffs in classic westerns.

Seven years earlier, Zara apologized to the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community for mixing cotton and linen – which Judaism considers an unnatural hybrid – in a men’s garment. That same year, a protest led to the removal of a line of swastika bags from the company’s range. It was the work of a third-party supplier in India, where the swastika is included in embroidery as a religious symbol of good luck, but it was not included in the original design submitted to Zara.

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