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22nd Jan 2021

Pro-Israeli group scores own goal on EU retail labels

  • Psagot says it is located in 'the heart of Israel', but its vineyards are in the occupied West Bank (Photo: psagotwines.com)

Wine or food made by Israeli settlers on occupied land must be so labelled in European shops so that people can avoid buying it if they want to, the EU court in Luxembourg has ruled.

The verdict, published on Tuesday (12 November), is likely to boost enforcement of EU guidelines on the subject first published in 2015.

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And it represents a spectacular own goal by a pro-Israeli group, which brought the original case in France.

Any "foodstuffs" that come from Israeli settlements "must" in future carry a label which says "product originating in the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement)" or "product originating in the West Bank (Israeli settlement)" or an equivalent, the EU court said.

Such labels were needed so that people could avoid buying them if they wanted due to "ethical considerations", the court added.

And those considerations arose from the fact Israeli farms and vineyards on occupied land "give concrete expression to a policy of population transfer" which is "in violation" of the 1949 Geneva conventions on the rules of war, as well as UN resolutions and rulings by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the EU tribunal added.

Tuesday's verdict came after the Organisation Juive Europeenne, a French-based NGO, and Psagot, an Israeli firm which makes wine on occupied land, had challenged France's implementation of an EU retail code.

The code, first published in 2015, had also called for "Israeli settlement" labels.

But new research by the European Middle East Project (EUMEP), a Brussels-based NGO, has indicated it was poorly enforced.

Just 10 percent of wines made by Israeli firms in West Bank, which belongs to the Palestinians, and in the Golan Heights, which belongs to Syria, had EU-compliant labels, its research, which surveyed 189 retailers in the 28 EU countries, showed.

Most of what it called "settlement wines" were being sold in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, it noted.

French, German, and Italian retailers were the most compliant, while Belgian and British ones had "almost" zero correct labels, it said.

Its study covered only wineries "directly based in settlements" and not ones "that have some of their vineyards in the occupied territories" and it did not cover other foodstuffs, such as dates or herbs.

"In this sense, our research focused on the relatively easy group of settlement products where compliance levels should be the highest," it said.

That made the Organisation Juive Europeenne and Psagot's challenge an own goal because the EU ruling ought to lead to stricter enforcement.

"The judgement ... reduces wiggle room for member states," EUMEP's Martin Konecny told EUobserver.

"With the court's backing, the EU should look at ways to ensure that settlement products are correctly designated by their Israeli exporters, prior to entering the EU, otherwise we'll have a continued pattern of systemic mis-designation," he added.

The EU imports about €30bn a year of Israeli products.

The "systemic misdesignation" means the European Commission does not know how much of this comes from settlements.

Its best guess is "a marginal percentage", it previously told EUobserver.

And that makes the Organisation Juive Europeenne and Psagot's French challenge look even more self-defeating, given the EU court's big statements on "forced transfers" and Geneva "violations" vis-a-vis the tiny economic stake.

For its part, the Lawfare Project, a US-based pro-Israeli litigation club, reacted with fury on Tuesday.

The verdict allowed "anyone to sue to add labelling requirements based on subjective 'ethical considerations'," it said in a statement.

EU diplomats based in Ramallah and East Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank have for years chronicled Israeli abuses against Palestinian natives, whose farms are starved of water and whose businesses are strangled by Israeli restrictions on free movement.

But the Lawfare Project accused the EU judges of taking sides with "Muslims" due to "bigotry".

"This decision mandates religious discrimination, treating Jewish-owned and Muslim-owned businesses differently even if they operate in the same geographic location," it said.

"Treating people differently because of their religion is the definition of bigotry and we know what happens when Europe goes down that track," the Lawfare Project's director, Brooke Goldstein, added, invoking Holocaust guilt.

"Product labelling is the next step in demonisation," of Israel, NGO-Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group which calls itself an NGO, but which operates as an offshoot of the Israeli foreign ministry, also said.

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