EU court says Israeli settlement goods should be labelled

EU high court says consumers should be aware that "the State of Israel is present in the [Palestinian] territories... as an occupying power and not as a sovereign entity."

BRUSSELS - Food products from Israeli-occupied territories must be clearly labelled as such to avoid misleading consumers, the EU's top court has ruled, in particular if they come from settlements there.

The EU wants any produce made in the settlements to be easily identifiable to shoppers and insists that they should not carry the generic "Made in Israel" tag.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and began settling Palestinian lands shortly afterwards. The Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of a future state, a position that has global support.

The international community opposes settlement construction, saying their continued growth undermines the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel. Today, nearly 700,000 Israelis live in the occupied Palestinian territories, almost 10% of the country's Jewish population.

The European Court of Justice said that, under EU rules on food labelling, it must be clear where products are from so that consumers can make choices based on "ethical considerations and considerations relating to the observance of international law."

The ruling comes after France's top tribunal asked for clarification of rules on labelling goods from the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, which the international community also considers occupied Palestinian land, as well as the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

"Foodstuffs originating in the territories occupied by the State of Israel must bear the indication of their territory of origin, accompanied, where those foodstuffs come from an Israeli settlement within that territory, by the indication of that provenance," the ECJ said, in a statement announcing its decision.

The court said that labelling products as from the "State of Israel" when in fact they come from "territories... occupied by that State and subject to a limited jurisdiction of the latter, as an occupying power within the meaning of international humanitarian law" could mislead consumers.

It said consumers should be aware that "the State of Israel is present in the territories concerned as an occupying power and not as a sovereign entity."

The court added that the EU's 2011 regulations on labelling the origin of goods are intended to allow consumers to make "informed choices, with regard not only to health, economic, environmental and social considerations, but also to ethical considerations and considerations relating to the observance of international law."

"The court underlined in that respect that such considerations could influence consumers' purchasing decisions," the ECJ said.

On the issue of Israeli settlements, the court said they "give concrete expression to a policy of population transfer conducted by that State outside its territory, in violation of the rules of general international humanitarian law."

As a result, "the omission of that indication, with the result that only the territory of origin is indicated, might mislead consumers," the court said.

France published guidelines in 2016 saying products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights must carry labels making their precise origin clear, but this was challenged by the Organisation Juive Europeene (European Jewish Organisation) and Psagot, a company that runs vineyards in the occupied territories.

The 2016 French ruling drew an angry response from Israel, which accused Paris of aiding a boycott of the Zionist state promoted by Palestinian activists and of employing double standards by ignoring other territorial disputes around the world.

A major diplomatic row had previously erupted between the EU and Israel in 2015 when Brussels drew up rules that effectively declared that products from the illegal Israeli settlements had to be labelled as such across the bloc. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried the move as "antisemitic", comparing the guidelines to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses.

The latest ECJ ruling effectively backs those EU guidelines issued in 2015.

Francois Kalifat of the CRIF umbrella association of French Jewish groups called the ECJ ruling "discriminatory and intolerable". He said it would strengthen the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for a broad-ranging boycott of Israel over its colonialist treatment of indigenous Palestinians.

But a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, insisted the ruling "does not concern products from Israel itself". It would not affect the privileged trading status the Israel has under its association agreement with the bloc, she added.

"The EU does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel and the EU rejects attempts by the campaigns of the so-called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to isolate Israel," spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

Nevertheless, the Israeli foreign ministry repeated its usual line of criticism following the ruling by the ECJ, saying it "strongly rejects" the decision and decrying what it called a "double standard".

"The ruling's entire objective is to single out and apply a double standard against Israel," it said in a statement. "There are over 200 ongoing territorial disputes across the world, yet the (European Court of Justice) has not rendered a single ruling related to the labelling of products originating from these territories."

The secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation welcomed the ruling by the ECJ.

"We welcome the decision of the European Court of Justice and call upon all European countries to implement what is a legal and political obligation," Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

"Our demand is not only for the correct labelling reflecting the certificate of origin of products coming from illegal colonial settlements, but for the banning of those products from international markets."