Keep a close eye on the labels on products in your local supermarket over the coming months. A small but significant shift could be taking place.
A Palestinian youth stands outside an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The settlements are illegal under international law but have continued to expand.
The Israeli government has reacted furiously to the announcement of these new EU guidelines. The diplomatic reaction has involved suspending contact with EU officials and the cancellation of President Reuven Rivlin's visit to Brussels.
The illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank has been in place for nearly half a century. In that time, settlements have rapidly expanded. Palestinian communities face forced displacement, evictions and house demolitions. Their population centres are contained in disconnected urban enclaves, surrounded by fences, checkpoints and walls. These centres are often surrounded by strategically located settlements, built on confiscated land.
There are now over half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The International Court of Justice has confirmed that the settlements are illegal under international law. They remain one of the biggest obstacles to peace.
I’ve met communities who have been displaced from their homes. I’ve visited families living in tents and caves, with no electricity or running water, living under a system of Israeli military rule.
I’ve also visited nearby settlements which have swimming pools, shopping malls and universities. In these modern surroundings, the people live under Israeli civilian law.
The fact that people live under different systems of law depending on their ethnicity reminds me of the stark inequality I witnessed in South Africa under apartheid.
Last month, the EU decided to issue guidelines on the correct labelling of products ending up on European supermarket shelves which originate from Israel’s illegal settlements. For years, these products – such as herbs, fruits and vegetables - have been imported into the EU and have routinely been labelled as ‘produce of Israel’.
However, the problem is that the settlements aren’t located in Israel; they are built on occupied Palestinian land. By labelling these products as ‘made in Israel’, consumers are being misled, and could be inadvertently supporting a settlement enterprise that is illegal under international law.
Arabiya Shawamreh, whose home in the West Bank has been demolished five times by the Israeli army, calls on Europe to stop trading with illegal settlements.
As horrific violence consumes Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory once again, it is clear that efforts towards peace are needed more than ever. Too many Israeli and Palestinian civilians have died. The step that the EU has taken to differentiate between Israel and the settlements is small in the bigger picture, but a significant step in the right direction.
In recent years the EU has taken steps to ensure settlements are ineligible for EU research grants and funding, have prevented imports into the EU of products of animal origin and organic products from settlements, and 21 Member States including Ireland issued messages to business urging caution against carrying out economic activities in the settlements. The introduction of the new labelling guidelines for settlement products represents the latest step in the EU’s effort to differentiate between Israel and the settlements – a differentiation that is already extremely clear under international law.
Is this a sign that the EU is beginning to stand up to Israel on its human rights record? It is definitely a positive step, and Ireland should be congratulated in its efforts to persuade other EU partners to take a stronger line. However, given the extraordinary human rights abuses being carried out in the West Bank, it is simply astonishing that we are trading with illegal Israeli settlements at all.
Grave violations of human rights should not be treated solely as a matter of consumer choice. It is up to Ireland and other EU members to build on these guidelines and to push further for an EU ban on trade and investment with Israeli settlements.
That could have a far greater impact on the ground, and could see the EU playing a significant role in putting the much needed pressure on Israel to halt its aggressive expansion of settlements, and ultimately for bringing about peace for Palestinians and Israelis.
This article was first published in The Sunday Business Post on December 20th, 2015.