Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies has rejected “with utter contempt” suggestions that there was a racial motivation for his move to stop Israeli goods produced in occupied Palestinian territory from being sold under the label “Made in Israel”.
Addressing journalists in the wake of an Israeli government summons to SA’s ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, to clarify the decision, Davies was adamant that his department was neither seeking to promote a boycott of Israeli goods nor to prevent the entry of such products into South Africa. He said the move was aimed at ensuring that products were correctly labelled so that SA consumers could decide whether they wanted to purchase them or not. Davies called a press conference to explain the motivation behind the move, which has angered the Israeli government.
On Monday Denmark’s Foreign Ministry looked set to join SA in the call to ban the false labelling of goods from the region.
Last week, Davies issued a notice in terms of Section 26 of the Consumer Protection Act to force traders of certain Israeli goods to re-label them so that, instead of reading “Made in Israel” – or “Product of Israel” – the labels would indicate that they originated in the occupied territory.
In the Government Gazette published last week, Davies said consumers should not be misled into believing products originating in occupied Palestine came from Israel. He said the burden of proving the origin of products rested with traders.
The Times of Israel reported on Sunday that Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor had slammed the decision as “essentially racist”.
Davies said: “This has given rise to a huge amount of hyperbole… I was asked by an Israeli television station yesterday whether I was an anti-Semite. I was accused of being a left-leaning Jew. It has given rise to all sorts of labels, which I reject with utter contempt.”
He said SA had been part of efforts by the international community to seek a negotiated settlement on the “complex issue of the Middle East and Palestine and Israel”.
“But it is also the case that we do not support the effective occupation of the territory outside of the 1967 borders, and there may be consumers in SA who would want to exercise their consumer rights, as they have the right to do, and will have to be guided by accurate labelling.
“We are not far out of line with what Britain was grappling with about three years ago.”
Davies issued the notice after the pro-Palestinian NGO Open Shuhada Street alleged that certain products, including soft drinks and cosmetics, were being falsely labelled as having been produced in Israel, when they actually originated in occupied Palestine.
He said Open Shuhada Street had threatened court action if the department did not take action under the Consumer Protection Act.
Davies said his department had put out for comment the intention to issue a notice, under Section 26 of the Consumer Protection Act, which would require traders in SA not to incorrectly label products.
SA already had country of origin labelling requirements, “so that when you sell imported products, you are supposed to say from whence they come.
“We are not that different from many other countries in the international community, even the EU, where our recognition of Israel is the 1967 borders of Israel, and there is a distinction between products which come from within those borders and products which come from territories outside, notably the West Bank, which were territories which fell under Israeli control after that date.”
Davies said that having issued the notice of intention, his department was inviting comments from the public until about mid-July.
“We are going belt and braces. We are giving people an opportunity to comment on this. But there is an argument we could have gone straight ahead and done it without opening it up to any consultation,” he said.
If Israel wanted to make a representation on the matter, it would be considered and weighed up.
Asked about SA’s trade with Israel, Davies described it as modest.
“Within the Middle East it is somewhere in the middle… This is not a measure which, from the government’s point of view, is intended to be a boycott of products coming even from occupied territories and certainly not intended to be a boycott of Israel,” he stressed.
Asked if he expected a backlash, Davies said: “It would be unfortunate if it was the case.”