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'Made in Israel' - or the West Bank?

Many EU imports from Israel are labelled "Made in Israel" even though they originate from areas that are merely occupied by Israel. New transparency rules could change that.

A glass of red wine after work - whoever enjoys that probably doesn't think about whether it might originate from internationally disputed territory, and about the ethical dilemma it might pose.

One of these cases is the red "Yarden Mount Hermon", labelled "Wine of Israel". In fact though, its cellar is located in Katzrin on the Golan Heights - an area that has been originally Syrian, but was annexed by Israel.

Until now, the EU only requires fruits and vegetables from the occupied areas to be labelled accordingly - a rule that doesn't apply for other agricultural or commercial goods. As a consequence, any other products - from cookies to furniture - may say "Made in Israel", but in fact may come from Israeli settlements within the West Bank or East Jerusalem - settlements which many countries and the UN consider to be illegal.

Labels for transparency

For a long time, critics have been pushing for more transparency when it comes to the true origin of goods that are imported from Israel. Authorities in Finland are debating special labels for all goods that are produced in Israeli settlements - perhaps then reading "Golan Heights, Israeli settlement area."

In May, South Africa and Denmark had announced similar steps; already in 2009, Britain had issued a recommendation for UK retailers to put unambiguous labels on the products in question.

Vegetables on sale at Gaza market.

So far, only fruits and vegetables need specific labels of origin

But the retailers, too, show initiative: One "early adopter" is Migros, the largest supermarket chain in Switzerland. The company offers a broad range of products, including food, but also furniture or travel services. Every year, Migros imports 13 million francs (10.8 million euros, $13.3 million) worth of goods from Israel - almost half of which originate from the disputed settlement areas in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. As of mid-2013, these products are to bear the label "West Bank, Israeli settlement area."

"This is a way to create better transparency, so that the customers themselves can decide if they want to buy the products or not," said Migros spokesperson Monika Weibel. Should the products not sell anymore after the labelling, they might be taken off the shelves. Palestinian organisations and human rights activists in Switzerland welcomed the Migros decision, but Jewish groups and at the Israeli embassy were outraged.

The two sides of a boycott

The results of a comprehensive boycott, however, would be ambivalent, according to Ralf Hexel, the Tel Aviv bureau chief of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation which is affiliated with Germany's social democratic party. On the one hand, the Palestine government is criticising the current form of labelling.

"But on the other, there are Palestinians who work in companies that are based within Israeli settlements. Those people often think less of the political consequences, but rather of how to keep their jobs." On both the Palestinian and the Israeli side, he said, there are conflicts of interest.

A general view of the Israeli settlement Har Homa in eastern Jerusalem

Israeli settlements often deprive Palestinians of their farm land

Still, Ralf Hexel said he supports a more transparent labelling process, because - among other reasons - the label "Made in Israel" will give Israel a competetive advantage: "Due to bilateral agreements, imports from Israel into the EU are exempt from taxes - very much unlike products from the occupied areas."

In 2010, the European Court of Justice looked at Israel's export policies and decided that goods that originate from the West Bank are not subject to the tax exemption - even if they were labelled as "Made in Israel".

But future imports reading "West Bank, Israeli settlement area" may not come without problems. Uwe Nowotsch, a German importer and distributor of wines from Israel. "Customs authorities," he said, "wouldn't allow to import wine with this kind of label.

They appear to have clear regulations on that." He recalled a wine cellar from Bethlelem that didn't want to put "Made in Israel" labels on its bottles. Held up at the border, those bottles then weren't allowed into Germany, until Nowotsch made some adjustments with additional labels - reading: "Wine from Israel."

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