Charges against four Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigners have been dropped in London because of the clearly illegal activities of an Israeli cosmetics firm against which the four had been demonstrating. The case threw up some unusual and possibly ground-breaking legal arguments.
Under international law, Israel’s settlements on the occupied West Bank are illegal. The European Union, the United Nations and the International Court of Justice have all confirmed the illegality of the settlements, a position acknowledged by the majority of the world’s nations. Given that well-established fact, it follows that companies which use illegally occupied land to produce and sell products of any kind are producing and selling illegal goods. It also follows that anyone buying such goods is helping to finance the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land. This is the message that BDS campaigners have been trying to get across to the general public.
Every other weekend there is a small demonstration held outside Ahava, an Israeli-owned beauty and cosmetic store in London’s trendy Covent Garden. It is held to protest against the sale of beauty products which are made in the illegal Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Shalem in the Occupied West Bank and made with mud taken from the Dead Sea near Kaliya. This happens without the permission of, or compensation for, the Palestinians to whom the land truly belongs.
In September and December 2009 four campaigners went into the Ahava store, tied themselves to two concrete filled oil drums and refused to leave. This resulted in the shop being closed down for several hours on each occasion. The “Ahava Four” were charged subsequently with two counts of trespass offences under section 68 and section 69 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
When the case came to court, the first charge was dropped by the prosecution on the very first day because section 68 is an offence of aggravated trespass whereby the offence requires the accused to be found trespassing on land and doing something to disrupt or obstruct any “lawful activity” on that land. Of course, if Ahava is selling products from an illegal settlement then it is not engaged in lawful activity, so the campaigners were not disrupting or obstructing “lawful activity”. The prosecution had a problem right from the start and the fact that it dropped the charge speaks for itself.
Furthermore, Ahava labels its products “Made by Dead Sea Laboratories Limited, Dead Sea, Israel”, in clear violation of British law; firms are considered to be committing an offence if their labels provide the public with misleading information about the origins of their products (Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008). By labelling products manufactured in an illegal settlement as products of Israel the company is in breach of UK trading standards. According to the British Government’s own DEFRA guidelines 2009, “the government considers that traders would be misleading consumers, and would therefore almost certainly be committing an offence, if they were to declare produce from the [Occupied Palestinian Territories] (including from the West Bank) as ‘Produce of Israel…’ This is because the area does not fall within the internationally recognised borders of the state of Israel.” As such, if the prosecution had decided to take the case against the demonstrators any further, this would have given rise to a legal ruling on these issues too, one which many Israeli settlement companies are unwilling to risk.
The second set of charges relating to section 69 were also dropped because the Ahava branch manager, who was called to be the primary witness, refused to attend court despite being issued with a court summons and the threat of an arrest warrant being issued against her. This was probably an attempt to avoid having Ahava’s activities being opened up for public scrutiny if the case proceeded.
As it stands, this can be counted as a legal success for the BDS movement as it shows that companies such as Ahava know that what they are doing is ultimately indefensible. It should serve as a wakeup call to them and all other companies engaged in similar illegal activities that they are in breach of both UK domestic and international law and that if they continue to produce and sell illegal settlement goods they will not do so unopposed.
The outcome of this case will probably also serve to embolden protesters and campaigners against Ahava and companies like it. Protests against Ahava are not just confined to London; in America, CodePink (an American, women led, anti-war peace group) have been leading a promising campaign against the company. They have campaigned in New York, Texas, Washington and other parts of the US with banner slogans such as “Ahava is a dirty business” and “Ahava puts a pretty face on its crimes”. Elsewhere, groups such as the Dutch Bathrobe Brigade have held numerous protests in Amsterdam and French campaigners are also engaged in protests and legal challenges against companies like Sephora (a French cosmetic retain chain) which sell Ahava products.
What is surprising is that it is left to individuals and BDS groups to bring these issues to light. When it is so obvious that laws are being broken, the British and other governments and their agencies should be enforcing their own laws. Until they do, more and more people are joining the BDS movement daily, each one of whom will do their part to put an end to the shameful trade in illegal settlement goods.