The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has become a very beneficial venture – for Israel. Israel exploits the West Bank's natural resources: water, land, quarries, tourism, and agriculture. Israeli settlements and industrial zones are the main tools to exploit Palestinians' natural resources for making easy money at the expense of the occupied Palestinian people. Israeli settlers, benefitting from the occupation, have become the main obstacle to any efforts to achieve a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - ending the Israeli occupation and enabling the creation of a viable sovereign Palestinian state.
In less than two years, Israel will 'celebrate' the golden anniversary of its occupation of 1967. The more time passes, the more settlements and settlers are strengthened, the more any political settlement is less achievable, and the more both sides find themselves theoretically on the path to the one state situation – but in practice, on the path to an apartheid regime.
Needless to say that strengthening the settlements means weakening the chances for peace and contributing to more violence and extremism in a region that has already demonstrated that it's fertile ground for extremism and has had more than enough of it. This dynamic is clearly not in the interest of the European Union, the Middle East's next-door neighbor, not least when Europe itself is already suffering from the spillover of Middle East violence.
The recent decision by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, to label products originating in Jewish settlements products is a step in the right direction. If it is actually applied, it will weaken the settlements financially and, at the same time, emphasize the traditional European political position to not recognize the legality of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands occupied in 1967.
Israel enjoys many privileges in its trade with the EU. The value of Israeli exports to the EU annually comes to more than 13 billion dollars. These exports are subject either to no tariffs or symbolic tariff levels. Exports from the settlements to Europe include fresh fruits, vegetables, wines, honey, olive oil, eggs, poultry, and cosmetics. There are more than 1000 Israeli companies functioning in more than twelve industrial zones in the occupied Palestinian territories, and more than 23000 acres of agricultural projects exploited by Jewish settlers. This land was expropriated from its Arab owners for the benefit of the settlements under false arguments of security or by the land's designation as belonging to the Israeli state.
By allowing Israeli settlements products to be marketed in Europe, the EU indirectly contradicts its stated policy position by implying that de facto the EU recognizes the occupied territories as part of Israel.
The recent labeling decision seems at this stage symbolic rather than having a substantial effect on the Israeli economy. Its importance is in its implication that the EU position is clear cut: The occupied territories are occupied territory and Israel is an occupying authority which has to abide by the international law. So its first importance is political.
However, there shouldn't be any surprise that some Palestinians won't be satisfied by this decision. They see it as a weak effort that doesn’t oblige its application by all EU member states, and though it forces the importers and the retailers to label the settlements products it doesn’t go a step further and force a boycott of these products by European consumers.
However, the importance of this decision should not be underestimated. It must be seen as a substantial step forward necessary to lay the foundations for further steps in the future.
And what is needed is further efforts to push toward the full applicability of a boycott on Israeli settlements products, on all Israeli banks that have branches or investments in building projects in the settlements, on Israeli companies or chains which have branches in the settlements and on international companies that are involved directly or indirectly in settlement businesses or Israeli firms that are investing in the settlements.
When we talk about a boycott at this stage we mean boycotting Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, as a tool to pressure Israel to stop the process of creeping annexation of the occupied territories, and keep the door open for a future political settlement of the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution.
But if this does not work, then there will be no other option but to apply a boycott on Israel proper. This worked with the apartheid regime in South Africa and there is no reason that it will not work with Israel.
Of course, the right-wing Israeli leadership will continue its traditional policy of blackmailing Europe, by talking about the Holocaust and comparing the labeling of settlements products with the labeling of Jews and Jewish businesses by the Nazis, or by talking about anti-Semitism, by labeling as anti-Jewish those who oppose Israeli policy. Furthermore, Israel will mobilize its supporters in Europe and the U.S. to act against any such boycott measures whether against the settlements or Israel itself.
But it must be understood clearly that the aim of the boycott is not to delegitimize Israel, but to delegitimize its occupation of another people, and its push toward an apartheid regime which will escalate violence and extremism and endanger the whole region, while exporting this violence to Europe itself.
Boycotting settlement products is a necessary step on the road to prevent the development of a process conducive to one apartheid state. A boycott puts the conflict back on the track to ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a political settlement based upon the Arab Peace Initiative and the two-state solution.
Ziad Abu Zayyad is the co-editor of the Palestine Israel Journal, a former negotiator, a Palestinian Authority Minister of State and Member of the Palestinian Parliament.
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