Battle of the bottle: Palestine activists uncork fight against Israeli settlement wines in Canada

Battle of the bottle: Palestine activists uncork fight against Israeli settlement wines in Canada
In-depth: Vintages produced in illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land must not be labelled 'Product of Israel', activists argue.
7 min read
18 July, 2017
Goods produced in Israeli settlements are sold around the world [Getty]
For a brief period, wines made in Israeli settlements built illegally in the occupied West Bank could not be sold in Ontario with the label "Product of Israel".

The ruling was short-lived, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency abruptly reversed its decision late last week.

It's a change of direction that activists working in support of Palestinian human rights say puts Canada at odds with international law, and goes against its own obligations to ensure that Canadian consumers are aware of where products are made.

It's also one they have vowed to continue to fight in Canadian courts.

"This is such an affront to our sense of justice. Not only have we thrown the Palestinian people under the bus again, but in addition, we are undermining the interests of Canadian consumers," said Dimitri Lascaris, an Ontario-based lawyer and human rights activist.

"Settlements constitute a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court - and when people are buying these wines, they are enabling people to profit from a war crime," Lascaris told The New Arab on Monday.

Mislabelled 'Product of Israel'

Lascaris is representing David Kattenburg, a Winnipeg-based activist who lodged his first complaint against the wines in January with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), the body that regulates alcohol sales in Canada's most populous province.

Kattenburg filed a subsequent complaint with the CFIA in March.

Both stem from the fact that though they are labelled "Product of Israel" on Canadian shelves, both wines were made from grapes grown and harvested in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Tanya Kosher winery was established in the Ofra settlement, in the occupied West Bank, in 2001.
The Geneva Conventions outlaw the transfer of an occupying power's population into the occupied territory [AFP]

Psagot Winery Ltd operates in the Jewish-only settlement of the same name, located on a West Bank hilltop near Ramallah, while Shiloh Winery Ltd operates in the northern West Bank.

Both are considered to be occupied Palestinian territory under international law.

Kattenburg, who is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, said getting mislabelled Israeli settlement wines off the shelves was a "really concrete, tangible issue" he felt he could get involved with.

While he "rejoiced at" the LCBO's original decision, he said he "realised it was going to be short-lived, and in fact, within 12 hours, the decision had been quashed".

But neither the LCBO nor the CFIA communicated with him directly, he added.

"What I find astonishing and really shocking is that a legitimate complaint by a concerned Canadian citizen essentially gets ignored, while the interests of the Israeli lobby in Canada get pandered to," he told The New Arab.

CFIA further advised that the Government of Canada does not recognise Israel's sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)

A decision reversed

In a July 11 letter sent to vendors that was shared online by pro-Israel lobby group B'Nai Brith Canada, the LCBO said it received a notice from the CFIA that two wines could not be labelled "Product of Israel".

The label was not acceptable for wines produced by Psagot Winery Ltd and Shiloh Winery Ltd, which "have been made from grapes that are grown, fermented, processed, blended and finished in the West Bank occupied territory", the letter reads.

"CFIA further advised that the Government of Canada does not recognise Israel's sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip).

Israeli settlement-produced wine
is often labelled as 'Made in Israel' [AFP]

"As such, wine products from these regions that are labelled as 'Product of Israel' would not be acceptable and would be considered misleading," according to a subsection of Canada's Food and Drugs Act, the letter continued.

But in a brief statement posted on its website on July 13, the CFIA said it "regrets the outcome of the wine labelling assessment", which it said "did not fully consider the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement".

The CFIA said the wines did adhere to that agreement, which states under Article 1.4 that Israel is to be defined as "the territory where its customs laws are applied", and thus the wines "can be sold as currently labelled".

But Lascaris was adamant that argument "doesn't stand up to legal scrutiny".

The free trade agreement deals primarily with the elimination of trade barriers, not issues of consumer protection, such as the requirement under Section 5 of the Canadian Food and Drugs Act that product labelling must be accurate, Lascaris said.

"There's nothing in the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement which exempts Israel's settlement lines from the requirement that the products be accurate and that Canadian consumers understand where they're buying the product from," Lascaris said.

"This argument does not hold any water, but the Canadian government of course doesn't want to simply admit that it's capitulating to pressure from the Israeli embassy and its lobby groups here in Canada and so it's offered up this pretext."

Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement

The Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement first came into force in 1997. It eliminated tariffs on industrial products made in both countries, and on some agricultural and fishery products.

In 2014, under then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a staunch Israel supporter, Canada and Israel entered into negotiations to expand and update the deal.

Two-way trade between the two countries totalled $1.6 billion in 2014, according to the Canadian government.

But Canada and the United Nations both state that the occupied Palestinian territories "do not fall within Israel's internationally recognised borders, and that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law," said Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a Canadian lobby group working for Palestinian justice.

Under CFIA country-of-origin labelling guidelines, these two wine products must be labelled accurately to reflect that the wines were produced in occupied Palestinian territory

On its website, Global Affairs Canada makes it clear that Canada "does not recognise permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967", and that Canada considers the settlements to be in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

"Therefore, under CFIA country-of-origin labelling guidelines, these two wine products must be labelled accurately to reflect that the wines were produced in occupied Palestinian territory," the CJPME said in a recent statement.

Amnesty International has urged governments to ban the import of Israeli settlement products outright in order to "put an end to the multimillion dollar profits that have fuelled mass human rights violations against Palestinians".

The United Church of Canada, which supports a boycott of Israeli settlement products, also accused Ottawa of putting "trade ahead of human rights and the law" with its decision.

"We believe that inaccurate and misleading labelling prevents Canadians from making ethical choices about their purchases," the church said in a statement.

Pressure from pro-Israel groups

CJPME, Lascaris, Kattenburg and others have accused Israel lobby groups like B'Nai Brith Canada of being behind a campaign to pressure authorities to rescind their original decision.

In a statement, B'Nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn thanked Ottawa for reversing its decision on the wines.

"We will continue to make inquiries about the origin of this travesty, to ensure that nothing like ever happens again," Mostyn said.

The group also thanked federal parliament member Michael Levitt, a member of Justin Trudeau's governing Liberal party who represents a riding in North York, just north of Toronto, for helping have the decision overturned.

"This action was completely at odds with both the government's long-standing close relationship with the State of Israel and our focus on broadening the Canada-Israel trade relationship, such as the upcoming ratification of an expanded Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement," Levitt said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Lascaris and Kattenburg said they intend to file legal proceedings to challenge the most recent labelling decision.

"By allowing Israel to label West Bank settlement products 'made in Israel' is essentially Canada totally turning its back in the most dishonest of ways on a well established, fundamental policy," Kattenburg said.

"Canada, to be saying one thing on the international stage and then acting completely differently - this is unacceptable and Canadians should be angry about this."

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours