Did the U.N. just call for a boycott of Israel? Or of Jewish businesses?
No. The U.N. has not called for boycotts of either Israel or the settlements, and certainly not of Jewish-owned businesses.
What did happen, then?
The U.N. released a database of 112 businesses currently operating in West Bank settlements, which are considered illegal according to international law. By both international and Israeli law, the West Bank is occupied territory, not officially part of the State of Israel. (More on this below). The mandate to develop and release this list came from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The release of this list was repeatedly delayed, but was required to be released this year.
Ok, but it’s a “blacklist,” right?
The U.N. refers to this as a “report on business enterprises involved in certain activities relating to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” The moniker “blacklist” came from media outlets, but the U.N. report, in fact, did not call for sanctions against the listed companies, nor did it accuse them of violating international law.
Why are so many Israeli businesses on the list? It looks to me like a call to boycott Israeli companies.
Because of the de facto annexation of the West Bank and the normalization of the economies of Jewish settlements within the larger Israeli economy, almost all Israeli companies do business in the West Bank. Therefore, any call for human rights due diligence in the West Bank would primarily impact Israeli companies.
Isn’t the list antisemitic?
Bringing transparency to the human rights abuses that Palestinians face every day, as well as the larger human rights violation that is the Occupation, is not antisemitic. Those of us who care about Israel must hold it accountable for its treatment of the Palestinians and for its systematic efforts, both economic and political, to prevent Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination. As a member of the U.N., a modern nation state, and a signatory on major international treaties, Israel is obliged to follow international human rights law just like any other country and cannot decry factual reporting of violations as antisemitic. The State of Israel, whose citizenship is roughly 80% Jewish and 20% Palestinian, and which also has legal jurisdiction over another some five million non-citizen Palestinians, is not the same as Jews.
What’s wrong with settlements anyway? And why do you use the word “occupied”?
(Adapted from A Very Brief Guide to the Occupation.)
According to Article 42 of the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907,
Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised. (See also the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.)
The Israeli Supreme Court has reiterated, as recently as 2010, that the West Bank is to be treated as occupied territory and that international law applies, including parts of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The occupation began in 1967 when Israel conquered territories (including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip) and then neither withdrew from them nor granted their residents citizenship. Israel annexed East Jerusalem soon after the war, though this annexation was not recognized by the international community. Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have residency (not citizenship) status and can vote in municipal, but not national elections.
People may argue about the value of the occupation or whose fault it is, but the term itself is neutral and simply describes the situation on the ground. Occupations, on their own, are not illegal, though they are meant to be temporary. The Israeli government calls the land “disputed,” claiming that since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire there is no rightful sovereign from whom it could be occupied. The international community rejects this interpretation, and the daily lived experience of Palestinians belies it.
The Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49, Paragraph 6) prohibits moving civilians into an occupied military zone, for the protection of the people living there. The settlers’ desire to move to the settlements does not negate this prohibition. Furthermore, construction of homes and infrastructure that lead to long-term changes in the territory contravenes the essential temporary nature of an occupation.
Some people call Jerusalem neighborhoods and suburbs in the West Bank, as well as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, “consensus” areas, meaning that these areas are expected to be part of Israel following a peace deal. This may be so; currently there is no such agreement. A priori calling these areas “consensus” unilaterally cuts the Palestinians out of the process and changes the status quo to be negotiated.
How can Jews be occupiers in our own land?
We believe Jews’ ancient historical and spiritual connection to the land of Israel, including the West Bank, is not up for debate. This does not, however, detract from the Palestinians’ own valid historical claim. We can affirm a valid Jewish connection to the whole land of Israel, while also understanding that a modern nation state must act according to international law and work toward a diplomatic agreement for sharing the land justly and peaceably.
What’s the difference between Areas A, B, and C again?
The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three zones: Areas A, B, and C.
Area A consists of major Palestinian cities (Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, etc.) where the Palestinian Authority maintains both security and civil control. Residents of these areas still do not have citizenship in any country, and the Israeli army retains the ability to enter these areas or to close them off.
Area B consists of suburbs of major Palestinian cities. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for civil administration, and the Israeli army is responsible for security and policing.
Area C, which constitutes 61% of the West Bank, consists of rural areas and agricultural land (some belonging to people who live in Areas A or B), and is under full Israeli civil and security control. All of the settlements are located in Area C.
If it’s a list of businesses in the settlements, why are some people claiming that this is a call to boycott Israel? Why isn’t this BDS?
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a Palestinian-led, consumer-focused campaign, which asks supporters to avoid buying Israeli products. Other organizations have called for a more limited boycott of goods produced in settlements (like certain kosher wines). The call to boycott settlements only was originally led by the Israeli group Gush Shalom until the Israeli Anti-Boycott Law of 2011 made such activism illegal.
But this UN report is not a call for boycott, and is not part of the BDS movement. Under the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGP), companies and investors have a responsibility not to benefit from human rights abuses and to attempt to remedy human rights abuses in their supply chains. The investor responsibility under the UNGP are guided by mechanisms referred to as human rights due diligence (HRDD). HRDD is not specific to any country, including Israel. For example, under HRDD, businesses must take measures so that their activities do not contribute to the genocide of the Rohingya in Burma. Given that both the Occupation itself and the settlements (a transfer of the citizens of the occupying power to the occupied territory) are human rights violations under the Geneva Conventions, businesses have the human rights responsibility to not operate in the settlements. The database is part of this framework for understanding the human rights responsibilities of businesses and investors.
