Michael Deas: European governments have so far failed the laws of the European Commission to distinguish between Israeli and colony products, but several governments have made public calls to change that policy
SHIR HEVER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Shir Hever in Germany.
In the past 46 years, Israel established numerous colonies in the occupied Palestinian territory and in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Products from these colonies are exported to the rest of the world almost always under the label “Made in Israel”. Some of this may be changing now, as half of European governments are openly calling for accurate labeling of products from the illegal colonies.
I’ve spoken to Michael Deas, European coordinator of the BNC, the Boycott National Committee, a coalition of NGOs, committees, and organizations in Palestine that supports and leads the BDS campaign (BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions).
Hello, Michael. Could you explain what is the news regarding the labeling of colony products in Europe?
MICHAEL DEAS: What we’re beginning to see is a really exciting development, and that’s that European governments are starting to realize that there’s economic support for Israel’s occupation coming from Europe and that it’s no longer sufficient just to condemn Israeli settlement activity. And they’re starting to match their words with some deeds.
So back in May 2012, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council issued a recommendation that governments should advise retailers to put special labels on products coming from illegal Israeli settlements. Popular pressure in the form of boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns have really raised awareness about buying goods from Israel and buying goods from settlements in particular. And consumers really want to know if a product is marked “Made in Israel”, whether it’s really marked–whether it really is from Israel or whether it’s in fact from an illegal Isreali settlement. So governments in the U.K., in Denmark, in the Netherlands have now said that they support this recommendation of the European Foreign Affairs Council and will indeed start to tell retailers that they should put special labels to make it clear that settlement produce is not from Israel.
HEVER: And does that make the labeling of colony products mandatory?
DEAS: The U.K. issued nonbinding voluntary advice to retailers back in 2009. So now in Tescos, for example, a major U.K. supermarket, you will see some products marked Israeli settlement products. And the way in which the guidance is written, it’s written as if to say to the retailers, we believe that existing consumer protection law–so existing law on how products should be labeled–advise that products should be labeled–settlement products should be labeled differently from Israeli products. And this is very much the way in which the Danish guidance has been drafted as well.
So it’s not legally binding, per se, but it’s government advice that states that in order to comply with existing legislation, you should put special labels on illegal settlement produce. But it’s not yet mandatory and there aren’t any penalties for retailers who flout the guidance. And many retailers do continue to flout the guidance.
HEVER: Well, shouldn’t products that are produced in an illegal colony be illegal to sell? Shouldn’t that be a very clear point? And why is there just a focus on the labeling of the product?
DEAS: First of all, we have to welcome the decision by European governments to issue this labeling guidance. It’s a really significant first step that shows an acknowledgment on their part that there is this support for the occupation coming from Europe and that they’ve got to do more than just condemn illegal Israeli settlements.
But in our view there are several problems with this labeling policy. We would argue that European states have an obligation to ban settlement trade. When the International Court of Justice in 2004 ruled that Israel’s settlements and apartheid wall was illegal, it ruled also that this places obligations on other signatories to the Geneva Convention and that European states and other states are obliged not to render assistance or to recognize as legal illegal Israeli settlements. So we argue that states have a duty to not recognize the legal settlements and to put in place a legally binding ban of all trade with illegal Israeli settlements and with companies operating inside illegal settlements. So we believe that the labeling’s a first step, but that governments are actually obliged to go much further.
The other problem with the labeling is that Israeli agricultural companies, all Israeli settlement exporters, but especially Israeli agricultural export companies, routinely lie about the origin of their produce. So some researchers from a U.K. organization, Corporate Watch, recently found inside an illegal settlement products marked for a U.K. supermarket, Morrison’s, and it was in the Morrison’s packaging, but it was marked “Made in Israel”, despite the packaging and the products themselves being in an illegal settlement, and it was clear that the produce was from an illegal settlement.
HEVER: Even assuming that regulations passed to label these products, what kind of mechanisms exist to enforce these decisions on Israel? How can European customs know that the label that you read on the product accurately represents the source of the product?
DEAS: The way in which trade globally operates, not just with Israel, is that it relies on trust. It relies on trusting the authorities of the export country, and it relies on trusting the company that’s exporting. But the reality is, in a situation where Israel is routinely violating international law and where companies operating in settlements are actively participating in those violations of international law, these companies and Israeli state authorities simply can’t trust it to tell the truth about where produce comes from. Trade with settlements is really significant to their continued development and growth, so Israel and settlement exporters want that trade to be able to continue.
So, really, the only way to ensure that no settlement products are reaching European markets would be to ban trade with any company that’s known to export from illegal Israeli settlements. And this precisely was the position that was adopted by the Co-operative supermarket in the U.K. It’s a co-operative, members-run supermarket, the fourth biggest supermarket in the U.K. And following a sustained campaign by its members and by Palestine solidarity activists, the supermarket decided that it would no longer trade with any company known to export from illegal Israeli settlements, regardless of where the particular products were claiming to come from. So I think this is the only–this kind of comprehensive measure is the only way to be sure that we’re not providing economic support for illegal settlements.
HEVER: And what is the situation regarding products that contain a combination of components, components from the illegal occupied territories and also components from inside Israel?
DEAS: The official estimates used–provided by the Israeli government and then used by the European Union state that only about 2 percent of Israeli exports come from illegal settlements. But when you factor in products that are partly produced in settlements, the volume of Israeli exports involving some form of production in settlements rises to 33 percent.
