The real message from EU move to label Israeli settlement goods

Palestinians wave a flag during a protest against Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, on 28 August.

Shadi Hatem APA images

After years of dithering and delay, the European Union on Wednesday finally took the minimal step of requiring labels clearly marking goods that come from Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian and Syrian land in violation of international law.

Palestinians welcomed the move, but are decidedly underwhelmed. Nonetheless the European step holds some important messages.

Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the broad coalition that backs the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said it was a “sign that European governments are reacting to public opinion, civil society campaigning and Israeli intransigence and are becoming more willing to take some basic action against Israeli violations of international law.”

But, Nawajaa added, “putting some labels on a small number of Israeli products is hardly a proportionate response to repeated Israeli war crimes.”

Not “Made in Israel”

Under the new regulation, labeling of goods imported into the EU “must be correct and not misleading.”

Products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights can no longer be marked “Made in Israel.”

The EU requires that the words “Israeli settlement” be added to the labels that consumers will see in stores.

It is unclear how the regulation will be enforced: Israeli exporters routinely deceive customs officials and retail chains about the origin of their goods.

The regulation also says that “products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements can be marked ‘product from Palestine’ or ‘product from West Bank (Palestinian product).’”

The EU considers “Palestine” to be limited, at most, to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – just 22 percent of historic Palestine.

Article 1 Collective, a group that advocates for Palestinian rights under international law, had this tongue-in-cheek suggestion of what the new labels might look like:

EU hypocrisy

The EU move smacks of hypocrisy.

While taking a minor step, EU governments still refuse to end their arms trade and other material support for Israeli crimes, as hundreds of European trade unions and other organizations have demanded.

EU countries sent weapons and military exports to Israel worth $1 billion in 2012-13.

Greece, Italy and Germany continue to carry out joint training with the Israeli army, despite its well-documented war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.

My colleague David Cronin has meticulously documented the myriad ways the EU funds and actively supports Israel’s war machine.

It is also notable that France has been particularly keen on the labeling of settlement goods. But what, ultimately, is its purpose if not to allow consumers to make the choice to boycott these goods?

Yet, France continues to hypocritically prosecute and fine its own citizens for the “crime” of calling for just such boycotts.

As long as such complicity continues, the EU labeling move – as much as it might anger Israel – is a fig leaf for European policies that continue to help Israel kill Palestinians and steal their land.

Nazi comparisons

Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Emanuel Nahshon said the new labeling policy was “discriminatory” and “smacks of boycott.”

In a sign of their anger, Israeli officials canceled meetings with EU counterparts.

As The New York Times reported, Israeli politicians condemned the move as an “echo of the Holocaust-era branding of European Jews and their storefronts with yellow stars.”

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is now a lawmaker in the government coalition, posted a photo on Facebook of a storefront in Nazi Germany daubed with a Star of David and the word “Jew,” and a sign telling Germans not to frequent Jewish-owned businesses.

Some Israel supporters posted images on social media of the EU flag emblazoned with a Nazi swastika.

The pro-Israel publication The New York Times hammered the point home in its own social media messaging:

Might as well show courage

These unhinged reactions holds two key messages. First, by comparing EU labeling to Nazism, Israel’s backers demonstrate that no tactic is too depraved or indecent.

Using the Nazi genocide to deflect criticism from Israel’s racist, illegal theft of land from Palestinians cheapens the lives of the millions of Jews murdered by Europeans.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself recently showed that such disgusting propaganda was fair game when he fabricated the story that Hitler got the idea for the Holocaust from a Palestinian.

The second lesson is one that chronically gutless European leaders should heed.

Once Israeli leaders have labeled you a Nazi, there’s really nothing worse they can say.

So if EU leaders are likened to Hitler for a move as minimal as mere labeling of settlement goods, then why not do something more courageous and effective?

The price is the same, so you might as well support all Palestinian rights and all legitimate means to achieve them.

But sadly, EU leaders are unlikely to absorb this. Instead, they’ve been trying to assuage Israel’s rage by professing a deep desire for even more cooperation and complicity with it, and downplaying the significance of the labeling move.

The most important message is this: EU leaders will continue to coddle Israel’s brutal regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism unless European citizens maintain and escalate their valiant solidarity campaigns with the Palestinian people.

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Comments

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To correct a misapprehension in the article, the EU-PLO Association Agreement "defines" Palestine as including East Jerusalem as well as the whole West Bank and Gaza, and anything produced within this area only gets import duty relief if it is authorised by the PA.

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Zionists make the comparison with Nazi Germany but it's the other way round. This is because Nazi Germany and Israel share the same two basic characteristics - they are both racist and both rely on force to maintain their position.

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So, with the occupier's products labeled “Israeli settlement”, means that the products are legal. I think this is a bad development!

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While it is admittedly far too small a step it is still an important one, which will undoubtedly hit Israel in the pocket, where it hurts.

Ultimately, there are a lot of people who will, for whatever reasons, never fully sign up to the entire BDS campaign but WILL boycott products from illegal settlements!

Perhaps more importantly, there are many, many more people who still don't really understand the reality of Israeli occupation and the myriad ways it is a blatant violation of international law. Thus, if anything, this is an important opportunity for us to educate more people - particularly those who tend to be politically disengaged - about the reality on the ground and the Palestinian cause!

As an EU citizen I am equally disgusted at European hypocrisy, in-action and double standards regarding this and other subjects. Yet nevertheless I still feel this move is something to celebrate and am proud that it in large part came about through the pressure and activism of us ordinary citizens!*

As the saying goes, "politics is the art of the possible", and this is never more true than in the context of the EU, a transnational body of 28 states, each still pursuing their own foreign and economic policies. Even a few years ago this decision would have been "impossible" - it is up to US to make far more "possible" a few years from now!

*When will we see even such a move in the U.S.A.?

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.