By Elena Hogan, Near East News Agency – 18 June 2010
“The Coalition of Women for Peace [CWP ndr] declares its support for Italian supermarket chains COOP and Nordiconad’s decision to suspend sales of Agrexco produce in their stores, and hopes that more supermarket chains will follow in their footsteps.”
So begins the declaration of the prominent Israeli coalition of 11 feminist organizations, released in support of the Italian Stop Agrexco campaign (a coalition of over 60 Italian groups) after the Italian supermarket chains COOP and Nordiconad announced in late May that they would be suspending the largest Israeli agricultural export company’s products from their shelves due to issues regarding the difficulty of tracing product origin.
The legality of Carmel-Agrexco exports to European markets is indeed being strongly called into question in the UK, France, Italy, due to the company’s operation within Israeli settlements built on lands confiscated from Palestinian farmers in the fertile Jordan Valley area of the West Bank.
The fourth Geneva convention, of which the State of Israel is a signatory, deems settlement on occupied lands illegal, as well as the agricultural production taking place in such settlements, because of the exploitation of occupied resources it implies.
The Hague Court’s 2004 advisory ruling on the Israeli Separation Wall affirmed this illegality, condemning as a breach of international law Israeli settlements constructed beyond the Green Line, the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.
Nevertheless, a United Nations report of March 2009 documents no less than 249 expanding Israeli settlements and outposts currently fragmenting the West Bank and housing over 450,000 Israeli settlers on Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line.
“As Israeli peace activists, Jewish and Palestinian,” the CWP declaration punctuates, “ we see it as our duty to support the international community in taking measures against Israeli companies that are involved in sustaining the occupation of Palestine. This international pressure is crucial in changing corporate policies and public opinions, both locally and internationally.”
Broad campaigns have, in fact, been waged against Agrexco in Europe following the Palestinian call for global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions of Israel (BDS) launched one year after the 2004 Hague Court ruling, “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.”
This same call for BDS is under heavy attack by the Knesset, which is debating a bill at present that would allow the State of Israel to heavily fine Israeli and Palestinian groups that actively support any sort of Israeli product boycott.
The Palestinian Authority itself, currently enforcing a major boycott of Israeli settlement goods throughout the West Bank, would not be immune to this law if issued by its occupier, and could see Palestinian VAT tax revenues and customs duties withheld by the Israeli government and handed over to settlements as compensation for the income lost due to this campaign, regardless of the edicts of international law.
Despite this sort of political pressure, Israeli groups such as the CWP continue to support foreign campaigns for the boycott of settlement goods.
Gush Shalom, another prominent Israeli peace organization, also issued an open letter in support of the Italian Stop Agrexco campaign at the end of May, addressed to the management of Agrexco and published in the Israeli press.
“Dear Sir/Madam,” the letter begins, “Already for many years your company is in the habit of internationally marketing products which come from settlements in the Occupied Territories.”
Urging Agrexco to cease mixing Israeli products with settlement goods from the West Bank, the statement continues, “As you are no doubt aware…this practice is arousing strong opposition all over the world, particularly in Europe, in the form of demonstrations, protest petitions and the like.”
Upon its publication in Israel, the letter caused the story to break in the Italian press, and severe accusations (including those of antisemitism) were made by Italian political leaders to COOP and Nordiconad.
The two supermarkets quickly denied there had been any talk of a boycott, while COOP confirmed the suspension of sales of settlement products until clear labeling of product origins could be guaranteed by Carmel-Agrexco.
But product origin labeling is often not straight-forward.
“Labeling of product origin is done in various locations,” explains Dalit Baum of the CWP.
“Customs officials in Israeli ports mark the origin of products based on the zip code which pertains to the location where the product is completely assembled and registered,” she continues, “But if all or part of the contents of a packaged product, such as produce, for example, has been grown in places other than where it is packaged, this can be misrepresented. Customs markings may not be visible to the consumer either, and the ‘Made in Israel’ label is added by the European distributor. There is therefore very little regulation concerning origin, especially since Israeli law does not distinguish in any way between goods produced inside or outside of the Green Line.”
When not properly labeled, settlement products violate European customs laws as well, since Israeli settlement goods produced beyond the Green Line do not benefit from the preferential trade terms for Israel defined by the European Union-Israel Association Agreement (EU-IAA) in effect since 2000, confirmed by the European Court of Justice’s February 2010 ruling.
Baum emphasizes, however, that it is not just a question of clear labeling: “Even if supermarkets were to mark such products as ‘Illegal settlement product’, these foreign supermarkets are still profiting from settlement produce, and are therefore complicit in the Israeli settlement economy.”
A significant part of Carmel-Agrexco’s activities on Palestinian lands in the West Bank, including production, packing, and administration, has been identified by the “Who Profits from the Occupation” research project conducted by the CWP. Signs bearing the Carmel logo at the entrances of Israeli settlements scattered throughout the Jordan Vally, such as Mehola, Roi, Theko’a, Mitzpe Shalem, Kalia, Thomer, and Na’ama, have also been photographed and archived as evidence.
During a trial (November 2006) in the United Kingdom, in which protesters who had blockaded Agrexco’s UK distribution center in Middlesex were acquitted, Agrexco UK’s then General Manager, Amor Or, admitted under oath that Agrexco single handedly markets 60-70% of the agricultural produce grown in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.
Given this situation, more and more European consumers are demanding to know where—and why—products exported by a company violating international law continue to appear on European supermarket shelves.