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In November 2019, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that certain goods imported from illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories must be clearly labelled as such.
Otherwise, it said, ‘consumers have no way of knowing, in the absence of any information capable of enlightening them in that respect, that a foodstuff comes from a locality or a set of localities constituting a settlement established in one of those territories in breach of the rules of international humanitarian law’.
Civil society reacted positively to the ruling, with Human Rights Watch’s European Union Director Lotte Leicht calling it “an important step toward EU member states upholding their duty not to participate in the fiction that illegal settlements are part of Israel”.
Meanwhile, Shane Stevenson from Oxfam said settlements “are violating the rights and freedoms of Palestinians”, adding that “consumers have a right to know the origin of the products they purchase, and the impact these purchases have on people’s lives”.
However, critics in Israel called the ruling a double standard. Israel Ganz, head of the local settler council, said it discriminates against Jews living and working in their “homeland of thousands of years”, adding that he will work with European foreign ministers to prevent its implementation.
The case stems from a previous ruling by the European court that ruled foodstuffs from illegal settlements must be clearly labelled. Individual states are responsible for ensuring that labels are correct and not misleading to consumers.
France applied the ruling to wine produced in a Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The winery, Psagot, which produces around 350,000 bottles each year, much of which it exports, contested France’s enforcement, along with a French-Jewish advocacy group, and the case ended up back at the ECJ, which upheld the EU rules.
However, EU Commission Spokeswoman Mina Andreeva noted that Israel and the European bloc have a special trading relationship and that goods produced within internationally recognized borders enjoy preferential tariffs. “The EU does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel,” she said.
While the ECJ ruling on labelling products is separate from the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, both demonstrate the mobilization of economic and political or non-violent tools of resistance.
BDS has been adopted by activists and people all over the world with the aim of putting international economic and political pressure on Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Modelled on the boycott movement that emerged during apartheid in South Africa, BDS has three demands: ending the occupation of Palestinian territories and dismantling the security barrier that encroaches on West Bank land; ensuring the equal rights of Palestinians living in Israel; and enabling the right of return for Palestinians in the diaspora.
Those opposed to the movement have argued it is aimed at dismantling the Jewish state, i.e. the state would no longer be Jewish if Palestinians are given the right of return as it would lose its Jewish majority.
Omar Barghouti, a spokesperson for the movement, said that a democratic state could still provide asylum for Jewish refugees with sensitivity to the Jewish experience, but there should not be a racist law that only benefits Jews.
The other argument against the movement, similar to Gantz’s criticism of the ECJ ruling, is that application of BDS to Israel alone, while there are territorial disputes in other parts of the world, is a double standard and anti-Semitic.
In the United States, where the Jewish community is larger and more coordinated, 26 states have made it illegal for government agencies to contract or invest in companies that support BDS. Even so, state laws have been challenged and, in some cases, struck down for contradicting the right to free speech.
At the federal level, the Senate and Congress have approved measures condemning the boycott, including an anti-BDS bill passed earlier this year. Despite this, 20-40 per cent of Americans believe BDS may be effective in showing opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Within the BDS movement itself there is divergence too, with some advocating only the targeting of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, whereas others believe it is necessary to impose sanctions on Israel more broadly.
Nearly 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, some say BDS and labelling has or will have little impact. “It has long been clear that on its own, BDS will never be able to liberate Palestine,” Colter Louwerse, a researcher in Palestine studies at the University of Exeter, told Fanack. “To date, studies show that the tangible effect that BDS has wrought upon the Israeli economy is negligible.”
While external pressure on the occupying power is important, according to Louwerse, liberation really depends on “serious shifts in the internal political dynamic”, which would need to be brought about by a mass Palestinian movement on the ground.
“That is not to say that the work of BDS activists has been altogether negligible or unimportant,” he added. “At the current moment, the crucial role of the solidarity community is educational and symbolic.”
Meanwhile, EU rules only apply to foodstuffs produced on settlement land, and European imports only account for 1 per cent of Israel’s exports in this category.
Gantz also claimed the ruling would hurt the Arab population working on settlement land and in the manufacturing of the goods.
Recently, the Arab Council for Regional Integration, a Saudi-affiliated group that is trying to strengthen ties with Israel, argued against boycotting Israel, saying bad relations have hurt Arab nations economically as well as Palestinian development.
Sam Bahour, an independent political analyst, acknowledged that the original and latest rulings are “baby steps”, describing them as bureaucratic efforts that ensure the EU remains in compliance with its own laws and policies, but he stressed they were at least baby steps in the right direction.
“However, the EU has much more power to influence,” he said. “This is a political conflict par excellence. It requires political decision making … So, what we’re asking for today is that the European Union, as a union and as individual sovereign states, recognizes the State of Palestine.”
According to Louwerse, the solidarity movement should now embarrass and pressure companies complicit in the Israeli occupation into severing their ties with the settlements.
“An immediate step to be undertaken by any such campaign is to pressure the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, into releasing to the public the long-overdue UN database of companies complicit in the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise,” he said. “Its release would constitute significant victory, sending a clear warning to international businesses that there are consequences in the making for those who place profit over the Palestinian people.”