By Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 19 January 2016
Human Rights Watch is calling on all corporations to completely end their business activities in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem.
In a report published Tuesday, the New York-based group is also urging governments to withhold aid to Israel.
“Settlement businesses unavoidably contribute to Israeli policies that dispossess and harshly discriminate against Palestinians, while profiting from Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and other resources,” Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release.
“The only way for businesses to comply with their own human rights responsibilities is to stop working with and in Israeli settlements,” Ganesan added.
The report, “Occupation, Inc.: How Settlement Businesses Contribute to Israel’s Violations of Palestinian Rights,” will likely enrage Israel.
It will also prove a useful tool for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to explain to companies why they must end their complicity in Israel’s crimes.
This is the case even though Human Rights Watch insists it is “not calling for a consumer boycott of settlement companies, but rather for businesses to comply with their own human rights responsibilities by ceasing settlement-related activities.”
According to the report, more than half a million Israelis live in 237 settlements across the occupied West Bank.
The only way is out
With its sweeping new recommendation, Human Rights Watch is departing from its earlier position that firms could “mitigate” the damage of doing business in settlements without necessarily pulling out completely.
Human Rights Watch now concludes that “the context of human rights abuse to which settlement business activity contributes is so pervasive and severe” that companies must end all activities in the settlements, including construction of housing or infrastructure and providing services such as waste disposal.
“They should also stop financing, administering, trading with or otherwise supporting settlements or settlement-related activities and infrastructure,” the report states.
The 162-page report examines in detail the ways businesses benefit from and contribute to Israel’s grave abuses of Palestinian rights, sometimes amounting to war crimes.
These include: benefitting from Israeli discrimination which allows companies to exploit Palestinian resources and workers; benefitting from and participating in the theft of land from Palestinian individuals and communities; assisting Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian economy; and making the settlements more viable by providing them with services and paying taxes to their municipalities.
Crushing Palestinian development
Israel’s colonization is also predicated on favoring development in Jewish settlements while actively suppressing Palestinian economic opportunities.
The report provides a strong refutation to frequent Israeli claims that settlement businesses should be tolerated or even celebrated because they provide employment and development for Palestinians.
It cites, for instance, a World Bank estimate that the Palestinian economy could generate an additional $3.4 billion – a 35 percent boost in GDP – if Israel lifted its discriminatory restrictions on Palestinian economic activity.
Similarly, economists have estimated that up to 200,000 jobs would be created if Palestinians were allowed to farm the occupied West Bank’s Jordan Valley, most of which Israel has seized for the exclusive use of settlers.
Near the Bethlehem-area village of Beit Fajjar, Human Rights Watch says, Israel has refused to license Palestinian-owned quarries and constantly harasses businesses by confiscating their equipment.
As a result of such policies, jobs are scarce.
Ibrahim, a local worker, told researchers that “If I would find work in Beit Fajjar, I would leave the settlements in the morning.”
By contrast, Israel has licensed a dozen Israeli-run quarries on confiscated Palestinian land.
One of them, Nahal Raba, is run by the German company HeidelbergCement, helping Israel violate international law that prohibits the theft of resources from an occupied territory.
In a case study of a 96-unit development in the Ariel settlement, the report cites the role of the US-based global real estate franchise RE/MAX and an Israeli bank in financing, marketing and profiting from the illegal colonization of Palestinian land.
It also describes the devastating impact Ariel and its ever-growing extensions has had on the villages whose land has been stolen for their development.
By supporting such housing developments, the report states, firms like RE/MAX and the Israeli bank “help the illegal settlements in the West Bank to function as viable housing markets, enabling the government to transfer settlers there.”
This transfer is a crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Human Rights Watch does not name the bank in its case study, stressing that the companies profiled in the report are examples among hundreds doing business in the settlements.
However the official marketing brochure for Green Ariel, the development mentioned in the report, offers mortgages from Mizrahi Tefahot Bank.
