UN report identifies companies active in West Bank settlements

Israeli officials condemn UN report that they fear could be used to boycott firms with ties to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

GENEVA - The UN has released a list of 112 companies with activities in Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

"Publishing this list of companies and entities operating in the settlements is a victory for international law and diplomatic efforts," Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki said in a statement, responding to the UN rights office list that includes Airbnb, Expedia and TripAdvisor.

The report comes in response to a 2016 UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for a "database for all businesses engaged in specific activities related to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory"..

Israeli officials fear the list could be used not only to boycott firms with ties to the Israeli settlements but to justify a large-scale boycott of the country's private sector.

The Israeli government has invested in a PR campaign against the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to isolate Israel on the international stage until it complies with international law, using the international boycott of apartheid-era South Africa as a model.

Israel has dismissed the BDS movement as inherently anti-Semitic and says it seeks the destruction of the world's only "Jewish State".

Israel has also more broadly questioned the legitimacy of the UN Human Rights Council. Israel is the only country with a dedicated agenda item at the Council, meaning its conduct is automatically discussed at each session. The United States, which no longer considers settlements illegal, has withdrawn from the council, in part over its treatment of Israel.

The report will likely also face opposition from the Trump administration in Washington, which acquiesced to Israeli annexation of the settlements and other Palestinian territory in a widely-panned peace initiative released last month.

Trump, a close ally of Israel's right-wing government, had reportedly put significant pressure on the UN to shelve the report.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called the report a "crucial first step to restore hope in multilateralism and international law."

"This announcement enhances and consolidates the credibility of the Human Rights Council and international organisations in the face of the fierce attack and the intense pressure that the Trump administration places on these institutions," Erekat added.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear he considered the US government's position on settlements under Trump as more important than the views of UN organizations.

"We will ensure the US recognition of our sovereignty over those settlements - that will cancel out the entire impact of the United Nations because the United States is more important than the UN", he told Army Radio. The US in effect backed Israel's right to build Jewish settlements on Nov. 18 last year, by abandoning its long-held position that they were "inconsistent with international law".

"The announcement by the UN Human Rights Office of the publication of a 'blacklist' of businesses is shameful capitulation to pressure from countries and organisations that are interesting in hurting Israel," Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a statement.

The Yesha Council, which represents the roughly 600,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, said the list showed the UN had "once again proven to be a biased, non-neutral body that acts against the State of Israel".

'Highly contentious'

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) said the claim about the companies was "not, and does not purport to be, a judicial or quasi-judicial process"

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the OHCHR, said in videotaped remarks made available to reporters that the report was "not a blacklist, nor does it qualify any companies' activities as illegal".

Inclusion on the list has no immediate legal implications for the companies as it "does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises' involvement in them."

Among the businesses on the UN list are a range of large international companies, including Airbnb, Alstom, Booking.com and Motorola Solutions.

Airbnb, one of the companies that was singled out by Palestinian activists for listing properties built on occupied Palestinian territory, said in November 2018 that it would remove listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But it said the following April that it would not implement the planned delisting and would donate proceeds from any bookings in the territory to international humanitarian aid organizations.

"I am conscious this issue has been, and will continue to be, highly contentious," UN human rights chairman Michelle Bachelet said.

But she added that the findings had been subject to an "extensive and meticulous review process" and the report "reflects the serious consideration that has been given to this unprecedented and highly complex mandate".

The report, which was scheduled to be released three years ago, has repeatedly been delayed.

On Wednesday, the final report cited 112 business entities that the office had "reasonable grounds to conclude have been involved in one or more of the specific activities referenced" in the 2016 UN resolution.

It said 94 of the listed companies had their headquarters in Israel, while 18 others were spread across six other countries. Those countries are the United States, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Thailand and Britain.

The UN agency said compiling the database had been a "complex process" involving "widespread discussions" with states, think tanks, academics and the companies themselves. The office said it reviewed more than 300 firms as part of the process.

Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. The international community has not acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over territory it occupies, including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem which were unilaterally annexed by Tel Aviv.

 Palestinians deem the Jewish settlements, and the Israeli military presence there to protect them, to be obstacles to their goal of establishing a viable state.