The packaging on the Ahava cosmetic company’s skin tone and texture-creating serum says it is made in Dead Sea, Israel, but Ahava’s factory is actually in a settlement nestled below desert mountains in the occupied West Bank.
Through a display window in the visitors’ centre there, workers in white coats and with their hair covered could be seen preparing cartons for shipment, with the EU a prime destination for Ahava products.
“It’s neat to see people in action at the end of the production line,” said Rotem Shahar, a private tour guide who was escorting visitors.
The European Union views things differently. Within the next few days it is expected to announce new guidelines requiring member states to affix labels that specifically identify Israeli products made in settlements, and thus distinguish them from those coming from Israel proper.
Although the precise wording of the labels has yet to be disclosed, “it will have to be clear it’s coming from Israeli settlements”, said David Kriss, an EU spokesman in Tel Aviv. He said the announcement was expected on Wednesday, although it was possible it might be postponed.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which continues to expand settlements despite objections by the international community that they are illegal and scupper prospects for a viable Palestinian state, is furious about the change. It argues that Israel is being singled out unfairly and that labelling will pave the way for the boycotting of all Israeli goods.
“Our concern is that once you put a label on Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the West Bank] you put a label on Israel,” the Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, said in a recent interview with the Times of Israel website. “We see it as a boycott of Israel for all intents and purposes. We view it as a slippery slope. It’s simply a sweeping disqualification of Israel.”
A foreign ministry spokesman, Emmanuel Nachshon, added: “This will harm Israeli exports since consumers will not necessarily make the distinction and may not buy products that are not from the settlements. This smacks of a boycott of all Israeli goods.”
He said the government would “express our opposition in a forceful way, and we will discuss measures by the Israeli side to show our displeasure”.
In remarks in September after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of labelling, Mr Netanyahu invoked events preceding the Holocaust. “The root of the conflict is not the territories and not the settlements. We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labelled Jewish products,” he said.
The EU rejects claims that the measure amounts to a boycott and describes it as necessary so that consumers have accurate information on the origin of products. If something is made in a settlement industrial zone “and it is labelled ‘made in Israel’ we see that as misleading the European consumer,” Mr Kriss said. He says the labelling reflects a long-standing position that “the settlements are illegal and cannot be considered part of Israel”.
Mr Kriss described the labelling as a follow-up to a 2005 arrangement that required Israel to mark export certificates with the postcode of the originating factory, so that the products of settlements could be excluded from the tariff-free status granted to products from Israel proper.
Martin Konecny, director of the European Middle East Project, a Brussels-based NGO specialising in EU policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said: “Israel is not used to facing tangible consequences for occupation and settlement from its Western allies. It is used to rhetoric without action, and this is creating a shock.”
He said it had taken the EU three years to prepare details of the new labelling system. “This is a step in a positive direction in reducing the gap between rhetoric and action, but it is also insufficient and overdue,” he said.
But Bassem Eid, a commentator who is often a sharp critic of official Palestinian positions, said the labelling would cost jobs among what he estimates are 30,000 Palestinians with permits to work in the settlements. “The Palestinians are the first who will pay the high price for labelling. We are the losers, Israel is not the loser,” he said.
According to Mr Konecny, exports from Israeli settlements amount to €230m a year, or about 2 per cent of Israeli exports to the EU and 15 times more than the EU imports from Palestinians. Britain instituted its own guidelines for labelling settlement products in 2009, followed by Denmark in 2012 and Belgium last year. After labelling was instituted, major retailers in the three countries adopted a policy of not importing products from settlements, Mr Konecny said.
Ahava, whose staff did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, closed its store in Covent Garden in 2011 after it became the focus of frequent pro-Palestinian protests and its landlord refused to renew its lease. While some Ahava products say they are “made in Israel”, others say they are manufactured in “Mitzpe Shalem, Dead Sea, West Bank by Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, Airport City, Israel”.
Last June, the company said it was exploring the possibility of opening a factory in the Tamar Regional Council, south of the West Bank.
Mr Kriss said the current designation of “West Bank” on some Ahava packaging would probably be unsatisfactory to the EU and that under the new labelling regulations, it would be specified that the product was made in a settlement. “My instinct tells me it won’t be sufficient,” he said. “It has to be clear it is not coming from a Palestinian manufacturer.”
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