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Businesses in settlements violate Palestinian rights, says rights group

Human Rights Watch calls on companies to stop operating in illegal Israel settlements, respect human rights

Businesses that operate within or in coordination with Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories benefit from and contribute to an unlawful system that violates Palestinian rights, according to a scathing report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.

The report, titled “Occupation, Inc.: How Settlement Businesses Contribute to Israel’s Violations of Palestinian Rights,” calls for companies to stop “operating in, financing, servicing, or trading with Israeli settlements in order to comply with their human rights responsibilities.”

All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Specifically, U.N. Security Council Resolution 446 states: “The policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

More than 500,000 Israelis live in more than 200 Jewish-only settlements and unofficial outpost — which are communities unrecognized or serviced by the Israeli government — in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The HRW report specifically focuses on the role that settlement businesses play in supporting and benefiting from Israel’s 49-year-long military occupation of the West Bank.

In addition to numerous small businesses, 1,000 factories operate in 20 settlement industrial zones in the West Bank. The industrial zones and agricultural land administered by settlers make up almost double the amount of land seized by Israeli settlers for home construction, the report said.

Businesses operating in settlements benefit from low rent, tax incentives and cheap Palestinian labor. At least half of the settlement businesses pay Palestinian workers a wage lower than Israel’s hourly minimum wage, and offer no vacation, sick days or other benefits, according to Israeli labor rights group Kav LaOved.

Palestinians who choose to work in settlements often do so because of an inability to find regular work in the West Bank, where according to a 2013 World Bank assessment some $3.4 billion is lost per year as a result of restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade.

Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, slammed the HRW report on Tuesday for being “one-sided” and ignoring the purported benefits that settlement businesses provide to Palestinians.

“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," Nahshon said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

However, Sarah Saadoun, HRW’s Israel-Palestine researcher, described such justifications for the continued occupation and settlement enterprise as an “insult to injury.”

“If these employers truly cared about the financial wellbeing of Palestinians, they should be lobbying their own government to lift its discriminatory restrictions and end its settlement policies," she said.

Meanwhile, on the same day the HRW report was released, Israel banned Palestinians from working in settlements in the West Bank indefinitely due to a recent spate of stabbing attacks targeting Israelis, an Israeli spokesperson told Palestinian news agency Ma'an. The “situation” would be “reviewed on a daily basis,” the spokesperson said according to Ma'an.

For its part, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Tuesday echoed HRW’s call for businesses to cease operations in Israeli settlements.

“We call for the full application of international humanitarian law in the occupied State of Palestine, including international responsibility towards the full implementation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people,” Saeb Erekat, PLO Secretary General, said in a statement.

The HRW report seems to have already impacted the decisions of some businesses to operate in the occupied territories.

“In the process of writing the report, one of the companies we researched relocated,” Saadoun said, though she would not reveal the identity of the company.

She added that Orange, the French telecom company also “ended its relationship with the Israeli company Partner after being criticized for supporting settlement infrastructure.”

Anti-settlement momentum

International pressure has mounted in recent years against Israeli and international companies that due business in or with Israeli settlements.

Last week, the pension fund for the United Methodist Church blocked five Israeli banks from its investment portfolio for “prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights abuses,” referring to illegal settlements.

On Jan. 12, home-sharing website Airbnb made international headlines for listing dozens of rooms and apartments in West Bank settlements as being in “Israel” rather than Palestinian Territories. Airbnb, like real-estate giant Remax which also lists properties in settlements, is now a subject of a growing movement known as BDS which seeks to put pressure on Israel internationally through a non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. 

While the HRW report is calling for some of the same actions as the BDS movement — such as a withdrawal of businesses operating in settlements, “It does not have a position on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement ― or boycott movements more generally,” Saadoun said.

“We are rather calling on businesses to comply with their own human rights responsibilities by ceasing settlement-related activities.”

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