Food and drink produced in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land must be labelled as such if growers and retailers want to sell them in the European Union, the bloc’s top court ruled on Tuesday morning.
Fruits, vegetables and vines are among the many foodstuffs grown in the fertile Jordan Valley, which sits atop a large aquifer in a region not known for abundant water resources. Much of the area is occupied by the Israeli military and attached to settlements deemed illegal under international law.
Tuesday’s ruling at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) reaffirmed recommendations issued by the European Commission in 2015, which said that grocery produce could not be labelled as “Made in Israel” if it had been made outside Israel’s 1967 borders, in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Where the origin or provenance is indicated on a foodstuff, it must not be deceptive,” the court said in its opinion issued on Tuesday.
To help retailers understand the 2015 recommendation, France in 2016 produced guidelines to show how to label goods in accordance. Those were the focus of the challenge brought before the ECJ in Luxembourg by Psagot, a company that runs vineyards in occupied Palestinian territory, and Organisation Juive Europeene (the European Jewish Organisation).
The challengers said labelling the provenance of foodstuffs accurately, and according to the EU guidelines, would facilitate an economic boycott of Israel, which they regarded as anti-Semitic in origin.
A French court in 2018 granted Psagot’s request not to enforce the Commission’s directive on its bottles of wine, but also requested the ECJ to review the decision.
In considering whether to make the labelling mandatory, “the court first of all underlined that the settlements established in some of the territories occupied by the state of Israel are characterised by the fact that they give concrete expression to a policy of population transfer conducted by that state outside its territory, in violation of the rules of general international humanitarian law”.
“The court then held that the omission of that indication, with the result that only the territory of origin is indicated, might mislead consumers.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention outlaws the transfer of an occupying power’s population into occupied territory – settlements built for Israelis on occupied Palestinian territory precisely fit these criteria and their presence is therefore contrary to international law, the International Court of Justice said in a 2004 advisory opinion.
In a tacit nod to the boycott movement, judges on Tuesday concluded “such considerations could influence consumers’ purchasing decisions”.
The court underlined that the occupied Palestinian territories could not be considered “Israel”, even though the state of Israel carries some de facto or de jure jurisdiction in some of those areas – and the labelling was necessary “in order to prevent consumers from being misled as to the fact that the State of Israel is present in the territories concerned as an occupying power and not as a sovereign entity”.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) welcomed the ruling.
“Our demand is not only for the correct labelling reflecting the certificate of origin of products coming from illegal colonial-settlements, but for the banning of those products from international markets,” said Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s executive committee secretary-general, according to the Palestinian Wafa news agency.
He called upon European countries “to implement what is a legal and political obligation”.
The case will now be referred back to a French court for a final ruling. But now that the ECJ – the supreme court of the EU – has issued its ruling, it is likely that more EU member states will enforce the labelling guidelines which were previously deemed to be merely a recommendation.
“In theory, the ECJ ruling is a legal direction,” Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.
“In practice, this is likely to be dependent on action by national governments and authorities – initially in this case by French courts and agencies. It is not clear how the ECJ ruling could be enforced, whereas a national government could mandate the Israeli settlement labelling.
“A precedent for this is in Canada, where the federal court ruled in August that Canadian agencies must implement the labelling directive. The ECJ decision is significant in opening up the possibility of this branding injunction – but it is not definitive in practice.”