Forget boycotts, Israeli settlement goods should be banned

How would you feel if goods stolen from your home were sold on supermarket shelves, or if products made in factories built on land taken from you were advertised at the United States' largest sporting occasion? Palestinian villagers see that happening every day.

The Scarlett Johannson saga is the latest episode in a long series of clashes with Israel and its supporters over settlements. Johansson resigned her role as a global ambassador for Oxfam over the latter’s stance on SodaStream, a company that has a factory in major Israeli settlement. Johansson was no doubt making a huge fat fee for promoting SodaStream in a major advert premiered at the Superbowl. We are told that she was not doing it for money. So, can we expect a massive donation to an appropriate charity, ideally one helping Palestinians?

Muddy waters

As ever with the subject of Israel and Palestine, clear issues are portrayed as fuzzy. SodaStream tried to make it about Palestinian labor rights and jobs, while Oxfam about the principle of opposing settlements. It was all part of the anti-Semitic delegitimization of Israel, screamed enraged Israeli apologists and spokespeople.

However, the issue with Johansson was not that she was using Israeli products but products from illegal settlements. These are not Israeli, do not originate from Israel and are products of stolen land and stolen resources.

Just as state pressure was building up on settlements, Israeli apologists have tried to blur with lines between action on settlements and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS). The rationale is simple. As it stands, and it is unlikely to change soon, it is politically toxic for key states, especially the U.S., Germany and Britain, to endorse boycott campaigns against Israel. That is a political reality.

Scarlett Johansson's role

Scarlett Johansson herself pushed this distortion. Her official statement read: "She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.” But Oxfam has nothing to do with BDS campaigns. In fact, I have visited the Palestinian cooperative farms Oxfam supports, those threatened by the very settlements Johansson is promoting.

Israel is more and more isolated. Its default reaction is to throw money at public relations companies

Chris Doyle

Settlements are, quite rightly, illegal and constitute a grave breach of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is incumbent on High Contracting Parties to the convention to ensure compliance and not to be complicit in such breaches. This includes the U.S. and EU states (Israel too but it probably regrets signing up). Action on settlements is an issue of law. Oxfam, along with nearly all aid agencies and human rights groups, could not itself become complicit in aiding a breach of this convention.

More importantly, states are doing little or nothing to adhere to their obligations. Why is it still permitted to sell settlement products in Europe? These are proceeds of crime, trade in illicit goods, products of an exploitation of a people under occupation and their resources. At best Britain and Denmark have introduced voluntary labeling to make sure consumers know what they are buying. As was revealed in a ground breaking report by 22 NGOs in 2012, the EU imports 15 times more from settlements than it does from Palestinians. The reason why BDS started was because the international community failed, failed and failed again to hold Israel accountable to international law. Other states could also be put in this category but nonetheless such civil society action is a product of the failure of the international system so far.

More and more isolated

Settlements are an issue of international law, an obligation on all states, while BDS is an issue of personal consumer choice and a campaign to push governments to sanction Israel. You can debate the pros and cons of BDS but the illegality of settlements is ironclad and the obligations it imposes on all states mandatory. One Israeli foreign ministry spokesman recently described BDS campaigners as just a fringe group, surprising given that the entire Israeli cabinet met to debate the issue on Feb. 9.

Israel is more and more isolated. Its default reaction is to throw money at public relations companies and legions of hasbaristas. This will not work, even if packaged in the attractive figure of Ms Johansson. According to the Guardian, in 2013 “Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley lost $29m, or 14 percent of their income because supermarkets in the UK and Scandinavia are shunning their peppers, dates and grapes.” Only a change in Israel’s illegal and immoral policies leading to an end to occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza will bring Israel in from the cold. That will hopefully happen in a peace process, but nothing Israel has done or said suggests this.

States must follow where consumers have led. You can find EU ministers saying settlements are illegal nearly every day of the week but nothing is done. An army of rabbits could feed off the carrots dangled in front of Israel to abandon its settlement enterprise but it has not. Action will happen. It will not be a question of whether we should be buying settlement goods but why can we? Settlement products should not have to be boycotted. They must be banned.

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Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in in April, November, December and January 2013 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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