The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been preparing a list of some 150 companies which operate in Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein has been leading the effort to document Israeli and international businesses which provide services and products to Israelis living in the occupied territory, which Israel has dominated for 50 years now. The UN Human Rights Council agreed to create the list last year.
Since Israel invaded the remaining parts of Palestine in 1967, it has embarked on a project of colonisation of the West Bank, demolishing Palestinian homes and stealing Palestinian agricultural lands. In their place, Israel builds colonies in which only Jews are permitted to live, and Palestinians are driven into increasingly smaller areas or compelled to flee overseas.
As renowned Palestinian historian Nur Masalha has put it, the Israeli policy has always been "maximum land, minimum Arabs." All Israeli governments, of both the Labour and Likud tendencies, have driven this policy forward. In fact, it was the "labour Zionist" tendency which first initiated the settlement-building regime, literally days after Israel invaded in June 1967, with colony-settlements in the Jordan Valley.
The settlement blocs are considered important to Israel's "security" and Labour governments have been at the forefront of driving this policy forward, despite deceptive propaganda which aims to portray the party as the Israeli "peace camp" which supposedly wants a "two-state solution", something that is delayed perpetually to an unspecified point far in the future. However, the Labour Party's new leader, Avi Gabbay, threw cold water on such hasbara recently when he enthusiastically endorsed Israel's ethnic cleansing settler regime in the West Bank.
At an event to celebrate the Jordan Valley settlements – built on stolen Palestinian land in an area where Israel habitually demolishes Palestinian homes and schools – he claimed that the settlements represent the "beautiful face of Zionism". He had also said that Israel would not have to evacuate a single settlement from the West Bank under any peace deal.
So much, then, for the "two-state solution".
Israel's "friends" in Britain's Labour Party will probably see such candour as damaging. The Labour Friends of Israel have for the past year or so been emphasising a claim that they are "pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace." Gabbay's crass remarks – no doubt aimed at appealing to an increasingly right-wing Israeli electorate – will make such dishonest propaganda harder to give a pass to.
All Israeli settlements, by the way, are illegal under international law. The US, European countries and the EU all technically have policies condemning these settlements and the occupation of the West Bank. For example, the US and all other embassies to Israel are maintained in Tel Aviv, so as not to recognise the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem as its capital; "East Jerusalem" is recognised as part of the West Bank and thus under Israeli occupation.
In reality, though, the US and EU are staunch backers of Israel and its crimes against the Palestinians, including settlements. The US provides billions in military aid to Israel every year; EU countries permit weapons sales to Israel; and the EU gives hundreds of millions to Israel in the form of "research" funding for Israeli technology, often to arms firms. Furthermore, the European countries' toothless "condemnations" of settlements while refusing to hold Israel acountable amount to an endorsement of the colonies.
The list being prepared by the UN human rights chief embodies the prospect of Israel actually being held to account for once. That's why it is being so bitterly opposed by Israel and the US, who are reportedly desperate for it not to see the light of day.
Although we don't yet know the full set of company names on the list, some have been reported in the press. As part of the process of compiling it, Al-Hussein sent out letters to the companies in question warning them ahead of publication that they are set to be included.
The list is said to include household names such as Caterpillar, TripAdvisor, Priceline.com and Airbnb. About 30 of the 150 companies are reportedly American while others are from Germany, South Korea and Norway.
As my colleague at The Electronic Intifada Adri Nieuwhof has pointed out, similar UN lists published in the 1980s had a massive positive impact on the boycott of South Africa. Singers and other global artists who broke the boycott and performed in apartheid South Africa were included on the list, which made it easier for supporters of the boycott to target them for campaigning action.
As Nieuwholf, a veteran of the anti-apartheid campaign over South Africa, explained: "Some public authorities in Britain used that register to ban musicians whose name appeared on it from appearing in venues they administered. The register listed such stars as Rod Stewart, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton and Elton John. Yet the UN committee made a point of removing entertainers who had performed in South Africa from the register if they pledged not to play there again."
Corporations are rarely moral actors. They tend not to be persuaded by appeals to their better nature and arguments about human rights, but threats to their bottom line are another story. As an anonymous Israeli official told Haaretz, "Foreign companies will not invest in something that reeks of political problems – this [list] could snowball."
It seems that US and Israeli pressure on the UN not to publish the list is having an effect. With the origins of the list originally conceived last year, its publication has already been delayed. The latest news appears to be that, according to the Associated Press, "After an earlier delay, [Zeid Al-Hussein's] office said the release of the 'report' has been pushed back again, from December to early next year."
Israel must be held to account for its crimes using concrete measures. Words alone are not enough. Talk of a "two-state solution" is just talk. Politicians' platitudes about a "peace process" mean nothing without action to force Israel to end its violations of Palestinian rights. The list of companies benefiting from Israel's occupation of Palestine could go some way towards doing just that. It must be published without further delay.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.