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Amazon accused of bias in West Bank settlements

Amazon accused of bias in West Bank settlements

https://www.ft.com/content/7b5699fe-48c5-11ea-aee2-9ddbdc86190d

Free shipping for anyone who lists address as Israel attacked as discriminatory. Customers who select their address as the Palestinian Territories are subject to shipping and handling fees upwards of $24

by Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Max Harlow in London

Amazon is offering free shipping to highly contentious Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, but only to their Palestinian neighbours if they list their country as Israel, an FT investigation has found.

The e-commerce giant started selling in Israel in November and offers free shipping on orders of more than $49.

The FT checked all the West Bank addresses listed as Israeli by the activist organisation Peace Now and found that Amazon’s offer extends to nearly all Israeli settlements in the contested region, which are considered illegal under international law.

But Palestinian customers who select their address as the Palestinian Territories are subject to shipping and handling fees upwards of $24.

Nick Caplin, an Amazon spokesman, said that “if a customer within the Palestinian Territories enters their address and selects Israel as the country, they can receive free shipping through the same promotion”.

Contested territory

Israel has occupied the West Bank since it wrested the region from Jordanian control in the 1967 war. Today, it is home to some 460,000 Israelis, who live in settlements widely considered illegal by the international community. Palestinians have decried the increasing normalisation of these settlements, which are guarded by the Israeli military, as a barrier to an eventual negotiated peace with Israel.

Last month the Trump administration rolled out its long-anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which in effect called for the creation of a fractured, rump Palestinian state surrounded by Israel. The Palestinians were outraged, with President Mahmoud Abbas arguing that the plan “detracts from Palestinian rights and denies all agreements and resolutions of international legitimacy”.

Mail deliveries to the Israeli-occupied West Bank must pass through Israel before reaching the Palestinian territory, and are often subject to long delays. Human rights campaigners said that by offering the discount exclusively to addresses listed as Israeli West Bank settlements, and not the Palestinian Territories, Amazon is wading into a geopolitical dispute that is increasingly creating two sets of rules for two increasingly intertwined populations.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli international human rights lawyer, said that Amazon’s policy is “blatant discrimination between potential customers on the basis of their nationality” in a single geopolitical area.

Peace Now said that the discrepancy in Amazon’s services between Israelis and Palestinians “adds to the overall picture of one group of people enjoying the privileges of citizenship while another people living in the same territory do not”.

‘100 or 200 packages every day’

Until last year, Amazon existed in Israel only as a means to buy from international sellers, a limitation that meant high prices and long delivery times. That changed in 2019 as the company courted local sellers to use the platform to sell locally and globally, as well as launching a Hebrew-language version of its website in August.

With retail prices in Israel notoriously high compared to incomes, and little domestic competition for consumer goods, Amazon’s arrival came as welcome news for many Israelis.

In the West Bank settlement of Efrat, home to around 10,000 Israelis, there has been such a massive increase in parcels in recent months that the overwhelmed post office pressed the butcher shop next door into delivering packages to customers.

“Every day 100 or 200 packages from Amazon,” said Meir Cohen, an Efrat post office clerk, calling the recent influx “madness”.

Barely two miles south of Efrat, however, the comparable-sized Palestinian town of Beit Fajjar has no postal service. Local resident Yazeed Odah said he must travel 45 minutes into Bethlehem in order to retrieve mail, with the Palestinian postal service largely dysfunctional, and estimated delivery times in excess of a month.

Amazon is not the first tech company to encounter complications when operating in West Bank settlements. In 2018, home rental website Airbnb removed listings in the region following outrage from Palestinian officials and human rights groups, only to reverse that decision less than a year later after Israeli pressure mounted.

This week, the UN published a list of 112 companies it identified as having business ties with Israeli West Bank settlements that “raised particular human rights concerns”. Among those named in addition to Airbnb were TripAdvisor, Motorola and Expedia. Amazon was not included.

Diana Buttu, a former PLO spokeswoman and legal adviser in peace talks between Israel and Palestine, said Amazon’s policy is, in effect, “allowing the settlement activity to be viewed as legal when [it’s] not.”

“The issue is just how normalised the settlements have become, not just in Israeli eyes, but in international eyes,” Buttu added. “And that’s the problem, it’s that unless you begin to treat them as illegal, then it becomes so natural for them to become normalised.”

After the publication of this article, for which the FT contacted Amazon for comment several times, the company added that the exclusion of the Palestinian Territories from the shipping discount was “a logistical issue and not a sign of any other consideration”.

Noam Perry, Economic Activism Associate

American Friends Service Committee, 1730 Franklin St. Suite 201, Oakland, CA 94612

@NoamPerry

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