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By Justin Kilcullen, Executive Director of Trócaire.
This article was first published in The Irish Times on 4 October 2012
If a factory was constructed on land seized off a neighbouring enterprise and had repeatedly been deemed illegal by the highest courts in the land, it would be highly improbable that it would continue to be permitted to trade. Its operation would be closed down; its produce made disappear from our supermarket shelves.
And yet this situation is not as far fetched as it appears.
The Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been built on occupied land. Their very existence has been repeatedly deemed illegal by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. The EU has been an outspoken critic of the settlements, yet goods produced there continue to be stocked on European supermarket shelves.
Irish and EU policy towards the Israeli settlements defies logic. We consider them illegal, yet we economically support them. We repeatedly criticise them, yet we pursue policies which benefit them. Our relationship with these illegal settlements is defined by empty words and implicit support. We condemn them with statements and support them with actions.
Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank began in 1967, the settlements have been promoted and expanded under every Israeli government. Today, 42 per cent of West Bank land has been allocated to the establishment of over 200 settlements, now home to over 500,000 Israeli settlers.
In many cases, these settlers are given generous economic incentives to set up home in luxurious compounds on land the international community recognises as being Palestinian. Continued settlement expansion is recognised by the EU as one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the region. In May 2012, the EU Foreign Affairs Council recognised the urgency of the situation on the ground and condemned developments “which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”.
Israel has created in the West Bank a regime of separation and discrimination, with two separate systems of law in the same territory. It is a system in which rights depend on the national identity of the individual. One system grants settlers the rights of citizens in a democratic state; the other system imposes military law and restrictions of movement on Palestinian civilians. The settlements have successfully turned the West Bank into a series of disconnected Palestinian enclaves. It is roughly equivalent to an area previously the size of Dublin, Louth, Meath and Westmeath being reduced to the size of just Meath. Palestinians ‘enjoy’ autonomy in urban centres such as Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah, yet these centres are completely surrounded by land under strict Israeli military control. Living in an open prison does not equate to freedom.
Palestinians living in the West Bank endure checkpoints, inferior roads, separation walls, water shortages, restrictions on movement, house demolitions and land confiscations. Israelis living in illegal settlements in the West Bank enjoy tax breaks, access to swimming pools and all the rights and amenities enjoyed by citizens of a developed economy.
This system is supported economically by the continued trade with illegal settlements. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, with €12.6bn worth of Israeli exports entering the European market in 2011. Israel has a right to exist in peace, and trading with legitimate Israeli businesses is beneficial for both Israel and Europe. However, a distinction must be made between the legitimate state of Israel and the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israel refuses to distinguish between goods produced in Israel and in illegal settlements, so it is therefore not possible to definitively state the value of settlement exports into the EU. Israel estimates settlement exports to the EU at approximately €96m, while other estimates have put the figure higher towards €160m. Whatever the exact value, every euro put into the settlements is a euro spent supporting ongoing breaches of international law.
Many Irish major retailers stock Israeli produce, and it is highly likely that some of the dates, oranges, grapes, herbs, avocados, peppers, potatoes and other fresh produce on sale here are being sourced from the settlements. Furthermore, a number of Irish stores stock plastic goods, including garden furniture, produced in settlement industrial zones. Each of these goods is produced on the back of widespread human rights abuses which make life for ordinary Palestinians a misery.
Speaking in May, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore TD, announced that if “matters continued to worsen” in the occupied Palestinian territories, Ireland may propose “the exclusion from the EU of settlement products”. On 19th September, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade backed this proposal, and has further called on the Tánaiste to implement a national ban on imports to Ireland from the settlements.
The time has come for the EU to end its incoherent approach towards the settlements. We must back up our words with actions. The Irish government should ban the importation of illegal settlement goods into Ireland and push their European counterparts for similar action.