Patience Runs Out EU To Crack Down on Israeli Settlement Products
Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian terroritories often deceptively give their products a "Made in Israel" label. The European Union wants to move soon to end the practice and appears to be set on a collision course with the country.
The wine section on the basement floor of the Galeria Kaufhof department store in downtown Cologne has a good assortment of wines from around the world. Above the bottles, the shelves bear little tags showing the prices and flags of the countries of origin.
One cubicle has a tag showing a blue Star of David on a white background. At first glance, one might be led to believe that the wine comes from Israel. It even says "Wine of Israel" on the label. However, it requires a good bit of geographical and historical expertise to figure out the true origin of this 14.99 ($20) bottle of wine. The label says it is a 2008 "Gamla" Cabernet Sauvignon, "Produced & Bottled by Golan Heights Winery." The address provided is "12900 Katzrin, Israel."
But that address isn't in Israel. Katzrin is a settlement in the Golan Heights. Until the Six Day War of 1967, the rock plateau stretching some 60 kilometers (37 miles) belonged to Syria. The Israeli army has occupied both it and the Palestinian West Bank ever since.
The international community has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over these areas, and the Geneva Convention outlaws the establishment of settlements within occupied territories. Nevertheless, successive Israeli governments have allowed colonies to be built up within them and, today, some 650,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently confirmed what little concern the Israeli government has for respecting international law on this issue. "The days of bulldozers flattening settlements to the ground are over," he told the daily tabloid Maariv.
Israel held parliamentary elections on Jan. 22 and is now in the process of forming a new coalition government to be led by Netanyahu. Although the coalition will include the liberal parties in the political center, politicians representing settlers will also have a strong voice in the new government. This configuration is diminishing the hopes of politicians in Berlin, Brussels and Washington who were eager to revive the comatose Middle East peace process.
This has prompted the European Union officials to move forward with planning that will put them on a confrontation course with Israel. The main issue is settlement policies. At a meeting in December, the foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states reiterated "their commitment to ensure continued, full and effective implementation of existing European Union legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products." In other words, they intend to prohibit the sale of goods produced in the occupied territories -- or at least as long as they are falsely labelled.
Sanctions against products from the settlements would be a major blow to the Israeli economy. Each year, the settlers export some 220 million worth of goods to Europe, whereas the comparable figure for the Palestinians is a mere 15 million. Israel has accordingly reacted very negatively to the plans in Brussels. In a response to the plans, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin argued that there are territorial disputes all over the world. "If this kind of labelling regulation is not universal, and seeks to single out one place exclusively, namely Israel," it said, "then this measure will be inherently iniquitous and discriminatory by nature, and it should be treated as such."
Such charges have not been intimidating to officials in Brussels. Employees of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU diplomatic service ushered in by the Treaty of Lisbon, recently sifted through the entire corpus of EU legislation in order to determine which directives and regulations could be cited in efforts to ban settler-made products. The list of applicable legislation, which SPIEGEL has obtained, shows that the lion's share of potentially banned products involves foodstuffs.
Difficulties in Verifying Origins
For example, European Council Regulation 1234/2007 sets rules "on specific provisions for certain agricultural products," including wine. Among the product information that must be declared is origin. But, in practice, the law is constantly violated.
Council Regulation 479/2008 stipulates who is responsible for monitoring that wine is properly labelled. Article 62 says: "The competent authorities of the Member States shall take measures to ensure that a product referred to in Article 59(1)" -- including wine and related grapevine products -- "not labelled in conformity with this Chapter is not placed on, or is withdrawn from, the market."
The red wine from the Golan Heights sold in the Galeria Kaufhof is imported to Germany by Champagner und Wein Distributionsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, a company based in the northern German state of in Schleswig-Holstein. But the state's ministry responsible for agriculture doesn't see any reason to take action. A ministry spokeswoman says that since Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor has already provided a document confirming the origin of the wine, there is no deception in the matter.
The EU member states also rely on the information supplied by Israeli exporters when it comes to fruit and vegetables. It is difficult to verify precisely where an orange or olive has been harvested. Right now, one of the main things EU officials are looking into are dates that are grown by Israeli settlers in the occupied Jordan Valley.
Products from Israeli cosmetics firm Ahava are also the subject of dispute. The company produces creams and shower gels that contain minerals from the Dead Sea. The products' packaging includes the details, "Dead Sea Laboratories. Israel." In truth, the products are manufactured at the edge of the Dead Sea in the occupied West Bank.
The company refused to answer detailed legal questions. "Ahava works in coordination with the German authorities, the European Commission and under the law," the company stated, tersely. But the apparent calm was feigned. Ahava immediately informed the Israeli Embassy in Berlin about SPIEGEL's reporting.
The German importer of Ahava products is based in Wiesbaden, so any control of its products is the responsibility of the city, which is the state capital of Hesse. In a written response to a query from SPIEGEL, the city's consumer protection department wrote that because the company's headquarters is officially located within the recognized borders of the state of Israel, "nothing misleading can be detected."
Countries Turn Blind Eye to Imports
But officials at the EU in Brussels have a different view. Under EU Regulation 2005/29, a trader is considered to be conducting misleading actions when it presents material information "in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner." The European Commission considers such practices to be "misleading omissions". Officials in Brussels have come to the conclusion that controllers in many EU member states are simply turning a blind eye to products originating from Israeli settlements.
A SPIEGEL review of all 27 EU national governments confirmed this suspicion. The simple question of whether or not products from settlements in the West Bank or the Golan Heights "come from Israel" generated highly varied answers. Britain, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Cyprus all answered the question with a clear "no". These countries consider products with the labels "Product of Israel" or "Made in Israel" to be misleading. A spokesperson with the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote that, "Items imported into the UK from Israeli settlements, such as those in the West Bank, can't lawfully be labelled as products of Israel."
Other EU countries expressed uncertainty. Given the country's difficult history, officials in Germany are taking pains to avoid anything that might evoke any kind of historical associations with the Nazis' campaigns to prevent people from buying products from Jews. German government officials are urging the European Commission to provide "guidance assistance on the implementation of EU law in relation to a consistency with EU law and correct labelling."
A number of EU countries see no problem whatsoever with the labelling. They point out that sales are legal as soon as customs officials have approved the products. However, the only thing that customs officials check is whether or not the products fall under the EU-Israel Association Agreement. If they do, then importers are not required to pay an import tariff.
The Galeria Kaufhof department store chain also sees no reason to act. The company argues it is the sole responsibility of suppliers to ensure proper labelling. The company also spoke to the Israeli Embassy in Berlin before answering a question from this SPIEGEL reporter. "Suppliers and the embassy were able to give us credible assurances that their actions are legal," a company spokesman wrote.
He also added that "Galeria Kaufhof, like the majority of the people, wish the Middle East peace."