Campaign and New Law Challenge Chic Israeli Company Ahava Cosmetics, Whose "Dead Sea Mud" Illegally Exploits Palestinians

Ahava means love in Hebrew. But the Israeli corporation bearing that name engages in practices that are far from loving.

The multinational corporation Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories—a cosmetics company specializing in products that evoke the Israeli natural landscape—is notorious for illegally exploiting Palestinian land and natural resources to make its products. With names like Natural Dead Sea Body Mud, these products are packaged as being “Made in Israel” and shipped to be sold in cosmetics stores around the world.

But these products are not made in Israel; they are made in the occupied West Bank in Palestine. Labeling these products as Israeli-made is not only misleading, it’s fraudulent and violates international trade regulations. In order to bring transparency to where Ahava and other companies make products, the governments of South Africa and Denmark have recently decided to implement new regulations requiring settlement-produced goods to be labeled as settlement-made, rather than made in Israel. The government decisions have been a boon to the movement to boycott Israeli settlements.

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories will be one of the companies most affected by the change in labeling practices.

Ahava’s main factory, and its visitors’ center, is located in Miztpe Shalem, an Israeli settlement in the occupied part of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, along the northern bank of the Dead Sea. Despite its vast territory and the richness and fertility of the land, only 2.6 percent of the Palestinian population currently lives in the Jordan Valley. Most of the Jordan Valley’s Palestinian residents were expelled by the Israeli army during the 1967 war. Since the war, which resulted in Israeli control of the West Bank, 37 Jewish-only settlements have been established in the Jordan Valley, creating a network of roads and checkpoints that connect and facilitate travel between settler communities while severely complicating life for the remaining Palestinians.

Though Ahava Dead Sea products are made with Palestinian resources on Palestinian land, neither the Palestinian economy nor the Palestinians profit from any of these sales. In fact, the Palestinian economy loses $144 million per year from Israel’s exploitation of the Dead Sea alone.  

Exploiting the natural resources of an occupied territory is expressly prohibited under international law. Yet at the end of last year, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Israeli companies had the right to exploit West Bank resources.

Israeli settlements are also illegal under international law.

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories is not only located and operating in one of these settlements, but also co-owned by two settlements—Mitzpe Shalem, the settlement in which the factory is located, and Kalia, the settlement from which the mud is extracted. The profits from Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories sales subsidize these settlements, robbing Palestinians of natural resources that are rightfully theirs and supporting illegal practices of colonialism that are pushing them out of the land they have inhabited for centuries.

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories products quite literally bottle the spirit of the occupation: claiming and mining Palestinian land and then repackaging it and marketing it to the world as Israeli.

But these deceptive practices have not gone unnoticed.

In 2009, the antiwar activist group CodePink launched the “Stolen Beauty” campaign, specifically targeting Ahava’s products as part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. The nonviolent BDS movement advocates boycotts of Israeli products, divestment from companies involved in Israel and sanctions against the state until it complies with international law in its relations with the Palestinians.

Though CodePink supports the BDS movement as a whole, the Stolen Beauty campaign aims to draw attention to and boycott specific Israeli policies such as illegal resource exploitation and settlement building, rather than the often-criticized boycott of Israel as a whole.

“When you boycott Ahava, you are saying boycott these products because the company’s practices are against international and humanitarian law,” Nancy Kricorian, founder of the Stolen Beauty campaign, told AlterNet.

For the past three years, the campaign has targeted several merchants, from Ahava storefronts and big chain department stores to small mom and pop retailers, pressuring them to discontinue their relationships with Ahava. Many of these campaigns have been successful in voicing ethical and economic concerns, and in some cases have won bigger victories. Due to the persistence of weekly protests, Ahava no longer has its flagship storefront in Central London.

However, its most significant victory came with the news that the governments of South Africa and Denmark would no longer label imports from Israeli settlements as “Made in Israel.”

“The government of South Africa recognizes the state of Israel only within the borders demarcated by the United Nations in 1948,” reads the notice from South Africa’s Department of Trade, adding that this does not include the currently occupied Palestinian territories.

Denmark, and Migros, one of the largest and most popular supermarket chains in Switzerland, have gone further. They have proposed labeling goods as, “Product of the West Bank Israeli Settlement Zone” and “Product of East Jerusalem, Israeli Settlement Zone” as more factually accurate labels. Israeli companies are more than welcome to continue trading with these countries—they will simply have to bear the consequences of losing customers due to the political implications of their corporate practices.

“Under these proposed labeling rules, no one is expressly calling for boycotting Israeli goods or even settlement goods, but consumers will now have an informed choice about whether or not they wish to support the political conditions under which these goods were produced,” Kricorian said.

The BDS movement, which follows a call from Palestinian civil society, began in 2005 and is intended to last until Israel complies with international law and respects Palestinian human rights. It has expanded into a global movement targeting corporate facilitators of the Israeli occupation, and many have been financially affected by organized boycotts.

“More and more corporations are leaving the settlements,” said Dalit Baum, cofounder of Who Profits, an anti-occupation Israeli group affiliated with the Coalition of Women for Peace. “It is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to do business in Europe with that affiliation largely because of BDS.”

The hope is that as publicity of the movement increases, and more people are educated on the humanitarian atrocities of several corporations, companies will be forced to evaluate their business practices. And as more transparency campaigns educate consumers on what exactly these business practices entail, more consumers could choose other products, economically chipping away at the Israeli occupation.

It is not a quick process, though. In South Africa, the call from the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC) to boycott, divestment and sanction the apartheid regime was released in 1959. Apartheid finally ended in 1994.

In seven years, the BDS movement against Israel has divested significant amounts of money from corporate giants such as Veolia and Caterpillar and used several consumer products to educate people about the policies and practices of the Israeli occupation.

Ahava has been put on the defensive in just three years of an organized boycott campaign. What could the larger BDS movement do with some more time? 

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