Israeli officials reacted angrily Thursday night to a British decision to advise retailers and importers to use labels to distinguish between West Bank produce being grown in the settlements or by Palestinians. One official charged that Britain was singling out Israel and encouraging a boycott.
According to a statement released by the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, "Importers, retailers, NGOs and consumers have asked the government for clarity over the precise origin of products from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs).
"The label 'West Bank' does not allow consumers to distinguish between goods originating from Palestinian producers and goods originating from illegal Israeli settlements."
Therefore, according to guidelines put out by the department, "Traders and retailers may wish to indicate whether the product originated from an Israeli settlement or from Palestinian producers. This could take the form, for example, of 'Produce of the West Bank (Israeli settlement produce)' or 'Produce of the West Bank (Palestinian produce)', as appropriate."
In addition, the guidelines said, "Traders would be misleading consumers, and would therefore almost be certainly committing an offense, if they were to declare produce from the OPT, including from the West Bank, as 'Produce of Israel.' This would apply irrespective of whether the produce was from a Palestinian producer or from an Israeli settlement in the OPT. This is because the area does not fall within the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel."
Foreign Minister spokesman Yigal Palmor said issuing these guidelines was tantamount to "caving into Palestinian organizations, and will only radicalize Palestinian positions even more. The decision comes at a critical phase and harms Israeli and international efforts to renew the peace process on the basis of mutual agreements."
Another government official said that, despite British denials, the advisory encourages a boycott of Israel goods. Furthermore, he said that the British were "singling Israel out for this type of treatment, something that is very, very problematic."
Why was it less important, he asked, for the British consumer to know that products they were buying were coming from other areas of dispute, such as Tibet, Kashmir, northern Cyprus, Chechnya, Kosovo, parts of Bosnia or even places like Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland?
British Embassy spokesman Rafi Shamir denied that the move was tantamount to a call for a boycott and said the British government was responding to concerns raised by consumers and stores that were unhappy the products were simply labeled "West Bank." He pointed out that this was merely advice, not a mandatory regulation.
The guidelines come at a time of strain in British-Israeli ties, with Britain being the main supporter inside the EU of the Swedes in the recent but unsuccessful effort to get the EU to adopt a statement recognizing east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.