Senators miss the mark on Israel settlement labeling

In a move that caused a stir among U.S. lawmakers and some lobby groups, the US Customs and Border Protection agency recently issued a reminder that goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip should not be labeled “Made in Israel.” In rapid retaliation, Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonThe Hill's 12:30 Report GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Cotton: We have an 'under-incarceration problem' MORE (R-Ark.) proposed a bill to reverse the 20-year-established labeling regulation, calling it “nonsensical” and “invidious.”    

Cotton appears to be taking his cue from Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioNew Mexico GOP gov. won’t attend home-state Trump rally Rubio: 'It’s not that we lost, it’s that Donald Trump won’ Santorum endorses Trump after 'long heart-to-heart' MORE (R-Fla.) and Ron WydenRon WydenSenate panel advances spy policy bill, after House approves its own version Overnight Cybersecurity: House to offer bill on government hacking powers House to offer bill blocking government hacking powers MORE (D-Ore.) who proposed a bill objecting to the guidelines the European Union issued in November 2015 regarding labeling requirements on settlement-made products.   

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By so doing, the senators ignore that Israeli settlements are an illegal enterprise under international law.  An occupying power is, among other things, prohibited from transferring its citizens into the territory it occupies or of displacing that population. 

The senators also ignore the mass of evidence regarding the human rights abuses Israel’s settlers and military occupation forces commit against Palestinians in the occupied territories. A recent Human Rights Watch report termed these as so “pervasive” and “severe” that businesses should stop activities “inside or for the benefit of settlements.” It also said that customers had the right to know where products were from so as to make informed decisions. 

In effect, Cotton’s maneuver attempts to sidetrack public notice from the tangible human impact and illegality of Israel’s settlement enterprise. 

Let’s look at the facts. In order for a settlement to be established, large swathes of Palestinian land have to be confiscated. These settlements are guarded with checkpoints or connected through Israeli-only private roads. To make way for all of this, Palestinian homes are demolished, olive trees cleared, and access denied to touristic sites, quarries, mines, and other revenue-generating resources. 

Israel controls West Bank water and rations Palestinian use while providing lavishly for the settlements. Once Palestinians had plenty of water but today some 600,000 settlers use roughly six times more water than the entire Palestinian West Bank population of 2.86 million. 

The majority of settlements are built in 60 percent of the West Bank designated as “Area C” under the Oslo Accords – accords that the Palestinians signed to bring an end to the occupation and establish a sovereign state by 1999. 

According to a World Bank study, 68 percent of the resource-rich Area C has been reserved for Israeli settlements, while less than 1 percent has been allowed for Palestinian use. Israeli resource exploitation is concentrated in the Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea given its abundant water supply and favorable climate. Indeed, this area yields 60 percent of the date production Israel has been marketing as its own.

Meanwhile, Palestinians are prevented from living, building, or farming there under the pretext that the land is either “state land,” “a military zone,” or a “natural reserve.” 

Israel also resorts to other ways to expel Palestinians from their lands. It not only demolishes homes but also prohibits the building of schools and hospitals, and denies residents access to essential services like electricity, water, and well digging. By contrast, most settlements are designated as “national priority areas,” allowing them to receive financial incentives from the Israeli government in the area of education, health, housing construction, and industrial and agricultural development. 

Overall, the total cost of the occupation to the Palestinian economy is estimated to have reached 85 percent of Palestinian GDP – as much as $7 billion in 2010. It is undeniable that the illegal settlement enterprise has severely strangled the Palestinian economy. Without access to land and resources, the productive base of the economy is too weak to generate employment or attract investment.

It is also no surprise that the Palestinians have become dependent on foreign aid, including from taxpayers in the U.S., the EU, and elsewhere. It is particularly ironic that the U.S., one of the Palestinians’ biggest donors, does not act to put an end to the very settlement enterprise that makes foreign aid necessary. 

Given the reality of Israeli settlements, U.S. lawmakers would be well-advised to reconsider their opposition to country of origin labeling requirements. They should also challenge the fact that settlement products enjoy the same duty free status as products made in Israel, although they are in direct contravention of the stated U.S. position. 

U.S. voters should ask what more their representatives could do to ensure they are not unwilling consumers of products from illegal settlements and thereby complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights. 

U.S. lawmakers would be doing Israel a favor by getting it to abandon its occupation. The International Criminal Court is equipped to deal with such crimes as Human Rights Watch compellingly describes. Now that the State of Palestine has joined the ICC, Israel may find itself in the dock to answer for decades of land theft and colonization, and all the human rights abuses this entails. 

Arafeh is a fellow with Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and Springer is an analyst with the network.

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