This is one of five big Israeli banks from which several major pension funds have recently divested because of their role in financing settlements.
“I don’t sell to Arabs”
Businesses financing, selling and promoting settlements are also active participants in Israel’s officially endorsed system of anti-Palestinian racism.
“Given the character of settlements as almost exclusively Jewish and the rules that effectively bar Palestinian residents of the West Bank from living there, agents selling property there effectively contribute to discrimination against Palestinians,” Human Rights Watch states.
The report cites Israeli sources confirming that separate and unequal development is the raison d’etre of the settlement enterprise; the government-backed World Zionist Organization Settlement Division has said, for instance, that colonization of the West Bank is aimed at “strengthening Jewish settlement in the country’s periphery.”
“I don’t buy from or sell to Arabs. It’s not racism, I just prefer not to deal with [them],” one RE/MAX agent who lists settlement properties in occupied East Jerusalem told Human Rights Watch.
It seems clear that such agents work a discriminatory system both knowingly and willfully.
Human Rights Watch also focuses on an Israeli company that produced bed linens for a US retailer in the Barkan Industrial Zone, a West Bank settlement built on land confiscated from Palestinian owners.
It is one of approximately 20 Israeli-run industrial zones in the occupied West Bank where companies can move to avoid environmental regulations.
This company paid Palestinian workers much less than the Israeli minimum wage, taking advantage of the fact that Israel’s labor laws have not been enforced for Palestinian workers in the settlements.
Palestinian women received $2 per hour and said they did not receive vacation, sick days or overtime.
Human Rights Watch did not name the company “because it has since relocated from Barkan to Israel.”
However, the description provided fits a company called Royalife, which markets its linens through the US retailer Pottery Barn.
Hani, a Palestinian university student from Salfit village, worked at a factory in Barkan making Hanukkah candles.
He told Human Rights Watch that he worked 12-hour shifts with a single 30-minute break.
He received $2 per hour, a third of Israel’s minimum wage.
The fact that Palestinian workers are totally dependent on Israeli occupation authorities for work permits makes it all but impossible for Palestinians to effectively challenge these abusive conditions.
Human Rights Watch says the reality belies claims by settlers and their supporters that places like Barkan are models of “coexistence” that build “bridges to peace.”
This kind of pro-settlement propaganda is regularly promoted by liberal Zionists in the US, including Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner.
In defending Sodastream’s settlement factory, Eisner’s newspaper insisted that the company was providing “well-paying jobs” for Palestinians and was not “profiting from the occupation.”
But such “rosy sentiments ignore the deeply discriminatory environment in which settlement businesses operate, and Palestinian workers’ vulnerability to abuse,” Human Rights Watch states.
Withhold aid to Israel
Among its recommendations, Human Rights Watch urges states to “avoid offsetting the costs of Israeli government expenditures on settlements by withholding funding given to the Israeli government in an amount equivalent to its expenditures on settlements and related infrastructure in the West Bank.”
Given the billions it is estimated to spend on settlements, that would all but wipe out aid to Israel.
This call for cutting aid is not likely to please the Obama administration, which regularly boasts that no US administration has been more generous to Israel.
Before he leaves office next January, President Barack Obama hopes to conclude a deal that could see annual US military subsidies to Israel boosted by up to 50 percent.
And while the European Union recently took the minimal step of requiring accurate labeling of settlement goods, the 28-member bloc has continued to generously fund Israel, including its military research and its settlements.
Indeed, staunch Israeli allies, including Greece’s left-wing Syriza government, are actively trying to undermine the already weak labeling policy.
Amid such destructive complicity, the call by Human Rights Watch to end all settlement business is a welcome, if belated, move in the right direction.
It provides a clear endorsement and boost for those who have been working for years to bring real and effective pressure on Israel and its accomplices to end their crimes.
ALI ABUNIMAH: Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.
Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.