The row over selling ice-cream in the West Bank is a big deal

Ben & Jerry's said that they are no longer willing to sell products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank

You would think a little melted ice cream would be the last thing to alarm one of the world’s major regional powers, with its cutting-edge technology, an OECD economy and a powerful military including its own nuclear arsenal. But the meltdown by Israel's leaders and advocates over an ice cream company's marketing decision indicates how vulnerable they feel to criticism or a cursory examination of the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Vermont-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry's recently announced that they are no longer willing to sell products in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This policy is principled and justified, as well as nuanced and limited. It is also symbolic and will have very little, if any, real impact on Israeli society.

But the Israeli government and its global allies have reacted with thunderous outrage. It reached a crescendo when Israeli President Isaac Herzog described this ice cream cold-shoulder as "a new form of terrorism".

Israel-supporting politicians in the US are threatening to invoke state-level anti-boycott of Israel laws to punish Ben & Jerry's. If they do, they will succeed only in exposing that much of this legislation is flatly unconstitutional. But it probably won't come to that.

This dust-up is taking place entirely at the rhetorical and symbolic registers. And in that sense, Ben & Jerry's announcement is indeed threatening to Israel, particularly with regards to US perceptions of Israel, its occupation of Palestinian lands and growing drive towards eventual annexation of much of the West Bank.

For most of the world, Ben & Jerry's new policy will make perfect sense.

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It must be especially alarming that Ben & Jerry's was founded and led by two liberal and politically engaged Jewish Americans

Israeli settlements are a black-letter violation of fundamental international law, specifically Article 49, paragraph six, of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

This crucial bedrock of international law was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Unlike the earlier Geneva Conventions, which dealt with the conduct of war between combatants and treatment of prisoners, the Fourth Convention was designed for the protection of civilians during times of war.

It is the quintessential international human rights document.

As the International Red Cross Commentary of 1958 explains, paragraph six was “intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories".

In other words, using civilians to settle occupied territories is a major human rights violation. Article 49 clearly establishes that civilians living under military occupation have a right not to be colonised and have their lands taken away from them and given to somebody else.

Yet, that is the essence of Israel's occupation in the West Bank. Far beyond any other ostensible purpose, it enables a project that has implanted more than 600,000 Israeli civilians and counting into occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It is only reasonable for anyone to decline to encourage such humans rights violations and therefore refuse to do business with Israeli settlements. This stance is growing in Europe, and even creeping into US society.

Yet, many Israelis are scandalised whenever this happens. They have convinced themselves that what they are doing is normal, reasonable and within their rights.

Israel's leaders know it is essential that the rest of the world view the occupation and the settlements as, if not normal, at least no big deal. These are not occupied territories, they say. They are "disputed". These aren't colonial settlements. They are "Jewish towns and neighbourhoods".

It is particularly important for them that the illusion of normality be maintained in the US. Few Americans – at least outside of fundamentalist parts of the Christian evangelical and some religiously Orthodox segments of Jewish communities – are likely to see it that way if allowed to think about it too closely.

So, for Israel's leaders, who understand the importance of their country’s "special relationship" with the US, settlement boycotts are, if anything, even more dangerous than generalised boycotts of Israel (which are vanishingly rare in the West).

The Israeli state maintains the fiction that there is, in effect, a mobile, fluid Israel that extends into the occupied territories wherever an Israeli settler, or possibly soldier, happens to be, leaving an undefinable, unresolved reality everywhere else. That's completely indefensible.

But since continued occupation and eventual annexation have become a virtual consensus within the Israeli political elite, any time the illusion is shattered, and this shell game is exposed as a fiction, the jig is effectively up.

It must be especially alarming that Ben & Jerry's was founded and led by two liberal and politically engaged Jewish Americans. It is yet another sign that many Jewish Americans are becoming increasingly sceptical about the Greater Israel project embodied by the settlements. This explains the imperative to police Jewish American criticism with particular determination.

An Israeli state committed to a two-state solution would be at pains to distinguish itself from the settlements. But one that is committed to territorial expansion via occupation will instead feel threatened by whatever reinforces that distinction, exactly as Ben & Jerry's has done.

So, this seemingly ridiculous kerfuffle over the marketing of one of scores of major international ice cream brands to a few hundred thousand Israeli settlers in the West Bank is actually, politically, a big deal.

Israel's leaders and other supporters of the emerging Greater Israel realise that any effort to distinguish between the Israeli state and its settlements, or that calls attention to its policies and practices in the occupied Palestinian territories, is a mortal threat. Not to Israel as such, but to the Greater Israel they seem so determined to establish.

That project requires the rest of the world, especially Americans, not to think about, or look too carefully at, the occupation and the settlements.

The illusion of normality is absolutely essential.

Anything, even a seemingly minor brouhaha over a little ice cream, is so threatening to this ruse that it can indeed be called, with a straight face no less, "a new form of terrorism".

For, in truth, the underlying reality is literally terrifying.

Published: July 27th 2021, 5:00 AM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National