Israel Bemoans British Settler Import Label
Israeli Ire Over Distinctive British Labels On West Bank Products
Relations between Israel and Britain remain strained over Downing Street's intention to label products manufactured in West Bank settlements, prior to the arrival of British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband, to the Middle East.
Miliband, who will visit Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Lebanon next week, is expected to talk to Israeli officials over the settlements in the West Bank and his country's proposed plan to label products produced there. "This initiative is a serious and substantial problem in relations between the two countries, and is generating a sense of crisis," a senior diplomat in Jerusalem said.
Over the past few weeks Prime Minister Designate Tzipi Livni has spoken to Miliband and tried to persuade him to cancel the plan, by equating it to the initiative by U.K. academics to ban their Israeli counterparts. The British Secretary of State responded that the policy did not amount to an embargo on products made in the West Bank, but was merely an attempt to enforce previous trade agreements between the two countries.
Tzipi Livni, fears that the British government's restrictions on West Bank settlement imports may be the first salvo in a British-led international campaign to restrict the importation of Israeli goods.
The issue has been personally pursued by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has proposed a round-table involving UK government officials, NGOs, and retailers to discuss the problem.
The dispute arises from complaints by the UK Revenues and Customs service that Israeli companies label products, especially fruit and vegetables grown on West Bank settlements, as originating within the Green Line.
In a circular distributed by the British Foreign Office to all 27 EU members, Britain complains there has been an acceleration in settlement construction since Annapolis [the 2007 peace summit] and adds that it is "keen to look at how UK and European Community policies can avoid inadvertently supporting or encouraging settlement activity." Tzipi Livni has spoken to Foreign Secretary David Miliband but refused to change the Israeli labeling policy.
Minister Miliband plans to speak to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus over his country's ties to Iran, and urge him to continue peace talks with Israel in return for improved relations with the U.S. and U.K. Israeli diplomats, meanwhile, stressed that the only official mediators in talks with the Syrians are the U.S. and Turkey. Miliband has not been authorized to speak on Jerusalem's behalf, they added.
Left: British Foreign Secretary David Miliband will visit Israel, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territories and Syria this coming week as part of a Middle East tour to improve international relations and work toward establishing peace in the region.
The British are interested in increasing their involvement in Middle East talks, out of the expectation that once U.S. president-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office they will be able to push forward a regional peace effort together with the White House.
Furthermore, British ambassador Tom Phillips was summoned by the Israeli foreign ministry to discuss fears by former Israel Defense Forces' officers fears of being arrested in the U.K. and to stand trial for war crimes. Israeli officials are disappointed that the British government has not changed legislation that will prevent U.K. courts from trying Israeli officials. Former IDF generals including Minister of Transportation and former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz have chosen not to travel to the U.K. in trepidation of arrest by local authorities.
A few days ago Israeli ambassador to the U.K. Ron Prosor held a meeting with Miliband, during which the Israeli official rejected the Secretary of State's argument that the plan to label products made in West Bank settlements was simply part of the U.K.'s attempts to enforce trade agreements. Prosor told Miliband that its initiative to label the products was part of an attempt by Downing Street to influence Israeli policy toward the settlements, and that any other explanation was an excuse.
Following the trail of money we find that the root of this "diplomatic" row between Britain and Israel is buried deep in Israel's circumvention of an EU free trade pact whereby, millions of pounds in custom tariffs and excise taxes are bypassed according to BBC NEWS.
The British Government believes that Israeli settlements on occupied territory are illegal. So does every other government in the world, except for Israel.
For that reason goods produced on settlements in the West Bank are not supposed to benefit from a free trade agreement between the EU and Israel. They are supposed to be subject to import duty.
But the BBC has discovered that HM Revenue and Customs is strongly concerned that the system is being abused and that these goods may be coming into Britain for free.
Ahava is one of the better known brands to come from the occupied West Bank. The company is doing well. Its range of products using minerals extracted from the Dead Sea and processed nearby are on sale in Britain and across Europe.
Ahava CEO Yaacov Ellis said exports are doing so well that the company plans to open a second store in Britain along with others elsewhere in Europe.
He added that one big help over the last few years has been the free trade agreement between the European Union and Israel signed in 2000.
"I think it is very important, not just for us, for anyone who deals with the export between the countries. Now of course we are like a European country."
'Potential for abuse'
Under the terms of that free trade agreement, products from the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war are not supposed to benefit from duty free import. This applies to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, a strip on the border with Lebanon and until Israeli withdrew its settlers in 2005, also included the Gaza Strip.Mr Ellis says that although the Ahava factory is indeed in the West Bank, the company can still benefit as it has other operations located inside Israel.But the European Commission, guardians of EU law, said in a statement to the BBC that the law is clear. "The rules of origin of a product refer to the place where the product or most of it was manufactured."
"Well, the core of the company is located here and near Tel Aviv area. The company has a few sites in Israel, so we are using there [Mizpe Shalem] for manufacturing, but it does not affect our sales."
Under EU law, it is up to member states to police the free trade agreement, to decide what goods should benefit from duty free import and what should not. However, British officials are apparently concerned about what they call "the potential for abuse" of the system.
HM Revenue and Customs are investigating and British officials say there is a further problem with produce from the West Bank: not just paperwork for customs, but labelling for consumers.
At a number of settlements, polythene tunnels house row upon row of the fragrant herbs available cheaply in shops and markets around Israel. Some of them are also exported to the United Kingdom and around the world where the supermarkets chop them up, package them and label them as "West Bank" produce.
