Israel's fury over trade ban on West Bank produce

Foreign Minstry says planned move by South African government has 'characteristics of racism'

Jerusalem

South Africa has angered Benjamin Netanyahu's government by announcing a planned ban on importing goods marked as being "made in Israel" when they are actually produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In a further sign of growing momentum behind international pressure for clear identification of settlement produce, the South African Department of Trade and Industry has issued a formal notice saying it wants traders "not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory as products of Israel".

Like most other countries, including Britain, South Africa regards the settlements as illegal in international law and a statement by the Trade and Industry Minister, Rob Davies, declared that it recognised Israel only within the borders that applied after 1948. The settlements are all on land occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967.

In a sharp reaction yesterday Israel's Foreign Ministry said it would be having a "severe conversation" with the South African ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Ministry's spokesman Yigal Palmor said the move had "characteristics of racism". The public has 60 days to comment on the planned notice and pro-Israel groups in South Africa are expected to mount a campaign to try to overturn the decision.

While South Africa is not one of Israel's major trading partners, the move is a political victory for pro-Palestinian groups there, which campaigned for it over the last year along with a Palestinian organisation operating in the West Bank, the Popular Struggle Co-ordination Committee.

In his formal announcement Mr Davies, who is himself of Jewish descent, declared that "consumers in South Africa should not be misled... The burden of proving where the products originate will lie with traders." In December 2009, the UK government issued voluntary guidelines proposing that goods from the West Bank be specifically labelled to denote whether they come from Jewish settlements or Palestinian producers.

The guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also warned retailers that in the government's view labelling goods in either category from the West Bank as "Produce of Israel" would be misleading consumers and that those doing so would "almost certainly" be committing an offence under existing European and domestic law.

Activists in the UK argue that the overall impact of the guidance has been a reduction in the volume of settlement goods on supermarket shelves. Produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank includes wine and agricultural products such as herbs and dates.

Although the UK has taken the lead within Europe on the issue, the EU foreign ministers last week explicitly promised "to fully and effectively implement existing EU legislation and the bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products".

After the meeting, Eamon Gilmore, the Irish Foreign Minister, even suggested that his government might push for a boycott of settlement goods if Israel did not swiftly change its policies in the West Bank. And at the weekend Villy Sovndal, Denmark's Foreign Minister, said her country was considering action to improve labelling of settlement produce.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said the move was "a genuine challenge to Israel on its... violation of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people."

Africans could 'inundate' Israel, warns premier

Benjamin Netanyahu warned yesterday that Israel could be "inundated" by illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in ways that are "threatening the fabric of Israeli society, its national security and its national identity".

His remarks follow increasing tensions between Israelis and African refugees and asylum seekers, fuelled by some crimes, including two rapes, in Tel Aviv for which Africans are suspected. About 50,000 Africans have reached Israel since 2005, mainly seeking to avoid, persecution, war and poverty.

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