Israel’s largest produce exporter, Agrexco, is once again under fire because of its dates produced in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. This year, the company’s dates arrived in time for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which faithful Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and traditionally break their fast by eating a date.
Agrexco, which sells flowers, vegetables and fruit, including dates, produced in both Israel and the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, expects a ten percent increase in the export of Carmel dates. However, sales might be hampered by growing calls from solidarity organizations in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom for a boycott of Israeli dates this Ramadan because of the company’s involvement in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
It’s not the first time that Agrexco has been targeted by Palestine solidarity activists. The company is half-owned by the government of Israel and has been the focus of boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign efforts for years, mainly because of its settlement-based operations that are in violation of international law.
According to the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, Israel’s 470,000 settlers in the West Bank enjoy control over 40 percent of the land, including the fertile Jordan Valley. Agriculture activities in the settlements have resulted in the seizure of relatively large tracts of stolen land and drain Palestinian water resources. Settlers dig deep for water, while Palestinians are forbidden by the Israeli military rule to pump deeper than nine meters.
Agrexco admitted to its activities in the West Bank during a UK court case against Palestine solidarity activists who had blockaded the company’s UK distribution center with wire fences and bicycle locks. In 2006, Amos Orr, Agrexco’s UK general manager, admitted in court that the company exported between 60 to 70 percent of all produce that is grown in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The company has also benefited from the Israeli government’s efforts to intensify the colonization of the Jordan Valley. In 2005, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture started a two-year, $22 million program to double the number of settlers in the fertile region through the construction of houses and the provision of grants for agricultural development. These farming subsidies have allowed Agrexco to increase its production and its flowers, fruits and vegetables from Israel and the illegal settlements. Grown on occupied land, these agricultural products are marketed in many countries through the company’s branches throughout Europe, Latin America, Africa and East Asia.
Meanwhile, Palestinians have been suffering from Israel’s imposition of more severe movement restrictions and other rights violations in the Jordan Valley. Last November, the Palestinian group Stop the Wall reported that houses in the nearby Palestinian villages of al-Hadidiya and Humza were bulldozed in August 2007, leaving the affected families homeless. Stop the Wall explained that the Israeli military performed this action at the request of the settlement Ro’i, which supplies Agrexco. The Israeli military had previously destroyed the villages’ traditional wells. In its report, Stop the Wall claims that Ro’i’s settlers are planning to use the expropriated land to expand its agricultural activities for the company.
In addition to producing goods on occupied Palestinian land, Agrexco has a regional office in the occupied Jordan Valley and is using a settlement as a distribution point for its products.
Despite its involvement in Israel’s illegal settlements, Agrexco has profited on the European market because Israeli produce exports to Europe benefit from lower tariffs. However, produce originating from Israeli settlements is not entitled to benefit from the preferential tariff treatment under the Association Agreement between Israel and the European Union. In 2005, due to pressure by human rights activists on governments and the EU to monitor imports originating from settlements, the EU insisted that Israeli exporters provide proof of the place of production of their goods in order to claim the trade benefits. It is not clear if and how EU member states police the Association Agreement.
Similarly, the UK’s customs and tax department has intensified checks on Israeli products. During the first quarter of 2009, 529 proofs of origin were rejected and resulted in demands of #338,000 (more than $540,000) in customs duties, indicating that the goods had been wrongly imported under the preferential trade agreement. It is most likely that the products stated they originated from Israel and not the occupied West Bank, a practice The Electronic Intifada reported on in 2007.
Recently, Palestine solidarity activists in the Netherlands and South Africa disseminated thousands of flyers in French, Dutch, Arabic and Turkish at markets, mosques and shops, calling on consumers and traders “not to forget Gaza,” and check the labels of the dates before they buy. On the flyer were pictures of the logo of the Israeli brands to be boycotted, including Agrexco’s Carmel and Jordan Plains. The call was also heard during Friday prayers at mosques in the Netherlands and South Africa, and has been widely circulated on the Internet.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.