Human Rights Watch report ramps up pressure on Israeli settlement activity


The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a year ago has led to an accelerating war of words over Israeli settlements, with Israel accusing its growing chorus of foreign critics of prejudging the final terms of a peace deal at best – and anti-Semitism at worst.

The battle heated up this week with the release of a report by Human Rights Watch arguing that doing business with West Bank settlements reinforces Israel’s presence there and contributes to human rights abuses.

The report comes a day after the European Union, which in November announced new guidelines to label Israeli exports produced in the settlements, declared that any agreement with Israel “must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.”

And the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, while not going nearly as far, decried Israel’s seizure of West Bank lands and what he described as a two-tiered justice system.

“Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities; too much vigilantism goes unchecked; and at times there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians,” Shapiro said in a speech Monday that otherwise extolled U.S.-Israel closeness.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was infuriated by the remarks, calling them “unacceptable and incorrect.” But his wider strategy against the settlement criticism has been to lump such efforts together with the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, and liken them to the pre-Holocaust boycotts of Jewish businesses in Europe.

“Because bureaucracies or set patterns entrench themselves, and then we get the absurdity of the EU in Brussels, from European soil, labeling the products of Israeli citizens, of Jews,” Netanyahu told foreign reporters last week. “And the last time that was done on the soil of Europe was over 70 years ago.”

Israel has largely been able to stave off questions about the status of the West Bank as long as it seemed substantially engaged in the peace process. But developments this week seem to confirm warnings last year that the collapse of the peace process, followed by statements from Netanyahu on the eve of his reelection in March that appeared to reject the possibility of Palestinian statehood, would lead the United States and Europe to focus anew on the settlements, if only as a means of keeping open the option for a two-state solution.

The Human Rights Watch report argues plainly that trading with the settlements entrenches Israel in the West Bank and makes businesses a partner in the oppression of the Palestinians. It recommends that businesses “avoid financing, administering or otherwise supporting settlements or settlement-related activities and infrastructure, such as through contracting to purchase settlement-manufactured goods or agricultural produce, to ensure the businesses are not indirectly contributing to and benefiting from such activities.”

The report cites an example of how bringing attention to Israeli practices in the West Bank can impede them. Human Rights Watch contacted a factory in a West Bank settlement that its researchers found provided linens for an American retailer and was underpaying its Palestinian laborers.

“During the conversations that followed, the factory agreed to close its operations in Barkan and locate to new facilities inside Israel,” the group reported, without naming the parties.

“We are not looking for problems,” Human Rights Watch quoted the factory’s co-owner as telling the group. “It seems it really bothers people that we’re there, so we’ll leave.”

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups insist that such efforts to target settlements are aimed at setting the terms of a final peace deal. In December, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee posted a lengthy analysis of the European Union’s decision on settlement labeling.

“The EU’s action — taken outside the context of peace negotiations — is designed to impose Brussels’ vision of Israel’s future borders,” said AIPAC, a prominent pro-Israel lobby. “These commercial attacks against Israel increase the prospect of isolating the Jewish state, while strengthening its most vitriolic critics and slowing the pursuit of peace.”

The fight over settlements is also playing out in Congress and state houses. AIPAC has garnered bipartisan support through congressional statements rejecting attempts to single out settlements. And several state-level legislative moves to target BDS explicitly include attempts to distinguish the settlements.

Pro-Israel groups on the left argue that such efforts are mutually self-defeating. Attempts to isolate settlements are a good thing, they say, as they help neutralize the wider BDS movement.

“A more accurate labeling system, as Israel never annexed the West Bank, will allow European residents to make purchases according to ideological considerations,” Americans for Peace Now said at the time of the European labeling decision. “This system will help curb efforts to boycott Israel entirely, such as those advocated by the BDS movement.”

Stick to Israeli settlement guidelines, ex-European leaders urge EU


Former European officials and heads of state called on the European Union not to relax new guidelines on Israeli settlements.

Fifteen members of the European Eminent Persons Group sent a letter Monday to EU foreign ministers urging them to keep in place the guidelines, which make Israeli entities and activities in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights ineligible for EU grants and prizes.

Last week, the EU sent to Israel a diplomatic team to talk to Israeli officials about implementing the guidelines.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the European Union to postpone their implementation, saying it would help facilitate the restarted peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The letter specifically references the Horizon 2020 program to promote scientific research and development. Israel is the only non-European country that has been asked to join the prestigious program and talks on Israel’s signing already are underway.

“With great concern we have taken note of recent calls to delay, modify or even suspend the European Commission guidelines on funding of Israeli entities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967,” the letter read. “We urge you to uphold this commitment by supporting the guidelines and their full application by EU institutions, notably in regard to the ongoing negotiations about Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020.”

The letter suggests that softening the guidelines would “undermine the Palestinians’ trust in the negotiation process and their ability to continue the talks.”

In response to the letter, the European Jewish Congress called the guidelines “discriminatory” and said the letter “is a danger to peace, as it hands one side a political victory without having to compromise and deepens the Palestinian feeling that they can gain more outside of negotiations than in them.”

The European Union has argued that the guidelines put into writing a long-standing policy.

EU, Russia condemn Israeli settlement expansion plans


The European Union and Russia on Friday denounced Israel's plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and urged Israelis and Palestinians to take “bold and concrete steps towards peace.”

Israeli officials said this week they would press on with plans to build 6,000 homes for settlers on land claimed by Palestinians, defying criticism from Western powers who fear the move will damage already faint hopes for a peace accord.

“The European Union and the Russian Federation are deeply dismayed by and strongly oppose Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and in particular plans to develop the E1 area,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

E1 is a wedge of land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank where Israel had previously held off under U.S. pressure.

“The EU and the Russian Federation underline the urgency of renewed, structured and substantial peace efforts in 2013,” said the joint statement after an EU-Russia summit in Brussels.

Stung by de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty by the U.N. General Assembly last month, Israel announced it would expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Many countries deem the settlements illegal and have been especially troubled by Israel's declared intent to build in E1.

The EU and Russia, which together with the United States and the United Nations make up the Quartet of Middle East mediators, said the settlements were illegal under international law and were an obstacle to peace.

“The EU and the Russian Federation will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties,” they said.

It was time to take “bold and concrete steps towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis”, they said, calling for “direct and substantial negotiations without preconditions”.

The EU and Russia called for the unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of goods and people to and from the Gaza Strip, and urged Israel to avoid any step that would undermine the financial situation of the Palestinian Authority.

They urged the Palestinian leadership to use Palestine's new U.N. status constructively and avoid steps that would deepen lack of trust and lead further away from a negotiated solution.

Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alistair Lyon