Truckloads of Palestinian products were turned back at West Bank commercial crossing with no Israeli explanation.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – At a conference in Jerusalem last month, hundreds of Israelis and their supporters gathered under one roof, with an explicit aim to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led human rights campaign.
The panellists – including the US comedian Roseanne Barr – called for varied methods to fight the movement, including the “targeted civil elimination” of BDS leaders, which some have called a euphemism for assassinations. Among the speakers at the Stop the Boycott conference was the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, who said that Israeli settlement products were “welcome on the EU market”.
“The EU is against BDS,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen said. “Our policy is totally the opposite – one of engagement with Israel, and we have a long track record to prove it.”
The European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, with trade in 2014 amounting to 30 billion euros ($34bn), and one of its most important science and technology partners. Faaborg-Andersen’s comments came after the EU issued a set of guidelines for labelling products from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – a move that caused an uproar in Israel, although it affects less than one percent of the country’s trade with the EU.
To some observers, Faaborg-Andersen’s attendance and statement at the forum highlighted a double standard on the part of the EU.
“Despite the labelling guidelines, there remains a large discrepancy between the rhetoric of the EU and its actions,” said Nur Arafeh, a policy fellow at al-Shabaka: the Palestinian Policy Network. “The EU recognises that settlements are illegal, yet it imports goods from settlements at an estimated annual value of $300m, which is 17 times the average annual value of goods exported from the OPT to EU.”
While it is mandatory to identify some products – such as fruits, vegetables, honey and olive oil – as having been made in illegal settlements, such labelling is voluntary for other goods, including prepackaged foods and the majority of industrial products.
Israeli companies that are subject to the labelling guidelines can also easily circumvent them by mixing goods produced in settlements with others made in Israel, and then exporting them as the latter. They can also use the address of an office within Israel’s internationally recognised borders, even if production takes place at a settlement inside the occupied West Bank.
“Enforcement of the labelling guidelines also remains the primary responsibility of member states, and not the EU as a body,” Arafeh said.
Some settlements in the fertile Jordan Valley, which yield 40 percent of date exports from Israel, have found additional ways to bypass the labelling instructions.
Israeli settlers are becoming more creative, trying to convince Palestinian farmers to buy their dates and export them to Europe as products of Palestine. They offer them a lot of incentives, or they threaten them.
“Israeli settlers are becoming more creative, trying to convince Palestinian farmers to buy their dates and export them to Europe as products of Palestine,” said Omar Barghouti, cofounder of the BDS movement. “They offer them a lot of incentives, or they threaten them. Palestinian human rights organisations have documented both.”
The EU is aware of such risks, and is working to minimise these types of circumvention, according to Ulrike Hauer, head of the political section at the Office of the EU Representative for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The way we try to implement this decision is via postcodes, so we try to locate the place of production,” Hauer said. “I can tell you that [we] are spending a lot of time trying to verify that we use the correct postcodes. We are trying to ensure that [this circumvention] is minimised.”
Despite its opposition to Israeli settlements, the 28-nation bloc has repeatedly said that it will neither boycott Israel nor stop trade with its settlements, calling the labelling guidelines an attempt to interpret existing EU law on the place of origin of goods sold within its borders.
“It’s true [goods made in settlements] can continue to be imported [to the EU], because we don’t operate boycott or sanctions against Israel,” Hauer said.
Some believe this distinction – labelling rather than banning settlement goods – chips away at the effectiveness of the guidelines.
Arafeh said that by only labelling products made in settlements while maintaining trade relations with these settlements, the EU is actually continuing to finance their expansion and perpetuate Israel’s occupation.
The EU has acknowledged that although the new guidelines are expected to have little real economic impact, they do carry political significance. “This has contributed to provoking a debate among the member states,” Hauer said. “But it has also raised awareness among people who would normally not think about the intricacies of the Israeli occupation and the conflict.”
Since 2003, the EU has been using a code on Israeli imports to allow customs to distinguish between produce made in Israel proper, and those manufactured in settlements in the occupied West Bank. Now, European customers are also able to make that distinction.
The UK has had labelling guidelines in place since 2009, and a number of European countries have been pushing for a similar initiative on a wider scale. But at the request of the US, the EU delayed publishing its own set of labelling rules in 2014, as Washington was attempting to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
In recent months, anti-boycott measures have targeted activists in Europe, most notably in France, where BDS activism has been criminalised. “The UK [also] is seeking to restrict local democracy by attempting to intimidate elected local councils and other publicly funded institutions and prevent them from supporting BDS initiatives,” Barghouti said.
Last week, the UN’s human rights body approved a plan to create a database of companies that profit from settlements. All eight EU states who currently sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council abstained from the resolution, as did members aligned with the bloc, namely Albania, Macedonia and Georgia. Ambassadors to the UK and Denmark even spoke out against the proposal.
“All the buzz in Brussels and Tel Aviv about EU labelling of products of Israel’s settlements cannot hide the fact that Europe’s [relationship] with Israel conflicts with its espoused values and legal commitments,” Barghouti said.
“The EU maintains a web of military relations, weapons research, banking transactions and settlement trade with Israeli companies and institutions that are deeply implicated in human rights violations,” he added. “We are not asking the EU to boycott Israel, but to abide by its obligations under international law to end its relations with companies that are complicit with human rights violations.”