In another sign that the grassroots campaign for a boycott of Israel has begun to influence mainstream politics, the European Union is currently discussing introducing rules forbidding the sale of goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank with labels claiming that they are “made in Israel.”
This would be a welcome step in many ways. It would take us closer to a ban on financial flows with settlements and be the most concrete step that most European governments have so far taken to display their opposition to Israel’s endless colonization of Palesitnian territory.
Israel is so aware of its increasing isolation that even this limited move would probably cause a sizeable stir. When South Africa announced it was following Denmark and the UK in introducing lableling guidance, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon showed how hurt his government was by the move by retorting that “South Africa remains an apartheid state.”
However, Israeli companies lie so routinely about the origin of their produce that any new labeling guidance will probably prove as unreliable as it appears to be in the UK, where it was introduced in 2009 in response to public pressure.
Major UK supermarket Morrisons claims not to stock settlement produce. However, researchers with Corporate Watch have just obtained labels for Morrisons’ own-branded Medjoul Dates. Though the dates were grown inside the illegal Israeli settlement of Tomer, they are marked “product of Israel.” If Morrisons has been selling settlement produce as originating inside Israel, as appears to be the case, it has been doing so in violation of the UK government’s official guidance.
When confronted with the evidence, Morrisons claimed that the dates were grown inside Israel and then packaged inside Tomer. Yet there are no date-growing regions inside Israel near Tomer. Moreover, the “information” that the dates were grown inside Israel seems to come from Morrisons’ Israeli supplier Hadaklaim, a company known to grow dates inside settlements and market them as Israeli produce. As the Corproate Watch report puts it:
Israeli companies routinely export produce from settlements in the West Bank as “produce of Israel.” Every time that a link is found between a UK supermarket or retailer and a settlement in the West Bank, the respondents always claim that these connections are due to some exceptional, unfortunate and temporary circumstances, which are somehow never picked up by any traceability systems. This excuse has begun to ring hollow.
Long history of deception
This latest evidence is far from an isolated case. Israeli export companies have a long track record of attempting to deceive consumers, retailers and governments about the origin of settlement products:
- Previous Corporate Watch research has collected evidence from inside packinghouses in illegal Israeli settlements of agricultural goods routinely being marked incorrectly as “produce of Israel.” Companies that have been shown to mislabel produce include Arava, Hadiklaim, and Mehadrin, all of which export to Europe’s major supermarket chains (see Corporate Watch’s fantastic book Targeting Israeli Apartheid: a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Handbook).
- Several Palestinian workers from the illegal settlement of Barkan, which operates as an industrial zone, told Corporate Watch researchers that their employers try to hide the name of the factories that they work in from them. Researchers were also told that clothes being manufactured in the settlement were sent on to Tel Aviv to be labeled, deceiving importers and customs authorities about the origin of produce and preventing the workers from seeing any brand names that they could pass on to researchers.
- As the reports from Who Profits from the Occupation? on SodaStream and Ahava show, two of Israel’s best known international export brands mark the packaging of their settlement products “made in Israel” or in other ways designed to misleadingly give importers and consumers the impression that their products do not originate in illegal settlements.
- Very often settlement goods are concealed within goods from inside Israel. As Human Rights Watch analyst Bill Van Esveld has explained: “Europe allows Israel to bundle goods from illegal settlements with goods from inside Israel, and to ship the whole lot to European markets tariff-free. Rather than clearly stating the actual origins of all its exports, Israel merely provides the originating postal codes. The job of spotting settlement goods is left to importers, yet some settlement goods bear the misleading codes of corporate headquarters inside Israel.” A European Court of Justice ruling in 2010 stated that settlement products could not receive the same preferential tariff treatment under the EU-Israel association agreement as goods produced inside Israel.
- A 2011 investigation by court authorities in Sete in southern France showed that Agrexco, formerly Israel’s largest agricultural produce exporter, mixed settlement produce and produce from inside Israel and claimed preferential treatment on the whole consignment.
- As of January 2009, UK customs authorities had rejected 529 “proofs of origin” for consignments of settlement goods claiming to be from Israel as a result of the small number of random consignment checks that do take place.
Despite all the talk of “traceability mechanisms” and “integrity checks,” such systems seem to rely on the integrity of the Israeli exporters themselves and it is hard to understand what retailers and governments can do to detect outright deception by Israeli export companies.
It could be argued that fear of losing the trust of big importers acts as an incentive on Israeli exporters to behave in order to maintain their reputations. But this didn’t seem to pressure Hadaklaim to be honest with Morrisons and many of Israel’s biggest exporters are so deeply involved in settlements that they probably have no choice but to continue to export from settlement produce and pass it off as “legitimate” Israeli produce in order to remain profitable.
Last year, the Co-Operative supermarket chain in the UK announced that it would end trade with any company operating in settlements following pressure from its members and cut ties with four of Israel’s biggest exporters — Mehadrin, Agrexco, Arava and Adafresh. The retailer had spoken of the difficulties of tracing the true origin of Israeli exports. South African importer Karsten Farms recently took similar steps and ended trade with Morrisons’ Israeli partner Hadaklaim.
Not only was this position the only effective way for the two companies to ensure they weren’t selling settlement produce or breaking government guidance on labelling, it also amounted to an ethical stance. As Palestinian farmers organizations noted in a call for an international day of action against Israeli agriculture companies that will take place this Saturday (9 February), using the Twitter hashtag #FarmingInjustice:
Israel systematically exploits Palestinian natural resources in violation of international law and implements a range of restrictions on Palestinian agriculture in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, while allowing Israeli agricultural corporations to profit from Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.
Israeli agricultural export companies are at the heart of Israel’s system of domination over the Palestinian people. They are an integral component of the ongoing process of colonization and environmental destruction of Palestinian land, the destruction of Palestinian agriculture, the theft of water, and the abuse of Palestinian workers’ rights, including child laborers.
Many illegal Israeli settlements are made economically viable because of their ability to export cheap products to Europe. EU-wide labeling of settlement produce would be an important symbolic step but will probably do little to stem the cash flows to settlements and the companies involved in their expansion.
What’s urgently needed is public campaigning to pressure governments and retailers to take more decisive action, such as introducing strict penalites for the import of settlement produce or ending trade with any company that exports from settlements altogether. Hopefully, the actions and events being launched by Palestine solidarity, anti-poverty and human rights groups, as well as trade unionists across Europe this weekend can be an important first step towards those goals.
- Karsten Farms
- Cooperative Group
- South Africa
- European Union
- Israeli settlements
- Corporate Watch
- Bill van Esveld
- Human Rights Watch
- West Bank
- Danny Ayalon
- European Court of Justice
- Child labor