19 December 2009
Shoppers in London are frequently asked, “Have you heard of the Dead Sea?” as they wander through department stores or supermarkets.
However, the question is not the prelude to a lesson in geography. Those asking the question are salespeople marketing cosmetics derived from Dead Sea mud and minerals. The stalls attract little suspicion, as they are lost within larger department stores. They might attract a little more attention, however, if the Dead Sea”s geography was better known, because these products originate in the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Even Arabs show an interest in the merchandise. In fact, few busy consumers stop to ask themselves about the origin of a hand cream or face gel promoted by a zealous young salesperson enthused by the wonders of the Dead Sea.
There is a minority of consumers, nonetheless, who are well aware of the dubious origin of these products. In fact, the movement to oppose Israeli incursions into the British market place is growing.
In September protesters tied themselves together in front of the Ahava store in Soho. It was several hours before the police could remove them. The action was supported by other protesters who told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that they had come to mark the international day of boycotts against the company”s settlement products. Interestingly, none of the protesters interviewed by the newspaper were Arabs. They were British, and some of them were Jewish. They supported an organisation called “Stolen Beauty from Stolen Land” which calls for the boycott of companies that sell products made from Dead Sea minerals. The organisation”s website explains its goals: “Ahava promises “Beauty Secrets from the Dead Sea.” But the real secrets it keeps are an ugly truth – its products actually come from stolen Palestinian natural resources in the Occupied Territory of the Palestinian West Bank, and are produced in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem.”
The organisation is one of many that work to promote awareness of the fact that stores and virtually every major supermarket in the UK sell products made in the settlements without acknowledging their origin.
On Friday, the British Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued guidance to UK supermarkets on how to distinguish between foods from the Israeli settlements and Palestinian-manufactured goods. According to the Guardian newspaper the advice is the government”s way to “increase pressure on Israel over its West Bank settlements,” and although the paper concedes that this is only “voluntary advice” yet it expects that it might “increase the prospects of a consumer boycott of products from those territories.”
For people living in Britain, the supermarkets stock Israeli foodstuffs labeled “made in Israel” or “made in the West Bank”. According to DEFRA, this is not sufficiently informative. It says in its guidance that products should carry labels stating their exact origin, such as “Israeli Settlements produce” or “Palestinian Produce” in accordance with European Union Law. For those who don”t want to buy Israeli goods, the label “made in the West Bank” might seem a safe one, but it is deceptive if one considers that the Israeli settlements are located there. In its statement DEFRA says that traders will be committing ?an offence if they declare goods from the occupied territories as “Produce of Israel”.
Since the settlements are not legal, it seems that Israeli companies are trying to evade detection by concealing the origin of their produce. This might also be an attempt to make use of an agreement with the EU that products from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem enjoy duty-free status or a reduced tariff, whereas the settlements” products do not receive the same treatment.
In its reply to Israeli accusations that the guidance will be used by campaigners to enhance their calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, the Foreign Office said that the memo was not a call for any such boycott. “We believe consumers should be able to choose for themselves what produce they buy. We have been very clear both in public and in private that settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.” The problem for many people in Britain, especially following the events last year in Gaza, is that they do not want to support Israel in any way, and by boycotting the products they can take a stand against the occupation.
The latest British advice to retailers might help clarify the confusion and let people know what they are buying, leaving the choice with them. It does not force retailers to stop stocking these goods. Nonetheless, it seems that the decision has not gone down well with Israel and its supporters, who see it as a call to boycott Israeli goods. Well, for some people that is exactly what will happen, they will see things clearly, while for others it might not make the slightest difference.
Abeer Mishkhas is an Arab writer based in London.