Left: Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under International Law
Although the herbs do indeed come from the West Bank, the geographical label does not tell consumers whether they are buying from a Palestinian farmer or from an Israeli settler who is on the land against international law. Moreover, these same settlers routinely, attack and sabotage harvesting by Palestinians in order to stymie any competition emanating from their farms and express their hatred for Palestinians.
Waitrose is one of the British supermarkets selling herbs which they label as coming simply from "the West Bank." In a statement the company confirmed that the imported herbs came from West Bank farms which it described as "Israeli-managed." Some supermarkets have described the illegally occupied territories as merely "disputed territories."
"While it is not a legal requirement for us to label where our herbs come from at all, we still choose to do this," the statement said.
"All our herbs from the West Bank are labeled as 'West Bank', in line with the geographical region and EU legislative advice."
Left: Masked Israeli settlers wearing Jewish prayer shawls in the West Bank. These settlers beat Palestinian farmers with sticks and sprayed them with pepper gas.
Waitrose may be technically, meeting its legal requirement, but Mike Bailey from Oxfam says that it is not good enough. There is an element of ruse and in extension confusion of the consumer involved in refusing to properly label products from Israeli settlements.
"The settlements on the West Bank are illegal under international humanitarian law and that creates a lot of problems for the Palestinians that live there. Consumers that are buying produce that are grown in illegal settlements need to have that information so that they can make an informed choice."
The Foreign Office seems inclined to agree. British officials have now tabled a proposal at the European Council (EC), the EU forum for member states, calling for discussion on possible means to tighten the policing of the rules on import duty and alter the labeling, so that consumers can make an informed choice between Palestinian goods and settlement goods. The problem that the British government is now trying to grapple with is what can be done beyond ritual condemnations to arrive at a point where illicit Israeli goods may be curtailed.
It is a fact that settlement products and produce have found their way all over the world and continue to do so, simply labeled as produce of Israel. These settlements are illegal under international law. The Geneva Convention states that the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory is a war crime; to be complicit in this crime is also a crime.
Israel has been under mounting pressure from EU member states to stop this illegal practice since 2003. This brought about what is known as the “Technical Agreement” between the EU and Israel Customs Co-operation Committee. The agreement entered into force in February 2005 and was engineered by Ehud Olmert, Trade Minister of Israel at the time. In order to differentiate between settlement goods and Israeli goods, Israeli exporters undertook to indicate the names of the cities, villages or industrial zones where production had taken place. This practice would set apart settlement produce (Occupied Territories) from Israeli produce. The former would pay customs duties and the latter would be exempt under the EC-Israel Preferential Trade Agreement. However, Israel has given importers of its goods in the West information that is based on Israeli maps, which do include the occupied territories.
With the customs and duties issue put to rest, the Olmert agreement conveniently allowed Israel to continue exporting settlement produce into the EU and elsewhere. It is no longer a question of whether the export of settlement produce is legal or not. Israel simply finds it convenient to contravene the laws and betray its obligations under agreement.
Pressure from consumers and media reports have further reinforced the trend to change the labeling. In November 2007, a group of UK activists went inside Tomer, a settlement in the Jordan Valley, and took photos of produce labeled “Made in Israel” bound for UK supermarkets. An ITN report covered the story and interviewed representatives of Sainsbury and Tesco, who admitted ‘mistakenly’ mislabeling settlement produce in the past and vouched to label settlement produce as “West Bank” in the future. All retailers have since been sent information on inspecting goods from Israel to check their origin.
The West Bank has become synonymous with Palestine in the public lexicon. Labeling produce that comes from the Occupied Territories as produce of the “West Bank” misleads the consumer. Consumers buying these products believe that they are supporting the Palestinian economy while in fact they are supporting the economy of these illegal settlements. The vast majority, and very probably, all produce that comes from the West Bank, comes from the settlements. Very little, if any, produce that comes from Palestinian farms makes it to supermarkets in the West.
This unlawful practice denies consumers informed choices between Palestinian goods, of which there are almost none, and illegal settlement goods. For consumers to make ethical and informed choices, settlement goods must be clearly indicated as settlement produce and thereby set apart from Palestinian goods.
Despite efforts by the UN, the EU Quartet and NGOs to signal strong opposition to continued settlement and outpost expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there has been a marked acceleration in construction, and no serious attempts by the Israeli authorities to dismantle them. Settlements, outposts, and the infrastructure that serves them, illegal in international law, devastate the Palestinian economy and the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians. While world bodies can be commended for raising the issue of settlements and outposts, there has been a marked failure to hold the Israeli authorities to their obligations under moral force and international law. This highlights the urgent need to go beyond rhetoric and adopt concrete measures to ensure that Israeli authorities comply with their obligations under international law. Moreover, the US political cocoon that serves to shelter Israel and protect it from countless crimes and resolutions of world bodies only encourages more illegal activity--there must be a cessation to this chronic and fatal international cronyism.
Left: Each dollar, every euro, a pound or a franc, etc. used to buy Israeli goods eventually becomes bombs and bullets to be fired at the hearts and minds of children, men and women in Palestine. To buy their goods is to support their tyranny, oppression and unbridled aggression.
Download a list of settlement products (from Gush Shalom): PDF, Word document
Brands & Labels That Support Israeli Crimes You Should BOYCOTT.
Petition: Suspend EU-Israel Association Agreement.