A Palestinian boy and an Israeli soldier in front of the Israeli West Bank Barrier
Two weeks ago, a letter requesting the acceleration of plans to mandate the labeling of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements and sold in Europe was signed by the foreign ministers of 16 EU countries and sent to to Federica Mogherini, foreign policy chief of the European Union. The letter is one product of rising pressure from ministers in many European countries towards the advancement of corrective policies fixated on Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land. Tension on this issue has been rising since last year, following the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Regardless of the claims of discrimination made by Israel and its supporters on this issue, the labeling of goods produced in Israeli settlements (primarily cosmetic and agricultural) should be seen as a tangible way for European citizens and governments to express opposition to the illegal settlements and the policies that have allowed them to continue to grow in large numbers.
The issue of product labeling has been on the table for a number of years, but was stalled recently at the behest of the US in 2013 as US Secretary of State John Kerry worked to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. However, since the breakdown of those talks and the diplomatic impasse between the two countries that resulted, the idea of labeling products produced in settlements has re-gained steam in a number of European countries.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks preceding the recent Israeli elections in which he stated that he would not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state have further contributed to animosity from the European heavyweights and reinvigorated momentum towards the potential imposition of economic sanctions. The EU resisted pushing the labeling of settlement products in the weeks leading up to and following Israeli elections in order to avoid giving the impression of tampering. The letter from the 16 EU foreign ministers is meant to serve as a warning to Prime Minister Netanyahu of possible consequences, should he decide to form a right-wing coalition and refuse to work towards peace with the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, other than serving as a possible deterrent, the letter doesn’t appear to suggest any determinate shift in EU policy.
The EU has long been considering the possibility of imposing sanctions against Israel if it continued its construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Suggested limitations include potential new restrictions against “known violent settlers and those calling for acts of violence as regards immigration regulations in EU member states” in addition to curtailing the free-trade agreement between the EU and Israel. As Israel’s biggest trade partner, any economic sanctions the EU may place on Israel will have significant impacts.
The EU’s motivation in pursuing the labeled goods issue stems from their longstanding support of a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel. In the letter from the Foreign Ministers to Mrs. Mogherini, the signatories state concerns that, “The continued expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, and other territories occupied by Israel since 1967, threatens the prospect of a just and final peace agreement”. Further justifying their position, the foreign ministers presented the idea that specific labeling was necessary to guarantee that, “consumers are not being misled by false information.” Said one EU diplomatic source, “We cannot accept that produce from the settlements in occupied territory be freely traded.”
Of particular concern to the ministers and the governments they represent is the construction in the E1 area between the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement and Jerusalem, as well as in the Givat Hamatos and Har Homa neighborhoods of Jerusalem, both of which are beyond the ‘green lines’, or the provisional border of Israel, as agreed upon in the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Continued support of international economic links to these areas, along with the construction that continues within them, endanger the possibility of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state, and effectively eliminates the use of Jerusalem as a possible capital for both states.
According to Palestinian activists and rights groups, Israel is attempting to normalize the settlements and industries it has established in the West Bank through the selling of goods in Europe, which are simply labeled as being made in Israel.
Under international law, occupying powers are permitted to draw upon the resources of the territory they occupy, and thereby its economy, but only to the extent necessary to fulfill the needs of its army and to satisfy the expenses of managing the occupied territory. In the case of the exportation of goods produced in settlements, it is more likely that the economic links between Europe and the Israeli settlements are merely sustaining the illegal and reprehensible situation created by the existence of these settlements. As these economic links ostensibly maintain a violation of international law, their hindrance of future peace efforts in the region is reason enough for Europe’s labeling push.
The reaction from Israel has been predictably oppositional, with many officials perceiving the move to be part of a larger effort to isolate the country. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman went so far as to draw parallels between the labeling of goods produced in settlements and the labeling of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Speaking to Israel Radio, Mr. Lieberman remarked “I have a recommendation for them…they can take a yellow badge and mark all the products from Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights with a yellow badge.”
While pushing for the identification of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements is a step in the right direction, it is not nearly enough of a change to sufficiently disincentivize the establishment of new settlements and continued expansion of old ones. Said Shawan Jabarin, director of Palestinian rights group Al Haq, the letter from the 16 EU foreign ministers was a “positive step.” Continuing, he added, “Our message to the Europeans is that labeling has to lead to banning […] without a ban, it’s empty talk. Why are you labeling it? For what? Is it just to tell the customers that this is stolen products, but you can buy it?”
The European Union’s uniquely strong economic ties to Israel give it a rare opportunity to exert a great amount of economic influence over the country. While the explicit imposition of foreign interest would be widely frowned upon, infringement of sovereignty is fully within the rights—and, arguably, the responsibilities—of the EU to impose legitimate deterrents on the production of goods in illegally occupied spaces. To refrain from doing so would only further contribute to the widespread tacit acceptance of the exploitation of Palestine by Israel, and decrease the political improbability of a two-state solution.
Caroline Jones is a first-year student at Brown University, studying Government, Anthropology, and Environmental Science.