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Ben & Jerry’s says it will stop sales in ‘occupied Palestinian territory’

Reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision ranged from praise to criticism.
Reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision ranged from praise to criticism.Naama Barak/ISRAEL21c

Ben & Jerry’s announced Monday it will no longer allow its ice cream to be sold in “occupied Palestinian territory” following a wave of online criticism from activists who said the company’s sales in the West Bank and East Jerusalem run afoul of its social justice mission.

The announcement broke about two months of social media silence by the Vermont company, which has long supported progressive causes but came under mounting pressure to stop ice cream sales in the settlements following Israel’s intense response to Palestinian rocket attacks in May.

The decision was a significant win for pro-Palestinian groups who have pushed companies to divest their business and financial dealings with Israel, but was sharply condemned by Israeli government officials and some Jewish groups in the United States. The company said it would not renew a long-standing agreement with its factory in Israel after next year but would “stay in Israel through a different arrangement.”

Overall, reaction was swift and varied, ranging from praise by groups that had pushed the company to stop selling to settlers; criticism that the move did not go far enough; and fresh calls for boycotts against Ben & Jerry’s from those who consider the settlements legitimate, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The company said in a statement that “we believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“We also hear and recognize the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners,” it added.

Wafic Faour, a member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, called the move “a positive step” but said it was inadequate.

“If they are going to keep doing business with an apartheid state of Israel, with an occupying state of Israel, it means they are still working against their own social mission and what they are advocating for,” Faour said. “So, their hypocrisy continues.”

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The Israeli consulate for New England said the company’s decision “constitutes a surrender to ongoing and aggressive pressure from extreme anti-Israel groups.”

“The company is voluntarily cooperating with economic terrorism, led by the BDS movement,” which calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, the Boston-based consulate said via Twitter. “The decision is immoral and discriminatory, as it singles out Israel, harms both Israelis and Palestinians, and encourages extremist groups who use bullying tactics.”

Netanyahu, who has long promoted expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, reacted swiftly via Twitter.

“Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy,” wrote Netanyahu, now the Israeli opposition leader.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who succeeded Netanyahu in June, also responded with defiance.

“There are many ice creams, but only one State of Israel,” Bennett said. “Ben & Jerry’s decided to label itself as anti-Israel. This is an ethically bereft decision, and I believe that it will come to be one that is wrong from a business standpoint as well.

“The boycotting of Israel – an island democracy surrounded by terror – reflects a complete lack of proportions. The boycott will not work. We will fight it with everything we’ve got,” he concluded.

Ben & Jerry’s agreement with the licensee expires at the end of 2022. The licensee manufactures and distributes its ice cream in Israel and also sells in and caters to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

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“Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold” in the occupied territories, the company said, “we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine has long criticized the company’s relationship with the licensee, which grew out of a friendship between Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen and Israeli businessman Avi Zinger in the 1980s.

The 20-year-old advocacy group wants Ben & Jerry’s to take further action, including ending manufacturing and sales in Israel, and issuing a statement calling on Israel to end its occupation and settlements.

For the past three decades, Ben & Jerry’s has licensed a factory in Israel, which produces and distributes ice cream in the country, and also sells in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In a statement, Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a very complex and sensitive situation” and said that it remained “fully committed to our presence in Israel.”

Unilever said that as part of its 2000 acquisition agreement, Ben & Jerry’s retained oversight of the Israel license.

“We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will stay in Israel,” Unilever said.

Almost a tenth of Israel’s Jewish citizens live in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. International law deems them illegal, but the Israeli government has argued that Israel has historical and religious rights to the land.

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Earlier this year, the Israeli government bombarded the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip after Hamas and other Palestinian groups had fired rockets into Israel. Because of this, many activists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause increased their calls for Ben & Jerry’s to discontinue sales in the territories.

By the time an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took effect May 21, more than 4,000 rockets fired from Gaza had killed at least 13 people in Israel. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed 248 people, at least 100 of whom were noncombatants, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Faour said he believes that what happened with Ben & Jerry’s will serve as a catalyst for businesses to pay attention to the movement to boycott and divest from Israel.

Faour’s organization in Vermont had for many years made their case through letters to Ben & Jerry’s executives and protests outside scoop shops on the company’s “Free Cone Day.”

Despite the pressure, Ben & Jerry’s hadn’t budged on its business practices in Israel. But this spring, amid mounting empathy among progressives for the Palestinians, the activists said they felt a shift.

“We’ve tried to appeal to them based on their mission of love, peace, equality. But they ignored us,” Faour, who was raised in a Palestinian refugee camp, said earlier this month. “Now, public opinion is changing, especially due to the younger generations who have taken to social media and protests and come to our aid. They can no longer ignore us.”

Hanna Krueger and Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from wire services was also used.

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.