Moreover, claiming that this is a boycott of Israel contributes to the de facto annexation of the West Bank from the Palestinians and the erasure of the Green Line (aka the 1949 armistice line), the internationally-recognized border of the State of Israel). Many individuals and groups on the far-right and far-left want to erase the Green Line and to claim that there is no distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and therefore no distinction between doing business on one side of the Green Line or the other. For some, this erasure is a step toward official annexation of all or part of the West Bank. For some, this erasure is a refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel. However, the U.N. and other international bodies clearly recognize the State of Israel within the Green Line. Those of us who are committed to the future of Israel and to the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians must insist on maintaining the distinction between the State of Israel — whose population includes both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens — and the occupied territories, where Jewish settlers live as citizens under Israeli civil law, while Palestinians have no access to citizenship in any country, and live under Israeli military law.
Is this a list of all of the businesses operating in the settlements?
No. This database only lists businesses whose operations or activities raise human rights concerns. It was developed through extensive research and engagement with the relevant companies. (More info on the specific activities below.)
Is Israel the only country that has been singled out in this way?
No. In August 2019, the U.N. released a list of 59 companies with ties to the Burmese army, which is engaged in genocide against the Rohingya. In the past, the U.N. released similar lists of companies contributing to the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa. Certainly, the U.N. has not released such lists for every or most countries where there are serious human rights violations, but it is not true that Israeli is the only one singled out. Some Jewish communal statements have noted that this is the only time this kind of database has been released around “disputed territory.” While this may be the only database dealing with human rights due diligence in an occupied territory, this splitting of hairs obscures the more important point, which is that the U.N. has used this tactic before to highlight the obligation of businesses not to benefit from egregious human rights abuses.
Why was this database created?
In 2013, a U.N. Independent Fact-Finding Mission reported on the social and economic impacts of business activity in West Bank settlements. In its report, the fact-finding mission set out a list of activities that raised particular human rights concerns for it (“listed activities”), discussed below. Following this report, the U.N. Human Rights Council requested an accounting of which businesses were involved in these activities.
In what kinds of activities are the companies on this list involved?
The database focuses only on specific types of businesses or business activity that the 2013 Independent Fact-Finding Mission report found poses serious threats to international human rights. These include:
(a) The supply of equipment and materials facilitating the construction and the expansion of settlements and the wall, and associated infrastructures;
(b) The supply of surveillance and identification equipment for settlements, the wall and checkpoints directly linked with settlements;
(c) The supply of equipment for the demolition of housing and property, the destruction of agricultural farms, greenhouses, olive groves and crops;
(d) The supply of security services, equipment and materials to enterprises operating in settlements;
(e) The provision of services and utilities supporting the maintenance and existence of settlements, including transport;
(f) Banking and financial operations helping to develop, expand or maintain settlements and their activities, including loans for housing and the development of businesses;
(g) The use of natural resources, in particular water and land, for business purposes;
(h) Pollution, and the dumping of waste in or its transfer to Palestinian villages;
(i) Captivity of the Palestinian financial and economic markets, as well as practices that disadvantage Palestinian enterprises, including through restrictions on movement, administrative and legal constraints;
(j) Use of benefits and reinvestments of enterprises owned totally or partially by settlers for developing, expanding and maintaining the settlements.
So if it’s not a call to boycott, why create this list at all?
The U.N. did not issue recommendations about how to use this list. Some companies listed may be prompted to do human rights due diligence and to relocate into Israel proper. Some institutional investors may use this list to make choices about investments, and some individuals may choose to boycott listed companies. Some businesses may decide not to do business with listed companies as long as they remain in the occupied territories. Some investors may divest from companies on the list, under the investor obligation to respect human rights. However, the U.N. did not prescribe a use for this list, but rather provided it as a tool for transparency. Transparency is the hallmark of human rights, not just in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but around the world.
Don’t businesses in the West Bank employ Palestinians? Won’t it be bad for Palestinians to lose their jobs?
It’s true that many Palestinians work in settlements because these are some of the only jobs available to them. However, if Palestinians had access to opening factories and other major businesses in industrial areas of the West Bank, and had unrestricted access to their agricultural properties and natural resources, they would be able to create and own more large (and small) businesses rather than relying on jobs in settlements. As it is, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to receive permits to build in Area C, which is under full Israeli control, and many Palestinians have lost access to their agricultural land. It is extremely difficult for Palestinians to receive permits to work inside of Israel proper.
For example, when SodaStream moved from the Barkan Industrial Area in the West Bank to the Negev, 500 Palestinians lost their jobs. Some claimed this as proof that SodaStream’s move was automatically a loss for Palestinians. However, the owner of SodaStream requested 350 work permits so that the majority of workers could hold onto their jobs by crossing into Israel every day. In the end, the government granted only 74 such permits, and later rescinded even these.
There is no automatic reason that Israeli businesses must be located in the West Bank in order for Palestinians to have jobs.
How might this play out in the United States?
The publication of this list is likely to lead to renewed efforts to pass state and federal legislation restricting the right to boycott Israel. While T’ruah does not support or participate in BDS, we do support the right to free speech, including speech with which one adamantly disagrees. Boycotts have been established as a First Amendment right. More than twenty states have already passed laws that prohibit state contractors (individuals and/or corporations) from boycotting Israel, and in some cases the occupied Palestinian territories, and sometimes demand that those who accept state contracts sign a declaration that they will not participate in such boycotts. T’ruah and J Street have filed amicus briefs in Arkansas and Texas in support of free speech, even if we do not participate in such speech. You can read our Arkansas amicus brief here.
T’ruah would like to thank Professor Tara Van Ho of the University of Essex for providing much of the background for this FAQ.