An Israeli flag waves in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra
An Israeli flag waves in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, near Ramallah July 5, 2010. REUTERS

The South African government has decided that all goods sold in the country that are produced on the West Bank must be labeled as coming not from Israel, but from the occupied Palestinian territories -- and Israel is very angry.

South African government spokesman Jimmy Manyi said the labeling decision "is in line with South Africa's stance that recognizes the 1948 borders delineated by the United Nations and does not recognize occupied territories beyond these borders as being part of the state of Israel," according to the Guardian.

The products in question are those made on Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, and that makes this seemingly minor South African decision a matter of great importance to the Israeli government. Jerusalem officials worry that the new labels could spark a boycott -- and they may be right.

South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said an official nationwide boycott was not in the cards, but that the new labels might help "South Africans who do not support Israel, but who do support the Palestinians, to identify those products."

Tricky Terminology

Ever since the end of apartheid and white rule, South Africa has had a prickly relationship with Israel. Critics of the Israeli government often accuse it of practicing apartheid today, and this only heightens the conflict.

Many leading figures in black South Africans' fight for equality, including former President Nelson Mandela and activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu (both Nobel Peace Prize winners), have denounced Israel's policies.

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians," said Mandela during a speech in Pretoria in 1997.

"If you changed the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa," said Tutu during New York City address in 1989.

Freedom fighters' antipathy toward Israel stems from the Jewish state's close ties to the former white regime.

Israel nominally participated in Western sanctions against apartheid South Africa beginning in the 1980s. But before that period, the two countries were strong collaborators in military training and weapons development, according to the U.S. Federal Research Division.

And even after the sanctions were put into place, Israel kept up a hushed trade and defense relationship with South Africa -- partly because Israel was generally opposed to U.N. embargoes due to its own vulnerability, and partly because there were about 110,000 Jews residing in South Africa.

When the apartheid government ended in 1994, South Africa's new leaders -- members of the African National Congress, a longtime ally of the Palestinians -- were disinclined to cozy up to Israel, and that attitude persists to this day. Just last week, according to the Guardian, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim discouraged travel between the two countries, saying it was "not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel."

Far From Settlement

Almost two decades have passed since apartheid ended in South Africa; meanwhile, many human rights groups remain frustrated by the essentially unchanged status of Palestinians in Israel. Their use of the term "apartheid" to describe the situation is hotly contested by the Israeli government and its supporters.

A report from the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation argues that there are "significant parallels" between apartheid South Africa and Israel today.

"Members of [oppressed groups] in apartheid South Africa and Israel have different birth certificates, residence requirements and a very unequal access to land, education and social and economic privileges," said the report. "In both societies, laws divide mixed families. One of the most important parallels, though, is the fact that South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid fundamentally concern the control of land."

But supporters of Israel contend that Israeli Jews -- historically a target of discrimination, marginalization and genocide -- have full rights to the land they have called home since 1948. They also cite little incentive to pursue peace after decades of violent Palestinian resistance. Over the last decade, for instance, thousands of rocket and mortar attacks have been launched into Israel by militant Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, Palestinians are supported by entities that have called for the destruction of the state of Israel, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Iranian regime.

Palestinians have pursued several avenues toward independent statehood over the years, but to no avail. One oft-cited goal is the establishment of a Palestinian state along the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such an agreement would give Palestine the West Bank, a kidney-shaped, 2173-square-mile area bordering Jordan; and the Gaza Strip, a 141-square-mile territory along the Mediterranean Sea.

But Israeli citizens have long been establishing settlements in the West Bank, which is nominally administered by the Palestinian Authority government. These settlements continue to advance deeper into the territory, threatening the prospect of a permanent Palestinian state there.

Some of those settlements include businesses, and some of those businesses manufacture goods.

Now, when a South African consumer has the option to purchase those goods, he or she will know exactly where they came from.

Fast Backlash

Israel's response to South Africa's decision has so far been vehement. Some officials characterize this as an act of discrimination against Jews.

"This kind of discrimination has not been imposed -- and rightly so -- in any other case of national, territorial or ethnic conflict. What is totally unacceptable is the use of tools which, by essence, discriminate and single out, fostering a general boycott," said Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to the Guardian.

"Such exclusion and discrimination bring to mind ideas of racist nature which the government of South Africa, more than any other, should have wholly rejected."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon went so far as to accuse South Africa of reverting to an apartheid-style mentality, throwing in a reference to last week's tragedy, when South African police officers shot and killed 34 miners on strike.

"South Africa's apartheid is directed at the moment against Israel and also against her own miners," he said, according to the Forward, a U.S. Jewish newspaper. "Instead of embracing a decision on the labeling of Israeli products, South Africa's government should take courageous decisions on behalf of the 34 innocent miners who simply demanded an improvement of their working conditions."

What's in a Name

The strength of Israel's response to South Africa's new law signifies the true importance of labeling -- labeling products, labeling people, and labeling places.

At the heart of the issue is a parcel of land variously referred to as Palestine, the Occupied Territories, the State of Israel, or simply the Holy Land. Thursday's uproar makes clear that the terminology is of utmost importance.

South Africa has only limited trade with Israel at present. Even if its citizens do boycott West Bank-produced goods, the economic impact is unlikely to be significant. The issue has much more to do with perception -- and if South Africa insists on an official differentiation between the Palestinian territories and the state of Israel, other countries may follow suit.

This will further strain South Africa's relationship with Israel, but it will also heighten the larger debate over the sovereignty of Palestinian territories as Israeli settlements continue to expand.