For the past 28 years, the Israeli cosmetics giant Ahava has manufactured its line of Dead Sea mud-based skincare products in a settlement located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But this month, the company announced it would build a new facility 10 miles to the south, just across the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the Palestinian territory.
Though the company did not link the move to political pressure, instead citing “expanding production needs due the success in marketing Ahava products around the world,” it has long been targeted by activists who protest Israeli companies operating in the West Bank, which much of the international community regards as illegally occupied.
Ahava is not alone — a number of companies have chosen to abandon their operations in the West Bank, according to a new report by the Israeli anti-occupation group Gush Shalom that was compiled from publicly available information and published as a wiki-entry.
Twenty years ago, Gush Shalom drew up a list of Israeli companies doing business across the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank that has been a sticking point in negotiations over a future Palestinian state. As of March, between 20 and 30 percent of those companies are no longer operating there.
Yigal Dilmony, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, a group that represents Israeli settlers in the West Bank, dismissed the report’s findings out of hand.
“They earn a zero in credibility and a 100 in manipulation,” he told Haaretz. “For every factory that moves out, there are many others jumping on the opportunity to come in.”
The report’s numbers are just estimates, but Gush Shalom says that the data shows an unmistakable trajectory.
“This is a very rough estimate, and clearly there are other businesses that have sprouted up in their place,” Adam Keller, a spokesperson for the group, told Haaretz. “But when it comes to big companies that export their goods and are interested in building international connections, the trend is very clear. There has been a sharp decline in their number.”
Nancy Kricorian, an activist with the group CODEPINK, which helped coordinate the campaign against Ahava, said that adjustments on the part of companies like Ahava and SodaStream, an Israeli carbonation product manufacturer that moved its operations from the West Bank last year, shows just how sensitive companies are to political pressure.
“The Gush Shalom report is just a detailed account of what we know has been happening for a few years now,” she remarked. “Most people, when informed about the human rights violations and occupation profiteering… will choose not to buy those products.”
Aside from Ahava and SodaStream, the report documents the exodus of dozens of major companies from the West Bank over the past two decades, including Delta Galil Industries, a major cloths exporter, Teva Pharmaceuticals, the world’s leading producer of generic drugs, and United Seats, a chair manufacturer.
The motivations of the companies making this shift are not always clear. But SodaStream executives publicly acknowledged that political pressure hastened its exit from Mishor Adumim, an industrial park in the disputed West Bank.
“We didn’t leave Mishor Adumim because of BDS, we had a consolidation plan and we simply ran out of room for expansion there,” CEO Daniel Birnbaum told the Jerusalem Post in February, referring to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a campaign to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. “However, if it wasn’t for BDS, we might have stayed there another year or two, so it did have some effect.”
“So, you can say that BDS was responsible for 500 Palestinians losing their jobs when SodaStream moved,” Birnbaum added.
The Israeli government often cites the argument that the boycott movement ultimately harms Palestinian workers.
“If the goal of the campaign is to undermine the livelihood of Palestinian laborers and disrupt economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians, it can claim a handful of isolated successes,” an Israeli official told VICE News when asked about the Gush Shalom report. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Kricorian counters that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank contributes to Palestinian economic woes.
“Ending the occupation and allowing Palestinians to start their own businesses, and perhaps even set up their own cosmetics companies next to the Dead Sea, would be a much better solution for the Palestinian economy than employing people who are captive labor with few legal protections,” she said.
Since a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations called for a boycott on Israel in 2005, a number of prominent institutions have signed on in one form or another. Some organizations and institutions — like New Zealand’s sovereign wealth fund and the Danish bank Danske — have focused just on the occupied territories by withdrawing financing from companies that operate in the West Bank. Others, like the American Studies Association, have endorsed a boycott of institutions within Israel proper.
Last fall, the European Union finalized a policy that requires goods produced in Israel’s West Bank settlements to be labeled as such.
The Israeli and US government have accused boycotters of seeking to “de-legitimate” Israel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that the movement is tinged with anti-Semitism.
In 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that penalizes any individual or group that calls for a boycott of Israel proper or of its settlements. In order to sidestep legal sanction, Gush Shalom had to include a short waiver on its report.
“Considering the legal situation, Gush Shalom clarifies, in order to cast away any doubt, that in gathering information on factories and businesses in the settlements and in publishing it in the ‘Wiki Settlements Product’ project, there is no intent to call for a boycott of settlement products,” the statement reads. “The purpose of gathering this information and publishing it is to provide reliable and precise consumer information, to the best of our ability, in order to allow consumers — each by him or herself — to make a wise and knowledgeable decision based on personal considerations.”