Across five Arab states a new and closely co-ordinated campaign to boycott American goods is being launched, with Starbucks coffee shops their primary target, but with Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Burger King outlets also on the list. In Beirut today, activists will be leafleting outside the city's four Starbucks shops, detailing the pro-Israeli sentiments of its chief executive, Howard Shultz, and claiming he is "an active Zionist".
In 1998, Mr Shultz was awarded the "Israeli 50th Anniversary Tribute Award" from the Jerusalem Fund of Aish Ha-Torah, which is strongly critical of Yasser Arafat and insists that the occupied Palestinian territories should be described only as "disputed".
In a speech to Jewish Americans in Seattle earlier this year – at the height of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon's, reoccupation of West Bank towns – Starbucks' top man condemned Palestinian "inaction" and announced that "the Palestinians aren't doing their job – they're not stopping terrorism". Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, complimented Mr Shultz for helping American students to hear "Israeli presentations on the Middle East crisis".
Starbucks operates in six other Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – but the boycott protesters, who include both Palestinians and Muslim groups at Ein Shams University in Egypt and the American University of Cairo, have a much wider list of companies they wish to punish for allegedly supporting Israel, not only in the Middle East but in the United States itself.
They include AOL Time Warner, Disney, Estée Lauder, Nokia, Revlon, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges and IBM. Students at Dubai University and in the Syrian capital, Damascus, are now also liaising over their boycott plans.
"At first, it was very frustrating getting even the four boycott groups in Lebanon to work together," Amira Solh, one of the Lebanese activists, says. "We had difficulty defining whether we should target American goods or those companies that have direct relations with Israel. We really only got going the first time the Israelis laid siege to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. Lebanon boycotts all Israeli goods, so we started asking, 'What about those companies which help Israel directly?'
"Most Arab countries have fallen into a capitalist world that accepts American companies with close links to Israel. What we are now initiating is an economic war."
Burger King incurred Arab anger more than two years ago when it opened an outlet in an illegal Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank. The company initially decided to close the outlet and then – after pro-Israeli lobby pressure in America – apparently allowed it to reopen under a different franchise.
Nestlé has bought a controlling share in the Israeli firm Osem, allowing Nestlé to sell its products in Israel, including Nescafé, Perrier, Carnation, Smarties and KitKat. It is a deal which, in the words of one Israeli journalist, "provides Osem with a worldwide distribution and advertising infrastructure". In a recent report to investors, Osem-Nestlé an- nounced a four-monthly profit of $7.5m (£5.1m).
In Lebanon, Coca-Cola – which runs a plant in the country – has attempted to deflect Arab criticism by pointing out that it does not manufacture Coca-Cola in Israel and sells only imported bottles of its products, including Fanta and Sprite, in the Jewish state. In what was widely seen as an attempt to soften the mood of protesters, the Coca-Cola company in Lebanon has suddenly embarked on a programme of planting cedar trees – the national emblem – near the town of Jezzine, south of Beirut.
Starbucks, which has 4,709 retail locations around the world, has been trying to damp down its pro-Israeli image, telling protesters who have written to the company that its chief executive, Howard Shultz, who is himself Jewish, "does not believe the terrorism (sic) is representative of the Palestinian people".
When he spoke recently to his local synagogue, Starbucks says, "Howard was speaking as a private citizen and did not interview with the media regarding this subject". Another Starbucks response says the company "is deeply saddened by the current events (sic) in the Middle East" and quotes a statement by Mr Shultz. "I deeply regret that my speech in Seattle was misinterpreted as anti-Palestinian," he says. "My position has always been pro-peace and for the two nations (sic) to co-exist peacefully."
Arab students believe the real fears of American executives are focused not on losses in the Arab world but on the danger that Arab protests will be picked up by Palestinian sympathisers in Europe and even in America itself.
Mr Shultz, who does not appear to have condemned the building of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied land, spearheaded Starbucks' entry into the Israeli market last year with its first two coffee shops – built through a joint venture company called Shalom Coffee Ltd – in Tel Aviv. By the end of this year, Starbucks plans to have a total of 20 coffee houses operating throughout Israel.
Mr Shultz is a regular visitor to Israel and one of many personalities who have been brought to Jerusalem as a guest of the Theodor Herzl mission, at whose gala dinner is held an award ceremony of the Friends of Zion to honour those "who have played key roles in promoting close alliance between the United States and Israel".
Others who have travelled on the Theodor Herzl mission include
Baroness Thatcher, Newt Gingrich, the US Speaker of the House, and
the former US governor Tom Ridge – now the head of "Homeland