Unfortunately, the European Union and member state governments haven’t really started to take on board the way in which Israel refuses to delineate between Israel and the illegal settlements. So in the minds of Israeli capitalists, in the minds of Israeli businesses, there’s really no distinction. So it’s very common that production will take place both inside Israel and illegal settlements and that the whole product will be packaged “Made in Israel” or the products produced inside Israel and in illegal settlements will be packaged together and bundled [incompr.] And that’s why we argue that the only way to end financial support for illegal settlements is to refuse to introduce a ban or to persuade businesses not to trade with any company that’s known to have any of its operations inside illegal settlements.
HEVER: Let’s move from the legal questions to the more political level. What is the purpose of labeling these products, and what is the purpose of boycotting them?
DEAS: Israel seems set on continuing to colonize as much of the West Bank as it possibly can, and international trade with illegal Israeli settlements are really financing that ongoing colonization of Palestinian land. Last month, in February, Palestinian agricultural organizations issued an appeal for action to be taken against Israeli agricultural export companies because of the role that they play in the wholesale destruction of Palestinian agriculture. So Palestinian farmers face the brunt of Israel’s system of house demolitions, of land theft, of the theft of water. Palestinian farmers who still have access to land and water face systematically imposed restrictions on movement of goods, of movement of people, and so on, and face violence from radical settlers and from the military during harvest times.
So by saying that we don’t want to trade with companies that are benefiting and participating in this process, we’re showing our solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian farmers who are resisting to try and stay on their land. And we’re also signaling our opposition to Israel’s settlement policies, but also to the totality of Israel’s apartheid system over the Palestinian people.
HEVER: Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory is about 46 years old now. Why is Europe waking up only now? Why is there suddenly an interest in labeling the settlement products?
DEAS: The dominant discourse within European politics on the Middle East is still very much of the two-state solution. And I think it’s–as Israel continues its settlement expansion, especially with the recent Israeli elections and many sort of pro-settlement expansion parties playing prominent roles in the new government, there’s a fear within European governments that the two-state solution will no longer be viable in the very near future. I mean, if you speak to Palestinian activists, they’ll say that the two-state solution is no longer viable. The European governments are slowly starting to realize that settlement expansion is making the two-state solution less and less viable as time goes on, and they’re starting to realize that their condemnations, the nicely worded letters to Israeli government officials really have very little impact. So it’s this fear of the end of the two-state solution and the realization that they need to do more than simply condemn Israeli settlement activity.
HEVER: So are you saying this is a last-ditch effort of the European governments to save the two-state solution?
DEAS: I think in terms of the way in which it’s viewed by a number of European governments and by some of the larger European NGOs and development agencies that have been pushing for a settlement trade ban or labeling at the governmental level, yes, it’s very much that these measures are coming to the fore now that the two-state solution seems to be on its last legs, even to the most sort of conservative of European authorities–observers.
HEVER: From the point of view of Palestinian activists, regardless of their position on the one-state or the two-state solution, how do they perceive the labeling policies of colony products?
DEAS: I think Palestinian organizations are certainly welcoming this as a first step towards further more restrictive measures against Israeli settlement trade and harsher measures on Israel in general. The discourse and the language and the demands being used by Palestinian organizations, for example the agricultural organizations that have issued this appeal for action back in February, it’s not using the same frame that European organizations and some European politicians are using. It’s very much about pressuring Israel to comply with basic tenets of international law and pressuring European governments and businesses to abide by their own obligations under international law and to recognize that European businesses and European trade with Israel and illegal Israeli settlements makes European businesses and European economies deeply entwined and deeply complicit with Israel’s ongoing efforts to capture as much of the West Bank as it can.
HEVER: And from the point of view of the Israeli government, what kind of response did the Israeli government give to the issue of labeling colony products?
DEAS: As well as European governments taking these kinds of steps towards–in August of last year, the government of South Africa announced that it would also start to label Israeli settlement goods. And this was hugely significant, of course, because of the way in which Palestinian activists are increasingly describing Israel’s system as an apartheid system and the support of South African civil society and government therefore being really important. When South Africa announced that it was going to start labeling illegal settlement produce, the Israeli government responded by condemning South Africa as an apartheid state and saying that South Africa was still an apartheid state. And indeed, when Denmark announced its labeling and last month when the Netherlands announced it would start to instruct businesses to label Israeli settlement produce, the reaction from the Israeli government has been nothing short of hysterical, and they call it discrimination against the settlements and so on. And I think there’s a real fear on the part of Israeli leaders that once one or two measures like this begin to be implemented, then the door is open to a ban on settlement trade or to other measures like an end to military trade with Israel, for example. So there’s real fear from Israeli leaders about the implications of this first step, because they too realize that this allows Palestinian organizations to push for much, much further measures.
HEVER: Beyond the symbolic importance of South Africa, the trade between Israel and South Africa is rather small. But isn’t the situation with Europe different?
DEAS: Yeah. I mean, there’s a huge volume of trade between Europe and Israel. Some different sets of statistics differ, but most sets of statistics still seem to show that the E.U. is Israel’s largest export market. And this is especially true for fresh produce. So in 2010, Israel exported fruit and vegetables worth over USD 2 billion, and 66 percent of that was to European markets. And most European consumers will come across Israeli agricultural produce, fresh fruits and vegetables, in the supermarkets and so on. And other Israeli businesses, for example SodaStream, which is a sort of soft drinks machine, its products are manufactured in an illegal settlement. SodaStream’s currently undergoing a huge marketing expansion throughout Europe. And so Europe is really seen as an absolutely vital market for Israeli exports.
HEVER: Thank you very much, Michael, for joining us.
DEAS: Thank you very much, Shir.
HEVER: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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