The U.N. human rights office said Wednesday that 206 companies — mostly Israeli and American — are facing a review of their business practices involving Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
In a long-awaited report, the office said more resources were needed to handle the complex and unprecedented task of compiling what some critics call an unfair "blacklist" and a sign of alleged anti-Israel bias at the U.N.
Proponents insist that companies must be held accountable for their activities in the settlements, arguing that those actions can contribute to injustices against Palestinians.
The 16-page report does not cite companies by name, and says the rights office still has work to do.
The office said it had contacted 64 companies, but it would not identify until all 206 companies had been contacted — and possibly not at all. Of those companies, 143 are based in Israel or the settlements, and 22 in the United States. Of the 19 other countries linked to such companies, Germany is home to seven and the Netherlands to five.
Ultimately, the rights office's review could lead to a public naming and shaming of companies for their activities linked to the settlements and give an U.N. imprimatur to efforts championed by the "BDS" movement (boycott, divest and sanction), which has been primarily a grassroots campaign to pressure Israel through action against companies.
"The violations of human rights associated with the settlements are pervasive and devastating, reaching every facet of Palestinian life," the report said, citing restrictions on movement, freedom of religion, education and land ownership faced by Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. "Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements."
"Business enterprises may need to consider whether it is possible to engage in such an environment in a manner that respects human rights," it said.
Some 115 other companies were eliminated after an initial review.
Israel and the United States have been sharply critical of a resolution passed by the 47-member Human Rights Council in March 2016 that paved the way for the review — the first of its kind. The resolution called on the rights office to create "database" of companies found to engage in any of 10 activities, either explicitly linked to the settlements or supportive of them.
"I urge all sides to avoid misrepresenting the contents of this report, which has been produced in good faith on the basis of the mandate laid down by the Human Rights Council," said Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. He said he hopes the database "will assist states and businesses in complying with their obligations and responsibilities under international law."
Ahmad Majdalani, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinians remain supportive of the rights office's efforts.
"We think the world should boycott all companies that work in settlements and we believe this is a very effective way in challenging the illegal building on our occupied land," he said.
Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, criticized the timing of the report's release, and vowed to fight the release of any "blacklist" of companies.
"On the day that the U.N. is marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the UNHRC has chosen to publicize this information about the number of companies operating in Israel," he said. "This is a shameful act which will serve as a stain on the UNHRC forever.
"We will continue to act with our allies and use all the means at our disposal to stop the publication of this disgraceful blacklist," he added.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch urged more resources for the rights office to continue its work.
"Today's report shows progress in identifying and communicating with companies that contribute to serious abuses in Israeli settlements in the West Bank," said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
"The U.N. and member states should allocate the resources needed to complete the work of advising companies of their human rights responsibilities and publish the names of those who continue to operate in settlements," Bashi said.
Eugene Kontorovich, head of International Law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think-tank in Jerusalem, said no international law was being violated by countries who do business in occupied lands, including in the settlements, and said Israel was being singled out unfairly.
"The U.N. Human Rights Council is supposed to be about human rights, not Israeli wrongs, so to create a report just about Israel seems to go against its own mission," he said.
Josef Federman and Tia Goldenberg contributed from Jerusalem.