It’s time for General Mills to quit the settlements

Protesters with signs pose for group photo

Activists are calling for a boycott of Pillsbury products until General Mills leaves the occupied West Bank. 

Joel Papa Sr

Dozens of people rallied in front of the headquarters of General Mills in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following the company’s annual shareholder meeting on 28 September.

The protest is a recent example of activists holding large corporations accountable for their complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The multinational food corporation makes products under its Pillsbury brand in a factory located in Atarot, an industrial zone in occupied East Jerusalem. Atarot is situated in part of the West Bank that Israel illegally annexed after taking it by force during the 1967 War.

The protest was organized by local group Women Against Military Madness and included other organizations such as American Muslims for Palestine, Middle East Peace Now, the United Church of Christ, United Methodists for Kairos Response and the American Friends Service Committee, where I work. Unlike last year’s similar protest, local media ignored it completely.

Earlier that morning, a few activists and I attended General Mills’ annual meeting and asked how the company’s actions conform to its human rights policy, which asserts a commitment to internationally recognized human rights principles, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The policy recognizes “the importance of land rights as well as the principle of free, prior and informed consent.” We pointed out what readers of The Electronic Intifada know very well: Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal according to the United Nations and every major human rights organization. Our group further noted that international law prohibits business activities that contribute to these settlements.

Needless to say, Palestinians never gave their consent, nor were they even consulted, before Israel took their land for settlement construction.

“The West Bank of Israel”

General Mills’ response was shameful.

CEO Jeff Harmening said “we received some questions with concerns about employee welfare at a supplier facility in the West Bank of Israel.” He went on to reiterate the company’s commitment to human rights and how the factory’s Palestinian workers are treated fairly, “working alongside Israeli colleagues and reporting continued satisfaction.”

Harmening’s reference to “the West Bank of Israel” could be dismissed as a case of geographic ignorance, or maybe just a gaffe. But it reminded me of the company’s response last year to a similar question.

Then, as now, the company altered our questions to omit any mention of the occupation or settlements.

Instead, it falsely reported to all its shareholders that we asked about its operations in “disputed areas of Israel.” Referring to the occupied West Bank as “disputed,” deliberately ignoring an overwhelming global consensus to the contrary, is a well-used rhetorical move in the Israeli propaganda playbook.

And then there is the issue of the workers. General Mills has repeatedly exploited the fact that its factory employs Palestinians as its main talking point to deflect attention from the real issue – its complicity in a flagrant violation of international law.

My colleagues and I launched the No Dough for the Occupation campaign last year after the UN Human Rights Council listed General Mills in its database of companies contributing to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. As the company itself admitted, its West Bank factory “uses natural resources, in particular water and land, for business purposes.”

This is a description of pillage, which could amount to a war crime. Indeed, the entire Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank is currently under investigation as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.

Given the damaging effects of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy, General Mills’ token employment of Palestinians comes at a high cost.

As noted even by the descendants of the founders of Pillsbury, “providing jobs to a few Palestinians does little to offset the enormous costs of a brutal occupation, nor does it excuse General Mills from profiting from Israel’s war crimes.”

Or as Fayrouz Sharqawi, a Palestinian activist with Grassroots Jerusalem, told me, “Drug lords provide jobs to drug dealers. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing.” She added that settlement factories should be dismantled so that Palestinians could work in Palestinian factories on that land.

General Mills is late

When General Mills leaves the occupation, it will be late joining the party.

In the last 15 years, almost every multinational corporation that was sourcing products from the settlements has decided that illegal occupation and apartheid are bad for business. Swedish company Assa Abloy noted its “regret that the inappropriateness” of its involvement in the occupied West Bank “has not been noted internally.” According to the human rights group Al-Haq, Dutch company Heineken adhered to its corporate social responsibility policies when it decided to pull out.

Europcar ended its settlement presence quietly, while McDonald’s decided not to be there in the first place.

Similarly, Israeli companies Ahava and Avgol decided to move production out of the settlements after they were acquired by Chinese company Fosun International and Thai company Indorama Ventures, respectively. Indorama Ventures has completed its move, but the status of Fosun International in the West Bank is not clear.

Other companies sold all or most of their Israeli businesses altogether after realizing they cannot stay in Israel without implicating themselves in its illegal settlement enterprise.

This includes security giant G4S (now owned by Allied Universal), the French-Belgian Dexia Bank, French telecom company Orange, French municipal services company Veolia and Irish building materials company CRH.

For another set of companies, leaving the occupation meant divesting from specific business activities. This is what Microsoft did last year, when it divested its stake in Israeli startup AnyVision because of its project with the Israeli military to surveil Palestinians.

The list goes on and on.

And, of course, the most recent example comes from Ben & Jerry’s, which decided in July to stop selling its ice cream in Israel’s illegal settlements, including in East Jerusalem, because it is “inconsistent with [its] values.” Parent company Unilever has upheld Ben & Jerry’s position.

This is the second time Unilever has divested from the occupation.

Back in 2013, Unilever moved Beigel & Beigel, an Israeli snack company it owns, out of the Barkan illegal settlement industrial zone, which is similar to Atarot, where the Pillsbury factory is.

This required significant corporate maneuvering, including buying out the stake of its Israeli partner in Beigel & Beigel, since Unilever realized it could not implement its earlier decision to step away through other means.

General Mills might be one of just two non-Israeli companies that still insist on manufacturing their products in Israel’s illegal settlements. The other one is German company HeidelbergCement, which somehow evaded the UN list.

That’s not good company for a corporation that claims to be “doing the right thing all the time” and that is trying to brand itself as “a force for good.”

More than 100,000 human rights activists have already joined the corporate watchdog group SumOfUs in calling on General Mills and other companies to divest from the Israeli occupation.

Others are sending letters to the CEO telling him that Israel’s annexing of Palestinian territory is illegal and demanding General Mills step away from Israel’s settlements.

We must keep the pressure on General Mills to do the right thing. And #BoycottPillsbury until it does.

Noam Perry is the economic activism associate at the American Friends Service Committee. He coordinates the Investigate project, an action/research hub on corporate involvement in state violence and human rights violations.