Palestinian NGO muddies the waters with Dead Sea claims

Palestinian NGO muddies the waters with Dead Sea claims

Mud-slinging allegations by the Palestinian NGO Al-Haq that Israel had committed “war crimes” by purportedly allowing the Israeli Dead Sea cosmetics company Ahava to “plunder” Dead Sea resources inside the West Bank became the focus of a controversial article by Fairfax’s Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard this week.

In the September 4 article “Cosmetics firm accused of plundering Dead Sea“, Pollard regurgitated uncritically allegations from the Palestinian group that Ahava has been using materials in its products supposedly excavated from an undisclosed mining site in the jurisdiction of the Megilot Regional Council, where Ahava maintains a factory and outlet store.

“It is in the settlements of Mitzpe Shalem and Kalia that Ahava mines and manufactures cosmetics from mud extracted from the occupied Dead Sea area,” Pollard wrote – without substantiation – in the version of the story that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Ahava, whose manufacturing facilities are located in Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem on the south-eastern fringe of the West Bank, emphatically denies it uses West Bank-sourced minerals in its products. In a September 2010 letter to Ahava’s retailers, the company’s CEO said Ahava collects all of its Dead Sea products from the southern tip of the Dead Sea, which is within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

However, the Al-Haq report disputes this, based upon a report in May by the anti-occupation Israeli NGO “Who Profits”. This report includes a translated letter from the Israel Defence Forces’ Civil Administration that says “Dead Sea Laboratories Ltd.” [Ahava] was granted a permit to mine mud from the West Bank portion of the Dead Sea in 2004.

The letter appears to say that the mining operations based upon the permit are still in use today, but says specifically that the IDF does not know the quantities of mud that are removed. The “Who Profits” report claims they have asked Ahava to explain the information revealed in the IDF letter but have failed to get a response. The Al-Haq report ignores this entirely and simply uses the “Who Profits” report and its IDF letter as the basis of an unfounded allegation that Ahava “offers an infinite range of products manufactured from the occupied Dead Sea land next to the settlement”.

The IDF letter [see the English and Hebrew versions here and here] touted by Who Profits, which is the cornerstone for the worst allegations from the two NGOs, is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First of all, while the letter says the mining site is still in use, the IDF says it has no information on how much mud, if any, is taken from it, or provide any evidence whatsoever that Ahava uses the mud from the site for commercial use, which, as noted above, it explicitly denied.

Secondly, in two similarly-constructerd reports flush with photographs and illustrations, neither “Who Profits” nor Al-Haq provide a single piece of visual evidence that mud is being quarried from West Bank shores of the Dead Sea.

Moreover, in a Palestinian activist movement that has relied heavily on the use of amateur video to promote its cause, no footage of such a quarry has surfaced.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever driven south from Ein Gedi towards Ein Bokek along Israel’s Dead Sea shore cannot avoid noticing the extensive infrastructure of Israel’s Dead Sea industry, yet no remotely similar facilities appear noticeable in the area of Mitzpe Shalem.

Mud quarrying and mineral extraction on a mass scale cannot be achieved invisibly. The onus remains upon “Who Profits” and Al-Haq to back up their claims with hard evidence.

It’s important to add here that, in the view of the Israeli government, the charges by “Who Profits” and Al-Haq are actually red herrings, since Israel is allowed to issue mining permits in Area C under the Palestinian Authority-ratified Oslo Accords.

As Pollard reported:

Pending a permanent status agreement, Israel has “subsoil jurisdiction” in Area C until agreed otherwise and therefore would be entitled to license a company to excavate mud in that area if it chose to do so, “which it actually does not, according to the statement by the Ahava president”, [Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal] Palmor said.

In light of the dearth of conclusive evidence – and the fact that signed agreements with the Palestinian Authority permit Israel to authorise such mining even if it were taking place – it is not surprising that Fairfax was one of only a handful of foreign news outlets to promote Al-Haq’s highly politicised report.

According to Google News, the UK’s Guardian was the only other major foreign daily to cover the story, joining Iran’s PressTV and the Palestinian Authority’s official mouthpiece, WAFA. In Israel, The Jerusalem Post carried it in a brief.

On a final note, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – which Al-Haq subscribes to – disavows Israel’s use of any Dead Sea resources, even from its internationally undisputed south-eastern basin.

This story came into focus earlier this year in an article published in the pro-Palestinian news site Palestine Chronicle about BDS activists in Adelaide. In that protest, members of the Australian Friends of Palestine (AFOPA) were objecting to the sale of Seacret Spa Dead Sea cosmetics.

Although they were carrying signs that read “Psst… Seacret steals its product from Palestinian land”, there has been absolutely no dispute that Seacret procures its mineral products exclusively from Israel’s portion of the Dead Sea.
When confronted by the journalist with this reality, an AFOPA member said that it made no difference to her – they would boycott the company anyway.

“Firstly, because Israel has never defined its borders so it is impossible to say where Israel starts and ends and … Israel is still changing its borders,” [AFOPA member] Margaret [Cassar] says.
“Secondly it is still obtaining a resource from illegally occupied lands and is contravening international law.
“Thirdly the BDS campaign targets all Israeli companies.”

Ahron Shapiro