Trade Enforcement Act and Its Consequences
The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 has passed in the U.S. House and the Senate and is on its way to President Obama’s desk. The international trade bill includes a provision that speaks on “competitiveness issues facing the U.S. economy and competitive conditions for certain key U.S. industries,” according to the brief summary of Section 908. What this section really contains transcends this vague goal and seems to be a direct response to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement , which aims to change the treatment of Palestinians facing Israeli occupation.
It is no secret that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1948, especially in the West Bank, violates international law and human rights. The settlements in the West Bank came after Israel’s military occupation of the area in 1967. (A helpful timeline). Despite the land being officially considered Palestinian, Israeli presence in the area is only expanding. West Bank settlements have attracted commercial operations that take advantage of cheap labor, low rent and taxes, and government subsidies. These businesses not only ignore Palestinian history and right to freedom from occupation and violence, but are also in direct violation of several international treaties and guidelines for human rights. These include the Fourth Geneva Convention, which stipulates that an occupying power cannot transfer its citizens into the territory that it is occupying, the 1907 Hague Regulations, which prohibit an occupying power from exploiting the natural resources of the area they are occupying for their own benefit, and theUN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which hold businesses responsible for avoiding and mitigating human rights violations that occur under their watch.
The Israeli settlers in the West Bank are protected under Israeli law, unlike Palestinians who are subjected to completely different standards under Israeli military law. Palestinians make lower wages, experience daily discrimination, and are under constant threat of being displaced from their homes and their land as their forefathers before them. Because of the different set of standards that Palestinian businesses are subjected to, Israeli businesses in the settlement areas are at a distinct advantage in operating and growing. Thriving Israeli companies on unlawfully confiscated, occupied Palestinian land are doing so because of, not in spite of, discriminatory policies put in place by their government.
When the United States trades with businesses in the settlement areas, they are encouraging and perpetuating these violations of treaties and human rights. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement calls for a change in the way that the world trades with Israel, ceasing trade with companies made by or in the country “until Palestinian rights are recognised in full compliance with international law,” according to their website. Whereas the EU has taken steps towards labeling Israeli products made in the West Bank settlements , the U.S. is passing legislation that takes us in the opposite direction. By existing laws that “discourage and prohibit U.S. companies from furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel sponsored by the Arab League,” the Office of Antiboycott Compliance (OAC) was created to remind us that boycotting foreign products is prohibited when not sanctioned by the government. The U.S. government does not sanction the Arab League boycott of Israel. But Section 908 of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, titled United States-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement, calls for zero recognition of any of these issues. Emphasizing Israel as “dependable, democratic ally in the Middle East,” the provision lauds the Free Trade Agreement and repeatedly states Congressional support of United States-Israel trade cooperation.
The objectives of the provision are “to discourage actions by potential trading partners that directly or indirectly prejudice or otherwise discourage commercial activity solely between the United States and Israel” and “to discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel and to seek the elimination of politically motivated non-tariff barriers on Israeli goods, services, or other commerce imposed on the State of Israel.” These can be nothing else but a renouncement of the growing support for the BDS movement. By including “Israeli-controlled settlements” alongside Israel, this provision requires the treatment of trade with companies operating from Israeli settlements on Palestinian land to be the same as the treatment of trade within the rest of Israel. This ignores a necessary distinction and makes it more difficult for the plight of Palestinians to gain recognition, not only throughout their entire country but specifically in the West Bank under Israeli control.
In disallowing the ability of U.S. entities to boycott products made on illegal and immoral Israeli settlements, the government is disallowing the ability for people to respond to and help combat violations of human rights that are widely ignored internationally. “Prejudice in commercial activity,” as the provision calls it, can be a powerful tool in political movements and the United States should not discourage or prohibit this in the case of the BDS movement. Foreign direct investment in Israel dropped 46% in 2014, according to a report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development. BDS successes include Romania’s refusal to employ workers on settlement land, the University of Johannesburg’s severance of ties with Israel, and growing divestment movements in the U.S. and Canada. This shows that the international community has responded positively to the efforts of boycott movements and the U.S. government should not let strong trade ties with Israel affect its response to the mistreatment of thousands of Palestinian people.
- Alexie Schwarz