Should companies pull their business from Israeli West Bank settlements?

A Jan. 19 Human Rights Watch report states that companies doing business in Israeli settlements are infringing on the human rights of Palestinians in the region, and suggests that the firms involved leave their operations behind.

Baz Ratner/Reuters/File
An ultra-Orthodox youth walks past a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit in 2013.

A new human rights report suggests that companies involved with Israel’s West Bank settlements are contributing to the violation of the human rights of Palestinians living in the region.

The nonprofit, non-governmental activist organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its overview of how businesses play into Israel’s infringement of international rules of occupation, citing the Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague regulations, and the Jewish state’s violation of international human rights law.

The report states that Israel unlawfully transferred its citizens to an occupied territory, the West Bank, and in doing so displaced members of the existing population there. It also says that Israel unlawfully took resources from the West Bank for its settlements, and discriminates against Palestinians living in areas under Israeli rule.

Titled “Occupation, Inc.: How Settlement Businesses Contribute to Israel’s Violations of Palestinian Rights,” the report suggests that by operating in Israeli settlements or by engaging with settlement businesses, companies are contributing to these human rights abuses.

The report comes as the Palestinian-backed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which urges consumers to stay away from companies and products that support or are involved in the violation of Palestinian rights, is growing worldwide. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, last year decried the BDS movement as an attack on Jews, likening it to Nazi boycotts in the 1930s.

While Netanyahu has not made a statement about HRW's report, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on the release Tuesday.

“At a time when Israel and the international community are taking practical steps to bolster the Palestinian economy and increase Palestinian employment, Israel is concerned with this one-sided, politicized report, which jeopardizes the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinians and discourages rare examples of coexistence, coordination and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Ministry said, per The Times of Israel.

Israel first declared its independence in the area in 1948, but has remained at odds with neighboring Arab states and Palestinian territories since then. Although claimed by the State of Palestine – along with the Gaza Strip and a portion of eastern Jerusalem – the West Bank remains contentiously occupied by Israel, which continues to build settlements across the region in opposition to international law.

The new HRW report invokes the United Nations' Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in saying that businesses must “Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

Human Rights Watch goes on to say that in the face of Israel’s activities, all companies doing business in relation to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank region “should cease carrying out activities inside or for the benefit of settlements … They should also stop financing, administering, trading with, or otherwise supporting settlements or settlement-related activities and infrastructure.”

“The only things companies can do to maintain their human rights responsibilities is to pull out,” Sari Bashi, HRW’s Israel/Palestine Director, told Time.

“I think that’s a powerful statement, because over the past many years compliance with human rights responsibilities has increased,” she said. “Consumers and shareholders have demanded it.”

Although HRW strongly advocates for the cessation of settlement-related business activity in its report, it does not advise consumers to take any overt action on the issue. While advising that “consumers should have the information they need, such as where products are from, to make informed decisions,” the agency states that instead of a boycott, it is necessary for the companies to follow through with their own burdens of upholding human rights.

The HRW report was released one day after both European and American leadership conveyed ongoing worries about Israel’s handling of its West Bank settlements. The European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council held a meeting Monday in which it stated: “The EU reiterates its strong opposition to Israel's settlement policy and actions taken in this context” and that “It urges Israel to end all settlement activity and to dismantle the outposts erected since March 2001.”

The Council also reported that “All agreements between the State of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.”

The US ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, expressed Monday that Washington is “concerned and perplexed” by Israel’s ongoing settlement programs and its treatment of Palestinians under the Jewish state's laws in the West Bank, according to The Associated Press.

"Too much Israeli vigilantism in the West Bank goes on unchecked," Shapiro said at an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv.

“At times, it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank – one for Israelis and one for Palestinians," he said.

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