Minister offers flimsy excuses for Dutch aid to Israel’s crimes

Netherlands Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug, right, attends the 8 November opening a month-long promotion of Dutch products by Israeli settlement profiteer Shufersal. (via Twitter)

Israel’s Shufersal supermarket chain has been running a month-long promotion of Dutch products in collaboration with the Netherlands embassy.

This week Dutch foreign minister Halbe Zijlstra was questioned by lawmakers over a statement he made in parliament last month denying that the promotion involved Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law.

“I have not said that Dutch products were not sold in settlements,” Zijlstra told the foreign affairs committee on Monday.

The minister’s reply came after The Electronic Intifada and Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf published evidence showing that the Dutch products were indeed being promoted in Shufersal branches in Gilo, Pisgat Zeev and Gush Etzion – all colonies in the West Bank.

The brands being promoted include iconic Dutch names such as Calvé, Gouda’s Glorie, Vos Banket, Merba, De Ruijter, Buiteman, Jeurgens and Daelmans, the maker of iconic syrup-filled confectionaries called stroopwafels.

Misleading parliament

Last month, Zijlstra had claimed in parliament that “The Dutch embassy was very careful. The activities that it undertook were only focused on the supermarkets in Israel.”

Given the evidence that the promotion – complete with signs declaring “in partnership with the Netherlands embassy” – was clearly taking place in settlements, Zijlstra’s statement was at best misleading.

Socialist Party lawmaker Sadet Karabulut had asked Zijlstra to clarify the facts about the promotion. In response, Zijlstra presented flimsy excuses whitewashing the Dutch embassy’s actions.

In a letter to parliament Zijlstra attempts to square his previous statement with the inconvenient facts.

He writes that the Dutch embassy supported Shufersal with its presence at the official opening of the Dutch month. Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug also organized a reception for Shufersal staff at his residence and contacted Dutch companies to explore their interest in sponsoring the promotion.

The embassy was aware of Dutch government policy of discouraging business activities in and with Israeli settlements, and the embassy informed Dutch firms participating in Shufersal’s promotion about this policy.

According to Zijlstra, the embassy also told Shufersal it could not provide promotional bags with the “Holland” logo on them because the company could not guarantee the bags would not be distributed in settlement stores.

Zijlstra claims the embassy had stayed within the “thin line” of the discouragement policy and “the 1967 border.”

He based this on the assertion that the opening and the reception took place in Tel Aviv. Only staff from Shufersal headquarters in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion were invited. All of this took place within the 1967 boundaries and could therefore not be problematic, according to the minister.

Settlement profiteer

But this is to completely miss the forest for the trees.

Shufersal has long been known as a settlement profiteer, and will undoubtedly appear in the UN database of companies doing business in the illegal settlements.

Hosting a reception for a settlement profiteer “within the 1967 border” has nothing to do with holding such a business to account for its role in the violations of the rights of the Palestinians in occupied territory.

This is like knowingly giving aid and shelter to a criminal, but claiming no responsibility merely because you were not at the scene of their crime.

If the Dutch “discouragement” policy doesn’t even prevent Dutch government bodies from colluding with and placing their seal of approval on the activities of settlement profiteers then it is clearly ineffective.

Seeking sponsors

Zijlstra also acknowledged that the embassy had worked with Shufersal in an attempt to find Dutch sponsors for the promotion – in other words the embassy was actively aiding a settlement profiteer to do business with Dutch firms.

The diplomats wrote to four Dutch companies but “they were not interested in sponsoring.” If companies would have shown interest, they would have been warned about the settlement trade discouragement policy, Zijlstra added.

And, as if it makes a difference, Zijlstra noted that the promotional materials and store displays declaring the “partnership” with the Dutch embassy were paid for by Shufersal, and not by the embassy itself.

Zijlstra’s arguments ignore the Netherlands’ legal obligation not to recognize and assist Israel’s violations in occupied territories.

Shufersal is deeply involved in Israel’s settlements. It has branches in the industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, near Maaleh Adumim, as well as in Ariel, Gilo, Pisgat Zeev and Gush Etzion.

Its subsidiary Yesh Supermarkets has branches in other settlements across the West Bank, including in occupied East Jerusalem, according to Who Profits, a group that researches companies complicit in Israel’s military occupation and colonization.

Shufersal’s settlement profiteering does not end here. The company also distributes a range of products sourced from other firms based in settlements in the West Bank and in Syria’s Golan Heights, thus giving a significant boost to the settlement economy.

Legal obligation

The International Court of Justice and numerous UN resolutions have declared Israel’s settlement construction illegal and a violation of the internationally recognized right to self-determination of the Palestinians.

International jurists and two major human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been clear that governments and firms cannot fulfill their human rights obligations if they facilitate or engage in any trade in or with the settlements.

“Settlement businesses unavoidably contribute to Israeli policies that dispossess and harshly discriminate against Palestinians, while profiting from Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and other resources,” Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, explained in 2016.

Trading with settlements constitutes implicit recognition of an illegal situation and provides an economic lifeline for settlements, according to legal scholar Tom Moerenhout. Moerenhout says governments have a legal obligation to outlaw this trade.

For decades, European Union countries including the Netherlands have been unwilling to hold Israel accountable for its illegal colonization of Palestinian land.

Zijlstra’s shabby effort to obscure this complicity indicates that the new Dutch government dominated by right-wing and Christian parties will not change this position.

As long as governments disregard their responsibility to uphold international law, there is a task for civil society groups and concerned citizens to defend the rights of the Palestinians.

Boycott, divestment and sanctions activism is an excellent and appropriate tool to do so.

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Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh