Swedish fashion chain H&M under pressure

31 March 2010

More than a year ago, several concerned Swedish organizations asked fashion chain H&M about its plans to extend its franchise to Israel. H&M’s management denied the rumors but refused to provide written confirmation. In March, H&M unexpectedly opened a store in Tel Aviv and a second store in Jerusalem’s Malha shopping mall. The mall is built on the Palestinian village of al-Malha which was ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba. In several European cities activists protested H&M’s presence in Israel.

H&M’s interest in expanding its business to Israel became clear in March 2008 when a team of top management went to Israel. According to a 14 March 2008 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, the visit was initiated by Israel’s economic attache in Stockholm, Mordechai Ish-Shalom. In Israel, H&M’s management team met with leaders of local textile and fashion companies. Dafna Sternfeld of Israel’s Exports Institute told Haaretz that H&M was primarily interested in low-cost bathing suits and underwear made in Israel, as well as knitwear and textiles for the home. The H&M team also met with representatives from Ahava, whose beauty products are produced in a factory in the illegal Mitzpe Shalem settlement in the occupied West Bank. However, the labels on Ahava’s products sold in the EU declare that they originate from “The Dead Sea, Israel.”

Although no deal with Ahava was announced, H&M’s visit to Israel turned out to be fruitful. On 9 December 2008, H&M announced a franchise deal for opening stores with the private Israeli company, Match Retail, Ltd. Match Retail was founded by the Horesh family for the exclusive purpose of handling H&M in Israel. H&M’s CEO, Rolf Eriksen, stated that “our business concept will suit the Israeli market well.” Indeed, the first H&M stores were opened in March 2010, and will be followed by new stores in Haifa, Petah Tikva, Netanya and Rehovot.

H&M’s decision to open stores in Israel was protested by 24 organizations from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Palestine and Israel. The organizations called on the company to postpone the store openings until Israel respects international law. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) also criticized H&M’s decision to invest in Israel. In its statement, the BNC declared that Palestinians and supporters of a just peace will understand H&M’s increased business activity in Israel as form of support for Israel’s violations of international law and human rights.

On 10 March 2010, when the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan asked H&M for a comment on the protests, the company’s press relations officer, Hacan Andersson, replied, “It is of course up to everyone to have an opinion. We take no position on religious and political issues.”

However, the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm expressed a different view, putting H&M’s enterprise in Israel in a political context. On its website, the embassy declared in Swedish that “In these days when the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians [is] approaching, it is important to support the parties. This support can be provided in many ways. Economic cooperation is a good way to increase influence and use influence. H&M’s establishment in Israel is not only a good investment but also an investment in the peace process in the region.” This statement was not available on the English section of the website.

H&M’s store in Jerusalem is built on the Palestinian village of al-Malha, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and whose original Palestinian inhabitants are refugees denied the right to return to their lands. Baha Hilo, grandson of a family from al-Malha, researched the expulsion of the villagers. According to Hilo, the villagers were expelled at roughly the same time as the massacre of Palestinians in the nearby village of Deir Yassin on 8 and 9 April 1948.

He states that “The Haganah militia fought with people from the village who formed [their own] militia. The older generation is proud of this resistance. When the villagers realized the war would take longer, some went back to collect blankets or valuables. The Haganah shot at them and threatened them to stay away. Around 10 people died. Most villagers from al-Malha fled to Bethlehem, some to Ramallah.” The expelled villagers were never allowed to return to al-Malha and have never received compensation for their losses.

The BNC has called for international protests leading to a boycott of H&M, particularly in the Arab world. In March, activists protested in H&M stores in the UK, Denmark, Sweden and France. Solidarity organizations and concerned citizens have sent a clear signal to H&M that they don’t want the company to do business as usual with Israel so long as Palestinians’ rights are not respected.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.