The calls for a boycott of Israeli goods are gaining increased mainstream credence. Much noise has been made about the British government finally beginning to question Israel on their export of settlement produce. But the single direct result so far has been a freeze on negotiations on an upgrade of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which already gives Israel preferential trade terms with the 27 EU countries. Whilst politicians make symbolic gestures, it is the people of Palestine who feel the harsh reality of Israel’s illegal settlement economy, writes Therezia Cooper.
The Jordan Valley is located in the north-east of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and makes up 28.5% of the West Bank. As the most fertile region of Palestine, with land perfect for agricultural production, it has been relentlessly exploited by the Israeli state. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, Israel has attempted to annex the valley for its own political, military and economic gain. 44% of the area is now controlled by the Israeli army and 50% by the 36 illegal settlements established there. Israeli checkpoints effectively separate its Palestinian inhabitants from the rest of the West Bank. For agents of the Israeli state, such as the agricultural company Carmel Agrexco and the national water company Mekorot, this creates prime business conditions. Profiting from the occupation.
Carmel Agrexco has previously testified in court that it markets and sells 60-70% of all agricultural produce grown in the Occupied Territories. Its signs and packing houses can be seen all over the Jordan Valley. Agrexco is known to deal on a large scale with at least nine illegal settlements: Tomer, Mehola, Hamra, Ro’i, Massu’a, Patzael, Mekhora, Netiv Ha-Gdud and Bet Ha-Arava.
At the end of 2007, a delegation from the Brighton Tubas Friendship and Solidarity Group entered one of those settlements, Tomer, where they found produce packed for Tesco and destined for its British supermarkets. What shoppers are not told is that, behind the label of cheap Tesco dates, there are endless tales of dispossession and exploitation.
Facilitating ethnic cleansing
Communities in the Jordan Valley live under the constant threat of settlement expansion. The first new settlement to be approved in a decade, Maskiot, is located there. In 2005, Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture started a programme aimed at doubling settler numbers in the Jordan Valley by issuing grants and tax breaks to settlement farms. Most of the settlers in the area are economically rather than religiously motivated; they are placed there to support and expand the Israeli settler economy.
For the Palestinians, each settlement expansion has devastating consequences. One long-running example is the struggle for existence of the Bedouin community of Al-Hadidya and Hamsa. Located in the path of the Ro’i settlement’s expansion plans, the community are the embodiment of the expression “to exist is to resist.” In August 2007, their houses, or shacks, and animal sheds were bulldozed by the occupation forces in order to facilitate Ro’i’s plans to increase their agricultural production, much of which will then be supplied through Agrexco. Families in the area have had their homes bulldozed as many as eight times in the last 12 years, in what can only be described as the occupation forces attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Al-Hadidya. Harab, who lives in Hamsa, told the Brighton Tubas group that people there are defiant and will stay but that it is “obvious that the Israelis want to empty the land so that they can take it.” It is not just Agrexco that makes a profit out of these policies. Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, is one of the other big profiteers. Most villages in the Jordan Valley used to have their own water supply as there are plenty of natural springs and wells in the area. But over the years, Mekorot dug deeper wells to facilitate the industrialised settlement business and the natural resources dried up. Palestinians are now forced to buy back their water from Mekorot at inflated prices, while the settlers’ water supply is subsidised by the Israeli state.
Worker exploitation
Because most villages have had all or some of their land confiscated, Palestinians are often forced to take jobs on the settlement farms and frequently end up working on land which used to belong to their families. The life of Yusif from Ein El-Beida is a typical case. Ein El-Beida is located next to the Mehola settlement, which was established immediately after the occupation in 1967. Before the occupation, Yusif’s family owned a large farm but this has since been swallowed by Mehola along with 70% of the village’s land. For a while, Yusif had a job at the settlement but, after questioning his supervisor about the working conditions after an injury, he was instantly dismissed. He now works with his father on land they have to lease for 60,000 Shekels per year. Yusif can still point to the exact location where their own land used to be: it is on the other side of the settlement gates and full of young, green banana trees.
The Brighton Tubas group have conducted a series of interviews with Palestinian settlement workers from the Massu’a, Mehola and Tomer settlements, all of which supply produce to Carmel Agrexco. The interviews reveal consistent and serious issues of worker exploitation. All workers interviewed earned between 60 and 70 Shekels a day, although supervisors get paid 90 Shekels a day. Under-age workers get as little as 20 Shekels. The official Israeli minimum wage is 170 Shekels. All workers also lacked contracts, pensions, sick-pay and the right to join a union. Despite frequent injuries, such as fork lift accidents and blade cuts, they get no insurance. In case of such an injury, the common outcome, as in Yusif’s case, is dismissal. Trade over people
Europe is the biggest recipient of Agrexco produce and, hence, one of the main upholders of the agricultural settlement trade’s profitability. Whilst recent concerns have been raised on an official level about the import of settlement goods, their main focus has been on distinguishing settlement imports from other Israeli goods for tax purposes, with humanitarian issues as a secondary concern. According to the current Association Agreement, settlement produce is not legible for import tariff rebates as the settlements are illegally built on Palestinian land according to international law. In reality, however, deceiving labelling makes it almost impossible to separate settlement from other Israeli produce on the border. So as long as that trade continues, European governments are effectively aiding the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements.
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