Israel halts EU talks after decision to label goods from settlements

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Israel announced Wednesday it would suspend several committee talks and forums with the European Union in retaliation for a decision to label products from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the EU’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, Lars Faarborg, to a meeting with senior ministry officials in Jerusalem and informed him that Israel would not attend “various forums that were supposed to be held in the coming weeks.”

The European Union’s executive said Wednesday that agricultural and cosmetic goods produced in the settlements must be labelled as such rather than just as coming from Israel.

Aside from fresh fruits and vegetables, the guidelines required labels on wine, honey, eggs, olive oil and poultry. Labelling for other products will be voluntary.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried the move, saying the 28-member EU “should be ashamed” of itself.

But Palestinian leaders and groups welcomed it, praising the bloc for taking concrete action on the issue of settlements.

The European Union has long criticized Israel’s policy in the occupied Palestinian Territories, saying that settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem violates international law.

“The EU decision is hypocritical and constitutes a double standard. It singles out Israel and not the 200 other conflicts around the world,” said Netanyahu in a statement.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry lamented that the decision came as “Israel is confronting a wave of terrorism targeting any and all of its citizens.”

Israel has seen a renewed wave of violence in recent months sparked by perceived changes of the status quo at a holy site in Jerusalem, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The European Commission insisted that the guidelines issued on Wednesday are not political, but clarify existing consumer-protection rules to ensure they are interpreted and implemented uniformly.

The EU “does not support in any form a boycott or sanctions against Israel,” European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told journalists in Brussels.

“Indication of origin of goods … is an essential part of the EU’s consumer policy,” he said. “This is a technical issue, not a political stance.”

Dombrovskis also stressed that the labelling regulation was “not a new legislation or new policy.”

Products produced within the internationally recognized borders of Israel will continue to enjoy preferential EU tariffs, as had been the case before, Dombrovskis said.

An EU statement defended the timing of the move, noting that member states had been calling for a distinction between Israel and its settlements since 2012.

It added that Britain, Denmark and Belgium already have similar regulations regarding food products from the West Bank.

Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the EU regulations a “significant move toward a total boycott of Israeli settlements, which are built illegally on occupied Palestinian lands.”

Sarah Saadoun of Human Rights Watch said the labelling regulations gave “businesses and consumers the information they need to avoid supporting industries that contribute to violations of human rights.”

In a fact sheet released by the EU, the commission clarified the wording of the labels, which must include the phrase “Israeli settlement,” or words to that effect. Labels such as “product from West Bank” or “product from Golan Heights” would not suffice, it said.

The document also explained that the member states’ own authorities will be responsible for ensuring that the rules are adhered to.

Trade between the EU and the occupied territories reached around 154 million euros (165 million dollars) last year, according to commission figures.

There are 125 officially recognized settlements and another 100 non-government-approved outposts in the West Bank, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

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