The UK advertising watchdog is facing calls for an inquiry after rejecting a complaint about an Israeli government-issued tourism brochure depicting the West Bank as part of Israel.
Cross-party MPs and Palestine solidarity campaigners have slammed the decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with the Palestinian ambassador to the UK warning that the ruling gives a green light to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to 'annex' the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The brochure, an official publication of the Israeli Government Tourism Office (IGTO), is titled 'Your Next Vacation: Israel' and features a map that shows 'Israel' incorporating the territory of the West Bank, which is labelled 'Samaria' and 'Judean Desert'.
The use internationally of such a map by an Israeli government ministry is particularly awkward, in light of the frequent accusations by senior Israeli officials of so-called Palestinian 'incitement', or complaints about the maps used in Palestinian textbooks.
In early June, I initiated a complaint with the ASA, after being given the booklet at the Israeli tourism stall in the Christian Resources Exhibition International, held in London in May. The IGTO also makes the booklet available online for all UK tourists.
The map, as can be seen in this article, clearly implies that the Occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), as well as the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights, are part of Israel. There is no mention anywhere of the West Bank, OPT, or even the Gaza Strip.
The map does show 'Area A' and Area B', where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited autonomy. However, Areas A and Area B combined constitute approximately 40 percent of the entire West Bank, divided into 227 separate 'pieces'. The key does not mention Area C at all.
My complaint contended that by implying the West Bank is part of Israel, the IGTO advert was in breach of the advertising code, which states marketing communications must not "mislead the consumer by omitting material information" or "materially mislead or be likely to do so."
Responding to the complaint, the IGTO claimed "it would be unduly onerous and inappropriate for tourism ads to include political statements when referring to places of international dispute, unless they had a practical impact on the plans of a tourist intending to visit those places."
Yet it is the Israeli government map, which labels the West Bank as 'Samaria' and 'Judean Desert', which makes the 'political statement'. Indeed, even in their response to the ASA, the IGTO described Areas A and B as "areas in Israel" that are "the subject of future negotiations."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known for his, at best, contradictory statements regarding Palestinian statehood, while ministers in his coalition government have explicitly stated their rejection of the idea, and support for the annexation of 'Area C' of the West Bank.
The ASA, while acknowledging errors in the map, decided not to uphold the complaint on the grounds that "the average consumer of both ads would be generally aware that the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was the subject of international dispute."
In addition, the ASA claimed that "sites and attractions in the Golan Heights and West
Bank could only be visited by UK tourists via Israel or territory controlled by Israel." Therefore, the body concluded, the 'average consumer' was "unlikely to be misled into taking a transactional decision that they otherwise would not have taken."
It is in fact possible to visit the West Bank without entering Israel, via Jordan. While tourists making this journey must receive an entry visa from Israeli authorities, a tourist can go from, say, Amman to Bethlehem without entering Israel's internationally-recognised, pre-1967 borders.
The authoritative source of information regarding personal safety and travel advice is the government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). FCO travel advice for British nationals does not distinguish between 'Areas A and B', but between Israel and the OPT.
Thus aside from the politics of Israel's map, it is the distinction between Israel and the OPT, erased in the ITGO map, that has implications for the consumer, with regards to personal safety, consular assistance, travel insurance purchases, and so on.
Manuel Hassassian, Ambassador of Palestine to the UK, described the ASA's decision not to uphold the complaint as "inexcusable", noting that Palestine has been a member of UNESCO since 2011, and that the West Bank is home to two Word Heritage sites.
According to Hassassian, the ruling "gives a green light to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to 'annex' the occupied Palestinian West Bank in its advertising and marketing materials in the UK. This is pure cultural appropriation."
The ASA ruling was also greeted with dismay by MPs across the political spectrum. Labour MP Grahame Morris, referring to recent violence in Palestine and "decades of occupation", said it was "imperative nothing is done to enflame the situation."
He went on: "It is sheer hypocrisy for the Israeli government to accuse the Palestinians of 'incitement', while at the same time literally wiping Palestine off the map, this truly beggars belief."
Morris' response was echoed by Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan, who stated: "This is simple – the boundaries on the map are illegal and wrong and should in no way be endorsed by the ASA." The former minister added that "if the ASA Council do not reverse their decision then frankly they should be summarily dismissed."
SNP MP Tommy Shephard expressed concern that "for the ASA to rubber-stamp such a map can only give succour to those right-wing elements of the Israeli government who seek to annex the West Bank – what they call 'Judea and Samaria'."
He continued: "This flies in the face of recent moves by UN bodies, the EU, and the UK parliament, to make a clear distinction between Israel and the OPT, causing great damage to Palestinian tourism."
Outside of Westminster, the ASA ruling was also criticised by activists. Sarah Colborne, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, called the decision an "absolute disgrace", and said it appeared "to be the first time that the UK's advertising watchdog has agreed with the Israeli government that there's no such thing as Palestine."
For Colborne, the decision "flies in the face of recent moves by UN governing bodies, the EU and the UK parliament to ensure there is a clear distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories." Describing the map as "Israeli state propaganda", Colborne claimed the ASA had "thoroughly discredited itself in colluding with that propaganda."
Chris Doyle, Director of Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding), flagged up the recent move by the European Union to label goods produced in Israeli settlements in the OPT, a reaffirmation of "its long-standing legal position that the occupied territories are not part of Israel."
He added: "The EU position is clear-cut, the ASA position is all over the place and highly misleading. East Jerusalem is occupied territory and this includes the Old city. A full independent inquiry should be set up to determine just how such an absurd ruling could take place."
My complaint also unearthed an additional disturbing development. In my correspondence, I referred to a previous ASA ruling from March this year, when a complaint was upheld concerning an IGTO ad that implied the Old City of Jerusalem is part of Israel. The decision made thenews.
I was subsequently informed that, following an independent review, the ASA had in fact decided to reverse its decision, and the complaint is now not upheld. But the grounds for doing so are unclear.
For an ASA decision to go to independent review, the complainant or advertiser, "must be able to establish that a substantial flaw of process or adjudication is apparent, or show that additional relevant evidence is available."
The ASA has not explained to me how the reversal of its decision met the above requirements, or why the grounds for the complaint initially being upheld are now considered invalid. The original verdict can still be found here.
IGTO ads have been the subject of ASA complaint procedures in the past, which makes the new ruling all the more puzzling. In 2009, the ASA banned an IGTO poster campaign, on the grounds it implied that the OPT and Golan Heights were part of Israel. The following year, the ASA banned another IGTO ad that included images of Occupied East Jerusalem.
In 2012, the ASA again upheld a complaint about an IGTO ad for implying that the OPT and Golan were part of Israel, and told the IGTO "not to imply that the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights were internationally recognised as part of the state of Israel." The ASA "also told IGTO not to imply claims were universally accepted if there existed a significant division of informed opinion."
It is unclear how and why the ASA has now decided to interpret the Code in such a way that the IGTO is able to use such misleading maps with impunity. As Chris Rose, Director of NGO Amos Trust told me, "for the vast majority of people who know little of the map of Israel and Palestine, it implies that large sections of the West Bank are part of Israel which is not the case."
That the Israeli government would produce and distribute such a map is further evidence of its rejection of Palestinian self-determination and disregard for international law. For the ASA, the decision highlights a disturbing lack of transparency and risks the reputation of the organisation as a protector of UK consumers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.