EU takes aim at Israeli settler products
EU foreign ministers have "warned" Israel they will take a tougher approach to exports originating in illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
The ministers in a statement on Monday (14 May) detailing Israel's long-term campaign to expropriate Palestinian farmers in the West Bank said: "The EU and its member states reaffirm their commitment to fully and effectively implement existing EU legislation and the bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products."
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Under EU law settler products are excluded from preferential import tariffs in the 12-year-old EU-Israel association agreement.
Israel is obliged to indicate the originating postcode of each shipment, while member states' customs authorities are to cross-check the information against a list of settlement postcodes to see which tariffs apply.
According to Human Rights Watch's Jerusalem-based analyst Bill Van Esveld, Israeli authorities get around it by coding settlement products under the firms' corporate headquarters in Israel proper or by bundling them together with Israel-proper-origin goods. Meanwhile, the lack of clear product-origin labels makes it hard for European consumers to choose whether or not to buy the items.
"You can find white wine made in the Golan Heights in [leading] supermarkets in Belgium," Stuart Reigeluth, an activist with the Brussels-based NGO the Council for European Palestinian Relations, told EUobserver, referring to Syrian land annexed by Israel in 1981.
According to commission figures, the EU is Israel's number two import destination after the US, buying some €11.6 billion worth of Israeli goods each year.
An EU diplomat told this website the ministers' statement on imports "should be seen as a warning to Israel."
He noted that the "substantially tougher" language in the EU communique was prompted by acceleration in settler activity last year, putting in danger the EU's preferred solution of a separate state for Palestinians alongside Israel.
He added that "the usual suspects" - referring to pro-Israel countries the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands - were joined by Bulgaria and Romania in trying to water down the language at the last minute.
For his part, Irish foreign minister Eamon Gilmore told press after Monday's meeting that Dublin might propose an outright import ban on settler products during its EU presidency in early 2013.
"I think we may have to look at the question of banning products from settlement areas into the EU. We have always resisted the idea of boycotts in relation to Israel. But I think a distinction has to be drawn here between Israel and the settlements," he said, according to the Irish Times.
EU ambassadors based in Ramallah have long advocated a boycott, as well as a visa ban on settler radicals, in internal EU reports. But their ideas never saw the light of day.
Monday's EU communique also reiterated EU support for Israeli security and castigated Palestinian militants for rocket attacks out of Gaza.
The Israeli foreign ministry in a statement published the same day said the EU criticism is "based on a partial, biased and one-sided depiction of realities on the ground." It added that "Israel is committed to the well-being of the Palestinian population."