Israel's settlements – civilian communities built on land occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War – are widely accepted to be illegal under international law. They have been classified as such by the International Court of Justice and repeatedly by the United Nations, which holds that the settlements violate the fourth Geneva Convention. Not a single foreign government supports Israel's settlement programme, and even its staunch allies in America and the UK make statements criticising it as a barrier to peace.
Yet despite this rare unity of international opinion, beyond such statements, very little has been done to make Israel dismantle its settlements, or to prevent them from expanding further and further into Palestinian land. Indeed, during Israel's election campaign in January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledged that if he were elected, not a single settlement would be dismantled. Settler politicians such as Naftali Bennett have explicitly spoken about settlements changing the "facts on the ground" and making a two-state solution unviable.
Against this intransigence, could international powers be starting to move away from empty statements? This week, the British government issued an explicit warning to businesses about the risks of involvement in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The guidance was published by UK Trade and Investment, a government body that works with British businesses in international markets. It stated that there are "clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity."
The report goes on to outline the specific risks which UK and EU businesses may face if they do business in Israeli settlements: "Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel's territory."
Although the report stresses that "the UK government is deeply committed to promoting our trade and business ties with Israel and strongly opposes boycotts," it has been seized upon by proponents of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Rafeef Ziadah of the Palestinian BDS national committee told the Guardian that in issuing this guidance, the British government had "started to address the huge amount of economic support that the illegal settlements receive from UK businesses" However, she added that just issuing guidance didn't go far enough, and that Britain should take a "proactive" approach to stopping investment in the settlements.
While there is no benefit in overstating the warning – which stops far short of taking active steps to make businesses end dealings with West Bank settlements – this comes against a backdrop of anti-settlement rulings in Europe and the UK. Earlier this year, the EU said that it would no longer give funds or grants to bodies with links to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This included research and academic institutions. The British government also introduced voluntary guidelines for retailers on clearly labelling produce from settlements.
The Israeli embassy in London and the foreign ministry in Israel have both expressed concern. The Haaretz newspaper quotes a senior foreign ministry official as saying that issuing this recommendation will do harm to current talks with Palestinians (a bizarre claim given that continued settlement activity is widely accepted to be one of the main impediments to peace). The official also points out that "no similar recommendations were issued regarding other regions in dispute, like the western Sahara, which is under Moroccan occupation, or Tibet."
These comments do little to address the actual question of legality. On this, the guidance was unequivocal, restating the British government's official position: "The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights are territories which have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible."
But, of course, guidance is just guidance. It may be seen as a step in the right direction by those opposed to illegal settlement construction, but it stops far short of penalising investment in West Bank settlements. Perhaps seeking to smooth over any potential diplomatic tension, the British embassy in Tel-Aviv has stressed that the guidance is voluntary and was aimed only at alerting business people and companies to the risks. The choice over these investments remains up to the individual or company in question. However, in saying that it will not "encourage nor offer support to such activity", the British government has made one of its strongest statements on settlements yet.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.