Back-door boycott fears over labelling

Jewish groups fear a government-backed meeting about the labelling of products from the West Bank may lead to a new “back-door” boycott of Israeli exports to Britain.

The meeting is scheduled to be held in the Cabinet Office on Tuesday and invitations have gone out to major retailers, consumer groups and a small number of NGOs. Oxfam is the only group believed to have confirmed that it will attend.

Just days before the government meeting, a briefing note from the UK Palestinian Solidarity Committee to its supporters says that it is concentrating its boycott actions on Waitrose and Tesco supermarkets this weekend.

“On Monday, make sure everyone you know calls Waitrose and Tesco to complain about their sale of Israeli products and illegal Israeli settlement products.”

The government wants retailers to label produce from the West Bank so that it is clear whether or not it originates from settlements — but it is asking them to label the produce voluntarily.

New voluntary guidelines “on the labelling of produce from the Occupied Palestinian territories”, have been prepared by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency. Representatives of both Defra and the FSA will be at the meeting.

No ministers will be present and the ground rules stipulate that as there should be no discussion of the political aspects, there will be no Israeli or Palestinian participation.

The chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jeremy Newmark, who is also a member of the board of the Fair Play Campaign Group, commented: “This step risks encouraging those working for a wider programme of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. At this level, there have been no other meetings of this nature to discuss produce from other territories that the British government considers occupied.

“By involving groups which campaign for a boycott and a ban on all settlement goods, the government is making it harder to believe that this meeting is purely about giving consumers choice. These plans also risk harming the incomes of over 20,000 Palestinian workers who earn their livelihoods in the production of such goods.”

One senior Anglo-Jewish activist said: “This raises a number of worrying questions. First, Israel is being singled out for special treatment once again — why aren’t there special rules for the Greek and Turkish areas of Cyprus, for example, or the Western Sahara and Morocco?

“Supermarkets may just turn around and say that it is too much work and simply not bother to buy produce from Israel, which is a boycott by the back door.”

A spokesman for Revenue and Customs said that while the labelling of goods was not directly its responsibility, the department was “aware that there is a risk that the location shown on the proof of origin may be that of a head office in Israel, when the goods concerned may have in fact originated in a settlement.”

    Last updated: 9:59am, March 26 2009