UN efforts to protect Palestinian land from economic
exploitation are failing, and exposing the hypocrisy
of western states
By Jonathan Cook
February 18, 2020 "Information
Clearing House" - After lengthy delays,
the United Nations finally published a database last
week of businesses that have been profiting from
Israel’s illegal annexation and settlement activity
in the West Bank.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Michelle Bachelet, announced that 112 major
companies had been identified as operating in
Israeli settlements in ways that violate human
Aside from major Israeli banks, transport
services, cafes, supermarkets, and energy, building
and telecoms firms, prominent international
businesses include Airbnb, booking.com, Motorola,
Trip Advisor, JCB, Expedia and General Mills.
Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog, noted in
response to the list’s publication that the
settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. It
argued that the firms’ activities mean they have
aided “in the commission of war crimes”.
The companies’ presence in the settlements has
helped to blur the distinction between Israel and
the occupied Palestinian territories. That in turn
has normalised the erosion of international law and
subverted a long-held international consensus on
establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside
Work on compiling the database began four years
ago. But both Israel and the United States put
strong pressure on the UN in the hope of preventing
the list from ever seeing the light of day.
The UN body’s belated assertiveness looks
suspiciously like a rebuke to the Trump
administration for releasing this month its Middle
East “peace” plan. It green-lights Israel’s
annexation of the settlements and the most fertile
and water-rich areas of the West Bank.
In response to the database, Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to intensify
his country’s interference in US politics. He noted
that his officials had already “promoted laws in
most US states, which determine that strong action
is to be taken against whoever tries to boycott
He was backed by all Israel’s main Jewish
parties. Amir Peretz, leader of the centre-left
Labour party, vowed to “work in every forum to
repeal this decision”. And Yair Lapid, a leader of
Blue and White, the main rival to Netanyahu, called
Bachelet the “commissioner for terrorists’ rights”.
Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of
state, accused the UN of “unrelenting anti-Israel
bias” and of aiding the international boycott,
divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In fact, the UN is not taking any meaningful
action against the 112 companies, nor is it
encouraging others to do so. The list is intended as
a shaming tool – highlighting that these firms have
condoned, through their commercial activities,
Israel’s land and resource theft from Palestinians.
The UN has even taken an extremely narrow view of
what constitutes involvement with the settlements.
For example, it excluded organisations like FIFA,
the international football association, whose
Israeli subsidiary includes six settlement teams.
One of the identified companies, Airbnb,
announced in late 2018 that it would remove from its
accommodation bookings website all settlement
properties – presumably to avoid being publicly
But a short time later Airbnb backed down. It is
hard to imagine the decision was taken on strictly
commercial grounds: the firm has only 200 settlement
properties on its site.
A more realistic conclusion is that Airbnb feared
the backlash from Washington and was intimated by a
barrage of accusations from pro-Israel groups that
its new policy was anti-semitic.
In fact, the UN’s timing could not be more
tragic. The list looks more like the last gasp of
those who – through their negligence over nearly
three decades – have enabled the two-state solution
to wither to nothing.
Trump’s so-called peace plan could afford to be
so one-sided only because western powers had already
allowed Israel to void any hope of Palestinian
statehood through decades of unremitting settlement
expansion. Today, nearly 700,000 Israeli Jews are
housed on occupied Palestinian territory.
On Monday European Union foreign ministers were
due to meet to discuss their response to the plan.
Tepid criticism was the most that could be expected.
The actions of several European states continue
to speak much louder than any words.
On Friday, Germany followed the Czech Republic in
filing a petition to the International Criminal
Court at The Hague siding with Israel as the court
deliberates whether to prosecute Israeli officials
for war crimes, including over the establishment of
Germany does not appear to deny that the
settlements are war crimes. Instead, it hopes to
block the case on dubious technical grounds: that
despite Palestine signing up to the Rome Statute,
which established the Hague court, it is not yet a
fully fledged state.
So far Austria, Hungary, Australia and Brazil
appear to be following suit.
But if Palestine lacks the proper attributes of
statehood, it is because the US and Europe,
including Germany, have consistently broken promises
to the Palestinians.
They not only refused to intervene to save the
two-state solution, but rewarded Israel with trade
deals and diplomatic and financial incentives, even
as Israel eroded the institutional and territorial
integrity necessary for Palestinian self-rule.
Germany’s stance, like that of the rest of
Europe, is hypocritical. They have claimed
opposition to Israel’s endless settlement expansion,
and now to Trump’s plan, but their actions have
paved the way to the annexation of the West Bank the
Back in November the European Court of Justice
finally ruled that products made in West Bank
settlements – using illegally seized Palestinian
resources on illegally seized Palestinian land –
should not be labelled deceptively as “Made in
And yet European countries are still postponing
implementation of the decision. Instead, some of
them are legislating against their citizens’ right
to express support for a settlement boycott.
Similarly, Europe and North America continue to
afford the Jewish National Fund, an entity that
finances settlement-building, “charitable status”,
giving it tax breaks as it raises funds inside their
The Israeli media is full of stories of how the
JNF actively assists extremist settler groups in
evicting Palestinians from homes in East Jerusalem.
But Britain and other states are blocking legal
efforts to challenge the JNF’s special status.
Soon, it seems, Europe will no longer have to
worry about its hypocrisy being so visible. Once the
settlements have been annexed, as the Trump
administration intends, the EU can set aside its
ineffectual agonising and treat the settlements as
irrevocably Israeli – just as it has done in
practice with the Israeli “neighbourhoods” of
occupied East Jerusalem.
Then, the UN’s list of shame can join decades’
worth of condemnatory resolutions that have been
quietly gathering dust.
is a Nazareth- based
journalist and winner of the Martha Gellhorn
Special Prize for Journalism. No one
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