The secret weapon in the fight for the labeling of Israeli settlement goods

Meet the non-governmental organizations behind the European labeling lobby.

November 12, 2015 23:13
EU Israel

EU Commission approves Israeli 'settlement' product guidelines (Illustrative picture)‏. (photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)

"The European Union cannot be expected to make exceptions in the law for the occupied territories," Joakim Wohlfeil, the head policy officer for Diakonia, a Sweden-based non-governmental organization, said to The Jerusalem Post following the release of the EU labeling requirements of all products produced in Israeli settlements.

Diakonia is just one organization out of a 22 member coalition of NGO's behind a report rallying for the European Union to label settlement goods, a decision that was agreed to several years ago in 2012.

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Non-governmental organizations stood as a driving force behind the implementation of the labeling of settlement goods by encouraging national governments and the EU as a whole to ensure their policies do not support what the European Union views as illegal Israeli settlements  through advocacy and lobbying activities.

While the EU agreed to begin labeling settlement goods in 2012, the NGO's continued to rally for the cause for three years as the publishing of the specific guidelines regarding what must be labeled faced delays at the request of the US, which at the time was brokering a nine-month negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians. That process failed in April 2014 and no new initiatives have replaced it.

Diakonia, a religious organization looking to influence unfair political, economic, social and cultural structures responsible for generating poverty and violence, played its part by pushing for the implementation of a pre-existing, but seemingly ignored law already in effect in the EU.

"Products coming from the Israeli settlements contribute to illegality and conflict," Wohlfeil explained, expressing the importance pushing forward the labeling initiative and removing the "double standard" in place in Europe in regards to the import products from Israeli settlements.

"EU customers should have the right to know the correct origin of all products," said Wohlfeil. "A continued exception for settlement products would undermine general work in other areas to prevent trade from supporting illegalities," he added.

After successfully completing the settlement campaign, Diakonia is now working toward encouraging the labeling of mineral products because many minerals are obtained illegally in Africa stirring up violence and conflict in the region. "It is the natural progression of the European laws already in place," Wohlfeil explained.

"I think a labeling is positive as it will help to differentiate between Israeli products and products from illegal settlements, but from my side I think a ban on settlement products would be more appropriate to avoid any support to illegalities," he said.

The report published in 2012 by the NGOs, entitled “Trading Away Peace: How Europe helps sustain illegal Israeli settlements,” outlined import and export data from both Israeli settlements and Palestinian territories and highlighted the hypocrisy and inconsistency coming from the side of the European Union due to the failure to implement an existing law requiring the labeling of products coming from occupied territories.

European Union policy has consistently condemned the illegality of settlements under international law calling them an impediment to the peace process and the failure to take condemnation into action on part of the EU.

"Through the establishment of settlements, successive Israeli governments have created a discriminatory two-tier system in the West Bank with settlers enjoying all the rights and benefits of Israeli citizenship, and Palestinians subject to Israeli military laws that deprive them of their fundamental rights," read the report.

"Many products are sold in European stores under the misleading label 'Made in Israel', denying consumers their right, under existing EU consumer protection legislation, to make informed decisions when they shop," it emphasized.

Trading with settlements contributes to their permanence and undermines years of political and financial support given to the Palestinian cause, claimed the report. "There is a growing awareness among European governments of the need to close the gap between their rhetoric on settlements and their practice."

The report went on to lay out a 12-point action plan on ensuring the European Union law and policy would be properly implemented regarding settlement goods.

For the coalition of NGO's, encouraging and educating politicians while making the case for labeling wasn't very difficult, Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab- British Understanding (Caabu) told the Post.

"The labeling idea has been working since 2009 in supermarkets in Britain, far ahead of other countries. We showed the government that there needs to be a clear differentiation between products coming from internationally acknowledged Israel, and the unacknowledged side from over the Green Line," he said.

Caabu, established in 1967, is an NGO working to impact British Middle East policy with an emphasis on conflict resolution and human rights through media, advocacy and education.

"Israel has brought this on themselves by continuously building illegal settlements which the European Union views as an active attempt to reduce the possibility of a two-state solution."

The Palestinians are pleased by the labeling movement even though thousands stand to lose their jobs should the campaign be successful, according to Doyle.

"We have spoken to the Palestinians. They are happy to see the labeling go forward because even if it has a slightly negative impact on them now, it will help build a strong economic structure in the future when they will have access to shorelines," said Doyle.

In their current state, it is more costly for Palestinians to export a crate of beer to an Israeli port than it is for Israel to export to Japan, Doyle said.

"Palestinians are more than capable of creating a sustainable economy but unreasonable restrictions to freedom of movement have compelled them to instead work in Israeli settlements which are actually an impediment to the creation of their own state and their ability to grow," he explained.

The labeling may not resolve the conflict, explained Doyle, but it will encourage and ensure the discussion of a two state solution stays on the table.

"The status quo is a recipe for farther conflict both in Gaza and in the West Bank. The current government in Israel is very clearly not going to work towards a two-state solution and the labeling campaign sends the message that this is not acceptable," said Doyle.

"It's not a boycott and we have no connection to BDS," said Doyle. "To cut off links with Israel entirely would be wrong- we are simply pushing for engagement and dialog between parties involved in a conflict that has gone on for too long."

Israel has condemned the decision by the European Union to label Israeli settlement goods, warning that this move could potentially harm European- Israeli relations.

“We regret that the EU took this politically motivated and unusual and discriminatory step, that it learned from the world of boycotts,” the Foreign Ministry said in a harshly worded statement.

There are 200 territorial conflicts in the world and the EU has not weighed in favor of one side over the other by marking products as “not made” in one of those countries, it said.

Marking products as made in the settlements won’t help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Foreign Ministry said and added that if anything it would make it worse, because it would encourage the Palestinians not to resume negotiations with Israel.

Since 2003, the EU has placed a numerical code on Israeli imports to allow customs to distinguish between products made within the Green Line and those that are produced beyond it.

Products produced in east Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank are excluded from the Israel Free Trade agreement with the EU.

The guidelines extend that process one step further, providing member states legal instructions as to the placement of consumer labels on relevant products to inform European consumers that they are not made in Israel.

The EU had delayed the publication of the guidelines in 2013 at the request of the US, which at the time was brokering a nine-month negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians. That process failed in April 2014 and no new initiatives have replaced it. In the absence of any prospect of renewed negotiations, the EU is pressing forward with the consumer labels.

Lahav Harkov and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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