Opinion

Europe Is Fighting Israel's Occupation. America Is Normalizing It

It's a tale of two continents: A wave of European states are backing boycotts of illegal settlements, while the U.S. Congress and state legislatures are actively protecting them. Why are their approaches so different?

Two Israeli soldiers guard the Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank town of Ramallah as Palestinian women line up to cross to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Sept. 14, 2007
AP

The international response to Israel’s continuing expansion of settlements inside occupied Palestinian territory is a tale of two continents.

In Europe, action is being taken to uphold international legality, by making the half-century-old military occupation less profitable than it has been for Israel.

Across the Atlantic, however, in the U.S., members of Congress are promoting legislation that would normalize Israel’s annexation of the occupied West Bank and legitimate the economic activity of Israeli settlements.

Jewish settlers sit in their vineyard in the West Bank settlement of Achiya. September 1, 2010
MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

European Union efforts to take Israel to task include the issuing of labeling guidelines and advisories to businesses concerning their international legal obligations. There are also legislative initiatives underway for city- and state-wide bans on Israeli settlement products and services.

In Norway, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently determined that local government bans on Israeli goods and services which support illegal settlements are consistent with international obligations. The city councils of Trondhiem and Tromso have adopted laws prohibiting such procurements.

And on July 11th, Ireland’s upper house passed a bill to institute a total country-wide ban on Israeli settlement products and services. The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill was endorsed by Fianna Fail, the second largest political party in Ireland after parliamentarians returned from a trip to the region and witnessed the effects of Israeli settlements on Palestinian daily life.

The flurry of activity in Europe has been spurred on by the EU's 2016 adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The resolution requires member states to refrain from any action that would constitute recognition of Israel’s illegal extension of sovereignty into Palestinian land and calls on states to differentiate in their dealings between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. 

To help assist with and encourage states and businesses in complying with their legal obligations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been working on a database calling out local and international businesses for violating their obligations.

A Palestinian waits for Israeli soldiers to open the barrier gate of the to enter his farm in the village of Habla, near the West Bank city Qalqilya. Feb. 11 2018
/AP

The database will be limited to entities conducting certain specific activities in the occupied Palestinian territory and is not necessarily meant to further any judicial action. The aim is to support member states and businesses in operationalizing their human rights obligations and responsibilities.

So far, the UN has culled a list of over 200 businesses to determine that 22 US and 29 European concerns are violating their legal obligations. The UN list should be completed before the end of September. 

The U.S. has taken a markedly different view of international efforts to differentiate between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

Rather than preventing the fruit of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise from entering the US, 25 U.S. states have passed constitutionally questionable laws punishing those who would support the movement to boycott products and services that facilitate Israel’s occupation over Palestinian land. More than 100 such bills have been considered by state and local legislatures so far.

On the federal level, legislation is being advanced in both the Senate and the House to prohibit compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and the UN Human Rights Council call for differentiation. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Il), co-sponsor of House Bill 1697, dubbed the "Israeli Anti-Boycott Act," calls UN efforts to identify businesses facilitating human rights abuses by Israel as an effort to "wage economic warfare against Israel." 

Under the bill, the Trump administration and its successors would be empowered to issue regulations to impose civil or criminal penalties on anyone complying with UN or foreign calls to uphold international law as it applies to Israel’s illegal colonization enterprise. The bipartisan bill has garnered 287 co-sponsors to date.

Palestinian protestors run from tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest in Gaza Strip. June 8, 2018
Ariel Schalit/AP

Earlier versions of the bill in the Senate as well as the current bill in the House have been strongly opposed by the ACLU as violating constitutional protections for political speech.

Not yet understood are the ways multinationals will be affected by the divergence between the U.S. and European treatment of Israeli settlement products and services. Compliance with Irish law will run counter to the Israel Anti-Boycott Law soon to be voted on by Congress. This promises to create legal risks for companies attempting to comply with both U.S. and Irish law.

What is to be made of the diametrically opposed responses in Europe and in the U.S. to Israel’s illegal settlement activity?

It is just one more example of the larger battle taking place between those countries that wish to strengthen international norms and accountability and those who want to turn inward in furtherance of isolationist and protectionist policies that have found kinship in the Trump White House and the virulent ethno-nationalism prevalent in Israel today. 

Implicit - if not explicit - support for Israel’s looming annexation of Palestinian land is also a low cost way for countries to ingratiate themselves with U.S. President Donald Trump and to curry favor with Israel, which is seen as a technological powerhouse that can provide valuable assistance to struggling European economies.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Some ultra-nationalist governments in Europe even appear ready to contravene EU policy and move their respective embassies to Jerusalem as the U.S. did in May. Israel has been courting these governments, despite the overt anti-Semitism undergirding their domestic policy and rhetoric.

Ultimately, Israel’s settlement policy, and the system of institutionalized racial segregation and privilege employed to maintain its colonization of Palestine, cannot be sustained. That is the case even with the Knesset’s recent passage of the Jewish Nation-State Law, which itself provides constitutional cover for ethno-religious discrimination in Israel.

The Irish ban may signal a turning point in this regard by encouraging other countries to act. In the meantime, however, Palestinians will continue to pay dearly as they struggle to hold on to their homes and stay on their land.

The lasting damage, however, will be that done to international institutions, the rule of law and to U.S. credibility and moral authority in supporting human rights and democracy around the world.  

Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and Middle East Fellow at New America, based in Washington, D.C. Formerly, she was the coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine's bid for UN membership. Twitter: @zahahassan