The New Frontier for BDS: Targeting Settler Businesses

Too many progressive Jews think criticizing Israeli policies on the occupation is enough, but it's not working. Challenging settler businesses to shut up shop is the new frontier for BDS.

Palestinians work at a textile factory in the Industrial Park of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Barkan, southwest of Nablus, November 8, 2015.
Reuters

Progressive American Jews are generally not reluctant to criticize the occupation, but few in the “mainstream Jewish community” (those who get invited to the White House Hanukkah party) will advocate serious measures to hold anyone accountable. At the HaaretzQ conference in New York in December, for example, not a single Jewish speaker advocated any kind of BDS.  A few vaguely referred to putting “pressure” on Israel (Colette Avital, former Israeli consul general to New York City; and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum) or to making sure there were “consequences” (Lara Friedman, legislative director Americans For Peace Now), but no one got too specific. BDS is high treif and they know it. Calling for it explicitly would be illegal in Israel, subjecting one to civil fines and other penalties; and the kiss of death in America.   

While the Jewish world dithers, the world is moving on, developing more consequential tools to hold accountable those who commit or are complicit in occupation-related abuses.

One is the European Union’s campaign of “differentiation,” by which the EU declares it will not give effect to anything Israel does as purported sovereign authority of the settlements. “We love Israel,” the EU, in effect, declares, “but the settlements are not Israel. We (Europe) want to trade with you (Israel), and deepen ties of all sorts but we will end all engagement with settlements.” Thus, the EU henceforth refuses to import products from the settlements that are mislabeled “made in Israel.”  Similarly, where government certifications are necessary preconditions to importation, of agricultural products such as “organic” or “safe,” Israel’s certification is not accepted.  

And this is just the beginning. New EU rules are going into effect that are harsher than expected, motivated in part by repressive Israeli legislation against anti-occupation activists.  

Why now? The EU finally just got fed up with the lack of progress towards the two-state solution, according to EU scholar Mattia Toaldo.

The second comes from Human Rights Watch in a new report, ”Occupation, Inc.: How Settlement Businesses Contribute to Israel’s Violations of Palestinian Rights,” released today addressing not the government of Israel but settlement businesses themselves.  

Settlement businesses owe their very existence to land confiscation, a dual legal system, discrimination, and suppression of Palestinian business opportunities, according to Human Rights Watch.  Born in sin, the same violations allow them to prosper at the expense of Palestinian economic growth and health. Their continued operation amounts to ongoing complicity in the violations and the only solution is for them to leave. According to the Report:  

Businesses should stop operating in, financing, servicing, or trading with Israeli settlements in order to comply with their human rights responsibilitiesThose activities contribute to and benefit from an inherently unlawful and abusive system that violates the rights of Palestinians.

[S]ettlement businesses facilitate the growth and operations of settlements. These businesses depend on and contribute to the Israeli authorities’ unlawful confiscation of Palestinian land and other resources. They also benefit from these violations, as well as Israel’s discriminatory policies that provide privileges to settlements at the expense of Palestinians, such as access to land and water, government subsidies, and permits for developing land.

Some of the facts reported will not be new to those who follow the issue but the conclusion is: There is no way to mitigate your complicity. Your only legal option is voluntarily to cease your settlement business activity.   

What is the chance that any business will read this report and shut down? One of the “case studies” was a small manufacturer producing linens for a major American retail chain who decided before publication of the report to relocate its factory to Israel.

Which raises one of the most serious problems with the report’s conclusion—the Soda Stream question:  How is it moral to the thousands of Palestinians who work in businesses in Area C to have those businesses shut down and deprive them of their good jobs? It’s a fair question and HRW provides a deeply disturbing answer. Apart from Palestinian settlement workers’ vulnerability to labor abuses because of the legal gray zone in settlements, the whole settlement project is a major impediment to the emergence of a healthy Palestinian economy which could employ tens of thousands of Palestinians. As the report notes, the World Bank estimated in 2013 that the cost of Israeli restrictions on Palestinians in Area C, many of which are settlement-related, cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion annually.   

Too many progressive Jews of good will do not get it. Prominent sociologist Steven M. Cohen said, “In the larger scheme of things, I do get that businesses make the settlement enterprise work. But our criticism should be focused on the government that initiates and sustains the policies that impel and compel business owners and workers to support the illegitimate settlement enterprise - and not the individuals themselves who are going about their daily lives as best they can.”

But this totally misses the point. Settlement businesses help make settler life possible. Should we carve out exceptions to these violations in order to ensure that people can continue to comfortably live within a system that comes at such grave cost to Palestinians? Does ending the abuse of Palestinian rights need to wait for the Israeli political elite to be convinced to change government policy?

As we have just celebrated Martin Luther King Day and Shabbat Tzedek, who thinks Palestinians and the rest of us should put justice on hold?  

Kathleen Peratis is co-chair of the Middle East North Africa Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch and an emerita member of its board of trustees.  A lawyer in New York, she is a frequent commentator on Israel and the Middle East. She is writing in her personal capacity.

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This article was amended on January 28 to reflect the fact that calling for a boycott of Israel is a violation of civil law and not criminal law, as originally published.