Israel: EU labelling rules have ‘non-existent impact’

While the labelling guidelines prompted a rift between Israel and the EU, their economic effect is minimal.

Israeli food
Palestinian civil society groups had pressured the EU to explicitly label products from the settlements for decades [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Occupied West Bank – A year after the European Union issued labelling guidelines for products imported from illegal Israeli settlements based in the occupied territories, the economic effect on settlements businesses appear to be minimal, according to analysts.

“What’s actually happened, and I think part of it is due to ferocious Israeli pushback, is that there’s very little follow up on the guidelines,” said Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In November 2015, the European Commission published its guidelines, stating that agricultural and food products that originated in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, all territories occupied by Israel since 1967, should not be labelled as if they were made in Israel.

“It’s about clarifying what the guidelines are,” Lovatt told Al Jazeera. However, due to what Lovatt described as a lack of monitoring and enforcement on the national level, the onus is on civil society to show the authorities “how this domestic legislation is not being followed by retailers, who have less of a case now to plead ignorance of requirements”.

“This is the process that has happened in France,” said Lovatt.

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On November 24, France became the first EU member state to publish its own guidelines for retailers and importers one year after the EU labelling rules came out.

The French announcement said that “under international law, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are not part of Israel” and recommended retailers use labels such as “made in the West Bank (Israeli settlement)” for products that originate from the occupied territories.

Palestinian civil society groups had pressured the EU to explicitly label products from the settlements for decades in an attempt to both increase transparency on the origins of those products and to raise international awareness of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

There's a lack of monitoring and enforcement on the level of the national authorities. Either because they don't realise that it's not being implemented or it's not a concern.

by Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations

However, the enforcement of the guidelines was left to the individual EU member states. The Israeli government applied fierce political pressure on European governments not to comply, drawing comparisons between the labelling guidelines and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe around the time of the second world war.

Despite EU leaders defending the measures as technical, implementation seems to have been limited throughout Europe.

A few days after the EU decision, when a German department store removed settlement products in order to label them correctly, the store was targeted in an online campaign and accused of “anti-Semitism”, forcing it to apologise and re-stock the products within days.

While the French move could potentially set a precedent for other European countries to follow, the lack of enforcement to date is evident at the Psagot Winery, where the owner Yaakov Berg has not changed a single label on his wine bottles since the EU guidelines were published a year ago.

Located in an industrial zone southeast of Ramallah, deep in the occupied West Bank, Berg said his winery has actually increased the amount of wine it sells internationally in the past 12 months.

“We are selling much more. To Europe and to the States, we increased exports by almost 80 percent,” said Berg, noting that a number of buyers across the world came to him specifically to show solidarity against the EU labelling decision.

He currently sells his wine to France, the UK, Switzerland and Italy. Berg said any French move to label products was a “shame” and would backfire. “I will never say that I am afraid. This is motivation for us to sell much more. We will come up with a new campaign,” he told Al Jazeera.

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While the labelling guidelines prompted a significant diplomatic rift between Israel and the EU, they were not expected to have a significant economic effect.

Around one percent of Israel’s 30bn euro ($32.12bn) annual trade with the EU was expected to be affected by the guidelines, although the widespread lack of enforcement suggests that the figure is actually less.

Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy to the Yesha Council, an umbrella organisation for settlers in the West Bank, described the EU’s labelling guidelines as “a pain in the backside” that had an “almost non-existent” effect on businesses on the ground.

“Although, at the beginning, it was frightening, we have learned that it is not such an obstacle,” Revivi told Al Jazeera, before linking the EU labelling measures to boycott movements against companies located in the settlements.

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In addition to campaigning for the implementation of labelling guidelines, Palestinian civil society groups have also led international campaigns to boycott companies based in the settlements. In the past year, the soft drinks producer SodaStream finalised its relocation from the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank to a location in the Negev region.

Last March, the Israeli media reported that the cosmetics giant Ahava had moved to relocate its factory from the occupied territories to a location within Israel. At the time, the company confirmed that it would open a new plant inside Israel’s borders”, although it did not state whether its settlement plant would close.

“One very clear trend that we have seen in the past 10 years is that the more a company is involved in foreign business, export, deals with other companies abroad, especially with Europe, there is more ability to bring pressure about being in settlements. Especially a company which is bought by an international conglomerate, then this conglomerate finds it necessary to remove them from a settlement,” said Adam Keller, spokesperson at Israeli NGO Gush Shalom, which monitors businesses located in the settlements.

Ahava was sold to the Chinese investment group, Fosun Group, in April 2016. Asked whether Ahava’s potential relocation would damage the settlement movement, Revivi played it down as a “minor incident”.

“I think that companies are afraid of the potential loss. But as I said, at the end of the day, even when these instances occur, the major ones to suffer from it are the Palestinians,” he said, citing the job opportunities for Palestinians within settlement businesses.

A World Bank study in 2013 found that the military occupation was costing Palestinians $3.4bn annually. Settlements impede Palestinian access to natural resources, including water, while some settlements are built on privately owned Palestinian land.

Source: Al Jazeera