x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

UK confronts Israel on 'West Bank' goods

Palestinian solidarity groups in Britain accuse firms of selling produce coming from illegal settlements under a misleading label.

The fruit and vegetable section of Waitrose supermarket in Finchley, North London yesterday.
The fruit and vegetable section of Waitrose supermarket in Finchley, North London yesterday.

LONDON // Pro-Palestinian protesters will take to the streets of London tomorrow to highlight a simmering row between the United Kingdom and Israel over West Bank settlements. The demonstration outside a large supermarket in central London will focus on the fact that produce coming from the illegal settlements is being sold in Britain under the misleading "West Bank" label.

The protest comes at a time when Palestinian officials are asking EU member countries to restrict or even ban imports of goods grown or made in Israeli settlements. The Palestinians appear to be pushing at an open door as there is mounting evidence that several European governments are ready to use the issue of the West Bank produce to take a much tougher stance over illegal settlements. Last week, David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, infuriated Israeli government ministers by telling them that he intended to press for EU tariffs to be imposed on Jordan Valley produce and beauty products from Israeli settlements.

Non-governmental organisations have long complained that by putting a West Bank label on the goods, consumers are being misled into believing that they are supporting Palestinian farmers. Mike Bailey, a spokesman for Oxfam International in Jerusalem, said: "Our concern is that consumers should be in a position to make an informed choice. That means knowing whether a product has been made without exploitation and in compliance with international law. It seems settlement products fail on both those tests."

Two of Britain's largest retailers - Marks and Spencer and Asda - have already pulled the controversial "West Bank" products from their shelves but others, such as the Waitrose supermarket group, have not. Tomorrow's protest, organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), will be staged outside the busy Finchley Road branch of Waitrose and is intended to alert shoppers to the situation. "Waitrose is at risk of aiding and abetting war crimes by trading in products from settlements," the PSC said yesterday.

"By doing this Waitrose is clearly helping settlements to exist as viable economic entities which in turn makes more permanent Israel's extensive appropriation or destruction of Palestinian property." A visit to the Finchley Road Waitrose by a photographer for The National turned up no produce marked as being from the West Bank. The row between the UK and Israel, however, is about much more than imports of avocados and cherry tomatoes with misleading labels.

"This is 100 per cent political and zero per cent economic," an Israeli government official told The Times. "It is very annoying? a small thing that keeps coming back and that we can't get rid of. It's a way of raising the settlement issue and expressing Europe's discontent." British ministers are privately furious with their Israeli counterparts for failing to honour pledges given last year to curb settlement expansion.

A leaked British government report recently said that, far from reining in settlements, the rate of growth had actually increased. By seizing on the labelling issue, Mr Miliband appears to be sending a message to the Israelis that the settlement issue must be resolved. "This initiative is a serious and substantial problem in relations between the two countries, and is generating a sense of crisis," a senior diplomat told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, is also pressing Israel to stop construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank. "I hope that next year we can reach peace," he said. "Without a just and swiftly reached peace, [the area] will remain a hotbed of crisis in the Middle East. "Even if there is an outgoing government, Israeli decisions are said to be in favour of stopping illegal settlement. I believe these decisions must be put into practice as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, has written to EU member states warning that Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are "collapsing under the settlement expansion". Mr Fayyad, who also met Mr Miliband last week, said he put forward various options in the letter, including a total ban on imports from settlements. Failing that, he said, there should be a raising of customs tariffs on produce from settlements and clear labelling - the option preferred by the British.

The gathering pace of the demands for change has clearly worried the Israelis. A spokesman for their foreign ministry described the campaign as "not constructive". He added: "Riding the boycott trail will lead the Palestinians nowhere. It would be much better for them to concentrate on what can be constructive and invest in their own territory than seeking divestment in their neighbour's turf." A spokesman for Mr Miliband said there had been a "clear exchange of views" during his meeting with Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, last week.

The British appear in no mood to let the matter rest. Customs and Excise officials are examining if companies registered in Israel and benefiting from favourable EU trade agreement terms are illegally routing produce coming out of the settlements, which is specifically forbidden under the low tariff agreement. dsapsted@thenational.ae