They are illegal, "a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and ... constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace," said Minister Lawrence Cannon to the Foreign Affairs committee on March 16, 2010. He was referring to the Israeli settlements, colonies for Jews only, many of them built on privately owned Palestinian land.
The settlements have been Israeli policy since 1967, and still are, irrespective of the government of the day.
Palestinians have now decided to counter this illegal policy in a peaceful way. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has recently enacted a law banning Palestinians from working in settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and the sale of settlement products, the idea being that Palestinians shall no longer contribute to the economic growth of these Israeli colonies.
The settlements in the OPT [and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights] are illegal, and therefore settlement products are illegal. Settlements not only violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49(6), which prohibits the Occupying Power from deporting or transferring parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies, but also the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which consider such a population transfer a war crime.
As importantly, settlements violate Canadian law as well: the Geneva Conventions Act, and the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. In its 2004 Advisory Opinion on Israel's wall in the occupied West Bank, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) confirmed that "the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law."
The Palestinian Law to Ban and Combat Settlement Products defines the settlements as "any residential, industrial, agricultural, or service providing consortium which is built on the 1967 A.D.-occupied Palestinian territory." There are about 200 illegal colonies covering about 40 per cent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and more than 500,000 settlers. Most Israeli settlers have immigrated into the OPT to take advantage of government financial incentives and low-cost housing. Incentives were also offered to industries.
Since the Oslo agreement, which was supposed to lead to an independent Palestine, Israel has accelerated its colonization of the Palestinian Territory and built what Jeff Halper calls the "Matrix of Control." This complex web of settlements, roads and no-man's land zones have divided Palestinian villages, cut off farmers from their land, and generally translated into increased restrictions and a strangled Palestinian economy.
The unfair advantage given to settlement products is compounded by difficulties Palestinians encounter -- checkpoints, vehicle licence plates (which are colour coded to show where Palestinian drivers are allowed to go), denial of water resources, etc. -- when attempting to export their own products, particularly from the agricultural sector. Impediments to the free movement of goods "at will" and the refusal to transfer funds collected by Israeli customs on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in a timely fashion represent Israeli violations of the Israeli-Palestinian Paris Agreement.
Israeli Human Rights organization Gush Shalom called for a boycott of settlement products approximately 10 years ago. They see this as a "distinct tool of peace and justice seekers, against the entire establishment of the settlements, whose essence is racism, oppression and deprivation."
Palestinian citizens of Israel have also supported the boycott, saying: "As part of our commitment to a sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, we choose to help the Palestinian economy by forcing out the settlers and ending the occupation... If all Arabs and others who support our cause will join in the boycott, we can help bring our vision of an independent Palestinian state closer."
In Canada, in spite of not recognizing Israeli annexation of and/or sovereignty over the OPT and the Syrian Golan Heights, products from these occupied areas receive preferential treatment. The wording in the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) is such that the agreement applies "to those areas to which Israeli customs laws apply," which include the occupied lands.
Some apologists for CIFTA's application to the OPT say that the original intent was to provide a market for Palestinian exports. However, the fact is that virtually all of the benefit has gone to the illegal Israeli settlements which currently export their products to Canada within CIFTA. This not only contradicts Canadian policy and gives legitimacy to Israel's possession of the OPT and the transfer of its own population, but it costs Canadian taxpayers hundred of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.
CIFTA, Canada's first trade agreement signed outside the western hemisphere after NAFTA, resulted from the Oslo accord. According to then Foreign Affairs parliamentary secretary, Ron MacDonald, negotiations for CIFTA started at a time when there was great hope for the peace process. However, by the time they were concluded, there had been a change in government that brought hard-line Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu to power. The peace process was stalled but, in spite of reservations and warnings by some senators and NGOs, the government decided to go ahead with the agreement to "try to lever the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu to put the peace process back on track." (Committee on Foreign Affairs, December 4, 1996).
MacDonald went on to state that "one of the positive things about the CIFTA deal being expanded to the West Bank and Gaza is that it gives the Palestinians added ammunition in their fight against Israeli officials who may be using non-tariff barriers to trade. We have established a trade commission of ministers. If access to the West Bank or the Gaza market is being frustrated, the commission will go to the Israeli officials and indicate that their actions are contrary to the terms and conditions of the trade deal."
More than a decade later, the Palestinian situation in the OPT has worsened and, as the World Bank reported, the Israeli grip has tightened. In The Economics of Occupation, Bernard Avishai writes that "If you spend time in Ramallah and talk to its emerging leaders, it becomes depressingly clear that if the Israeli government were intentionally trying to crush Palestinian entrepreneurship, it could not pursue the endeavour more perfectly. Palestinian businesses have not only been cut off from Jerusalem, their natural commercial center; they cannot count on the things any company needs to survive: access to obvious markets in Jordan and Israel, the mobility of goods, the capacity to recruit talent, basic resources for specialized manufacturing and services, and a reliable financial infrastructure."
This Palestinian reality may have been considered by the European Court of Justice when it ruled on February 25 that products from Israeli colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories cannot benefit from the preferential treatment accorded Israeli products under the European Community-Israel Association Agreement. This sets an important precedent with possible implications for Canada and CIFTA.
In 2006, Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette introduced a Private Member's Bill addressing CIFTA for the second time. Bill C-326 recommended that the CIFTA Implementation Act be amended to include the following sentence: "The minister shall undertake consultations with the government of the State of Israel for the purpose of having the agreement amended to exclude goods originating in the settlements from the list of goods entitled to preferential tariff treatment."
The majority of Palestinians use entirely non-violent means to resist the occupation of their country. But they cannot do it alone, as Yousef Munayyer writes in Palestinian nonviolence relies on global non-silence. They have to be accompanied in their non-violent initiatives against the occupation both in Israel/Palestine and abroad. Canadians can help and contribute to peace by acting as ethical consumers and conscientious citizens. We can all take a stand against the policies regarding the illegality of the settlements in the OPT and the preferential treatment their products receive by adding our voices to the Palestinians' and joining in their boycott in our own country.
Considering that Israel has reneged on its obligations regarding the free circulation and export of Palestinians goods, the logical follow-up for Canada is to lend its support to the Palestinian people as the PA takes baby steps -- albeit peaceful and empowering ones -- to undermine the occupation in line with Gandhi's "swadeshi" (self-sufficiency) policy against British goods, and introduce a bill to review CIFTA and bring it more into line with international law and our very own Canadian values and interests.
Removing the preferential tariff treatment from the colony-produced goods is a small and modest -- indeed extremely small and modest -- measure towards a fair and just policy for Palestine-Israel.
Bahija Réghaï is a human rights activist, former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relatons (NCCAR).
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