The Palestinian West Bank is today controlled by Israel through a complex web of illegal settlements, with their associated infrastructure of separate roads, security buffer zones, checkpoints and the apartheid Wall. Illegal settlements are a cornerstone of Israel's expansionary policies aimed at confiscating more Palestinian farm lands and entrenching the military occupation. With over 600,000 Israeli citizens living in illegal settlements, Israel effectively controls over 40 percent of the West Bank including important agricultural and water resources. Gaza, on the other hand, where more than 1.7 million Palestinians are confined to a 40km long and 9km wide stretch of land, is blockaded by Israel's military with devastating effects to the population. Successive Israeli state policies ensure that Palestinian communities are confined to isolated enclaves comparable to the Bantustans of apartheid era South Africa. On the ground this has meant the destruction of the Palestinian agricultural sector through land confiscations, theft of resources, most importantly water, and the barring of agricultural exports from Gaza.
Israeli agricultural companies are part and parcel of this system of control over the Palestinian occupied territories and profit from the destruction of the Palestinian agricultural sector. For example, there are currently 36 settlements in the Jordan Valley, at least 60% of which are dependent on agricultural trade, according to new research by Palestinian human rights group Al Haq. Israeli companies such as Mehadrin and Edom operate in these illegal settlements using stolen Palestinian resources and profiting from the exploitation of Palestinian labour, including child labour.
Importantly, international trade with these Israeli agricultural companies normalizes their operations in illegal settlements and helps to make those settlements economically viable. According to photo evidence by UK organisation Corporate Watch, Israeli companies continue to mislabel their products as 'Made in Israel' when the produce is coming from occupied territories. The fact that Israel controls the occupied territories by military force means that they can easily take produce from settlements into packing houses in Israel or mislabel it right on the spot inside settlements. A policy of labeling is not enough and clearly does not even work. Al-Haq explains that labeling "does not satisfy the level of action required. … States will only fully comply with their obligations under customary international law by enforcing a ban on the trade of produce coming from Israeli settlements."
The British government insists that its current policy of merely labeling illegal settlement produce is sufficient. On 30 October 2012, Minister Alastair Burt publicly dismissed demands for a ban on trade with Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. In response to a question from Former Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, Minister Burt confirmed " the policy of successive UK Governments has been not to ban the import of settlement produce, but to support the policy of voluntary labelling to ensure consumers are fully informed." While labeling is necessary, it allows the British government to avoid its obligations by turning the issue of trade and profits from illegal Israeli settlements into one of consumer choice, rather than international law.
At the level of supermarkets there have been some important moves in the direction of banning trade with Israeli agricultural companies. The Co-Operative Group in the UK announced it would end trade with any company exporting goods from illegal Israeli settlements, no longer doing business with Mehadrin and three other Israeli companies, Agrexco, Arava and Adafresh. Karsten Farms, a leading South African agricultural company backed by one of South Africa's primary finance bodies, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), has severed its relations with the Israeli cooperative, Hadiklaim, and has also undertaken not to enter into any future relations with any Israeli entity complicit in the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Palestinian farmers' unions and organisations have called for the launch of worldwide campaigns on 9 February against Israeli agricultural export corporations in light of their deep complicity in Israel's ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights. They explain "the sale and purchase of goods from Israeli agricultural companies, such as Mehadrin and Hadiklaim, finance and reward the on-going illegal Israeli exploitation and colonisation of Palestinian land". In Gaza farmers organisations prepared for 9 February with a press conference where farmers and fishermen explained the impact of the siege on their daily lives. They will be holding a rally through Gaza city and a march towards the buffer zone to plant olive trees.
In the UK, campaigners have decided to focus their efforts on Sainsbury's supermarket in response to the call from Palestinian farmers. While Sainsbury's insists it does not sell settlement produce, new research has shown that Sainsbury's supplier EDOM is sourcing produce from illegal Israeli settlements and labelling them as 'Produce of Israel'. Sainsbury's also has a long standing history with Israeli company Mehadrin which boasts being the major exporter of Mejdoul dates. Mehadrin operates in illegal settlements and pictures from the Beqa'ot settlement show Mehadrin packaging mislabeled as produce of Israel. Campaigners are calling on Sainsbury's to follow the lead of the Co-Operative and ban trade with Israeli companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. As the UK government refuses to take meaningful action and no western government has been willing to call Israel to account for its crimes, such campaigns are the only means available to civil society to challenge UK and EU support for Israel's policies of aggression.