Israeli settlement produce may be enjoying EU privileges

BRUSSELS (IPS) - European Union officials are seeking evidence to support claims that fruit and vegetables from Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are being exported under false pretense.

In a note circulated to its fellow EU governments in late 2008, Britain expressed concern that goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank may be entering the Union without paying the legally required duties.

Under an “association agreement” which came into force in 2000, goods from Israel itself may be exported to the EU without being charged any customs fees or tariffs. Yet this privilege does not apply to produce from settlements in territories which Israel seized in 1967, as the Union does not recognize these as part of Israel. The settlements are illegal, too, under international law; the 1949 Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from moving part of its own civilian population into the territory it has taken hold of.

Britain stated that its customs authorities are investigating allegations that the EU-Israel accord was being violated and that it would transmit the results of its probe to the European Commission in Brussels.

Six months later, though, the Commission says that it has still not received the information promised to it from London. This is despite how EU officials have learned informally that the British authorities found evidence that at least two out of 26 companies they studied between July and September last year were benefiting illegally from the duty-free arrangements.

“For us to be able to do anything we need this information to be transmitted to us officially,” said a Commission source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But a spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (in Britain) said: “I’m not aware that we’re due to give any information to Europe.” According to the spokesperson, enforcing the rules relating to trade between the EU and Israel or the Palestinian territories is a matter for the customs authorities, which can impose fines if irregularities are detected. A follow-on investigation covering the first few months of this year — the season when most of the related exports occur — is being carried out, he added.

The British paper was drafted in response to an acceleration in the building of settlements in the occupied territories. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government complained that this activity meant Israel was reneging on a commitment made at the 2007 peace conference at Annapolis in the US state of Maryland. While Israel undertook then to halt the building of new settlements and dismantle all those erected since 2001, the Israeli organization Peace Now has documented how the construction of settlements increased in the West Bank in the months immediately following that conference.

A study published in February by the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London identified 27 Israeli firms operating in settlements and exporting to Britain. Most of the supermarkets in Britain stocked food sold by these firms.

Labels on groceries that list the West Bank as their place of origin do not allow a customer to ascertain whether they have been harvested by Palestinian farmers or by Israeli settlers, the study complained. It also estimated that the value of goods produced wholly or partly in the occupied territories and exported to the EU is at least 2 billion euros per year. This amounts to 20 percent of total Israeli exports to the Union.

Jan Willem van Gelder, the study’s author, said that if the EU is “to take this issue seriously,” then goods from the West Bank should have labels affixed to them stating whether they have been produced in Israeli settlements.

He added that while circumstantial evidence suggests that the terms of EU’s contractual relations with Israel are being broken in a considerable number of cases, customs officials may not regard this issue as a priority. “It is not in anyone’s interest that the regulations are not being lived up to,” he said. “But in practice, too little attention is being paid to this subject.”

Richard Stanforth from the anti-poverty organization Oxfam said that settlements have frequently worsened the hardship endured by Palestinian farmers as they have deprived them of access to land. “Every British consumer should be able to make an informed choice when spending their hard-earned pounds,” he said.

“Currently food sold on supermarket shelves which is labeled as coming from the occupied West Bank could be grown by either Palestinian communities or Israeli settlements. This is confusing, potentially misleading and contrary to current UK guidelines which specify that labels should accurately indicate the place of origin.”

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