Britain to crack down on exports from Israeli settlements

Britain is taking the lead in pressing the EU to curb imports from Israeli producers in the occupied West Bank as a practical step towards halting the steady increase in the construction of Jewish settlements.

An internal EU note circulated by the UK expresses concern that goods produced from the settlements may be entering Britain after being illegally exempted from tariffs in violation of an Israel-EU trade agreement.

And the note, seen by The Independent, calls for the EU separately to consider afresh much more stringent labelling rules for settlement-produced goods in British stores to prevent them being designated as being from the "West Bank" in a way that could falsely imply that they have a Palestinian origin.

The initiative is the strongest sign yet of deepening official frustration in Whitehall at Israel's persistent flouting of international exhortations to halt the construction of settlements – which are seen by Britain and most other countries as illegal. Moderate Palestinian leaders say continued settlement building is a major problem.

The Government proposes that other member states should follow its own example in conducting a "targeted" examination of goods imported from Israel to establish whether they were in fact produced inside the 1967 "green line". Results from the Customs and Excise Study, to identify "potential settlement goods incorrectly described as being of Israeli origin", have not yet been published.

The note complains that, at last year's international Middle East summit in Annapolis, Israel committed to its Road Map obligations to "freeze all settlement activity". It says that, instead, "there has been an acceleration in settlement construction activity since Annapolis".

It also discloses that importers have been alerted to the need to check packaging to confirm that goods have indeed been produced inside Israel. The moves follow concern from NGOs and others that farmers and manufacturers in settlements may be being exempted from tariffs. EU customs staff are given postcodes meant to determine the origin of goods.

The note says Gordon Brown has proposed a No 10 "round table" with non-government organisations and retailers to discuss calls for consumers to have clearer information on whether goods were settlement-produced. Mike Bailey of Oxfam said yesterday: "It's wrong for goods to be stocked in British shops where consumers do not know the conditions or legality under which they were produced."

Several retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Somerfield, say they import food – such as organic herbs – grown on settlements, but add that, by designating the goods as "West Bank", they are complying with EU requirements to denote the area of origin. Marks & Spencer recently disclosed it had stopped stocking goods made in the West Bank.

The Israeli foreign ministry said it knew of the note and was holding "a dialogue" with the UK about it.

*An official at an Israeli cabinet briefing said yesterday that Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security agency, had warned that Jewish settlers will use "warm weaponry" against Israeli security forces if there is a push to evacuate established settlements. His assessment comes amid stepped-up violence by settlers in Hebron in response to the army's evacuation of a settler outpost.

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