Selective Divestment from Companies that Profit from Human Rights Violations in Israel and Palestine: A Campaign to End Apartheid and Promote Peace

39th U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, describes how “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.” Since the United Nations decided to partition historic Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state in 1947, Israel has gradually confined the indigenous Palestinian population into smaller and smaller territories of land and maintained dominance by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. It achieved these results largely through the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians and destruction of over 400 villages in 1948 and the occupation and subsequent establishment of Jewish-only settlements in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights after the 1967 War. Israel has continued to occupy these lands, with the exception of Sinai, for over forty years, more than two-thirds the life of the Israeli state. This occupation violates dozens of U.N. resolutions and articles of the Geneva Convention. Even after the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, hundreds of Jewish-only settlements and nearly 500,000 settlers remain scattered across the Occupied Territories, forcing Palestinians into small, encircled enclaves with little connection to the outside world.1

The Israeli system of segregation and restricted settlement has resulted in pervasive inequalities between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian populations. As Michael Brown notes in The Nation, “a dual system of law [is] at work [in the Territories]… one for Jews and one for Palestinians.” While Jews living in the West Bank hold Israeli citizenship, are subject to Israeli laws, vote in Israeli elections, and freely travel within Israel and abroad, Palestinians living in the same territory lack true citizenship and cannot avail themselves of Israeli law, vote in Israeli elections, or freely travel to Jerusalem, Israel, or abroad. Some argue that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli elections because they are governed by a separate authority. However, the Palestinian Authority (PA) lacks true sovereignty, having no army and no control over basic governmental functions like borders, airspace, and water resources. The PA, much like the black ‘homelands’ of South Africa, has symbolic value, but ultimate control over the daily lives of Palestinians remains in Israel’s hands.

The apartheid system encompasses many other spheres of daily life. Jewish settlers, on average, use six times as much water as Palestinians, filling swimming pools while Palestinians only miles away struggle to find drinking water.2 Occupying the most fertile lands, Jewish settlers enjoy great economic prosperity, while Palestinians face limited opportunity and significant unemployment, estimated at 16.3% in the West Bank and 41.3% in the Gaza Strip.3 In addition, the Israeli army maintains tight control over the Palestinian people, imposing curfews and arbitrarily detaining thousands, including 2,500 children since September 2000. According to Palestine Monitor, a prominent Palestinian NGO, over 650,000 Palestinians, or roughly 40% of the adult male population, have been detained by Israel since 1967. HR Watch and UN Committee Against Torture have both faulted Israel for its use of torture on several occasions. To enable increased settlement expansion, Israel has confiscated Palestinian land, demolished homes at alarming rates, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of ancient olive trees, the historical emblem of the land.

The harsh realities of living under military occupation also have drastically affected the humanitarian condition in the Occupied Territories. Since September 2000, 4,860 Palestinians, including 955 children aged 17 and under, have been killed.4 In addition, 387 Palestinians have been killed in extra judicial killings (assassinations), including 234 mere bystanders killed only for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Assessing the overall situation on May 13, 2006, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declared, “the humanitarian outlook for the occupied Palestinian territory looks extremely bleak and is predicted to worsen dramatically in the coming months.”

In addition, Israel has established a system of Israeli-only roads to facilitate transportation for settlers and soldiers. Forbidden from using these roads, Palestinians must pass through the over 700 military checkpoints dispersed throughout the territories, where they are humiliated, delayed, and sometimes even prevented from going to work and school. A permit-system and color-coded ID further inhibits Palestinian freedom of movement. Moreover, Israel’s separation ‘barrier,’ built largely on Palestinian land as opposed to the internationally recognized 1967 border, bisects Palestinian towns, separates Palestinian from Palestinian, encircles some villages, and effectively confines Palestinians to small ghettos and bantustans. In 2004, the International Court of Justice deemed the ‘barrier,’ which spans 426 miles and rises up to 25 feet in some areas— over twice as high and three times as long as the Berlin Wall— illegal by a vote of 14-0-1 and called for its immediate dismantlement, in a decision supported by the UN General Assembly.

The situation for the 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem is even more precarious. Although Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel, but instead are considered “legal residents” who must regularly prove connections to Jerusalem in order to continue to live there. They face enormous legal obstacles to family unification and unequal access to housing, municipal services and other social benefits. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, documented Israel’s policy of land expropriation and preventing construction in Palestinian Territories, and concluded that these policies created “systematic discrimination against the Palestinians living there.”5 In effect, Palestinians are treated as foreign guests in their own country, without the right to vote in national elections.

The Palestinians of Gaza, though, face the most difficult situation as a result of Operation Cast Lead during the winter of 2008-2009. This three-week military bombardment of the 25-mile long strip left 1,417 dead, including 926 civilians. The 926 civilian deaths include 313 children and 116 women.6 Israeli forces intentionally attacked the Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City and the adjacent ambulance depot with white phosphorous shells; meanwhile, UNRWA field office compound in Gaza City came under shelling with white phosphorous munitions endangering between 600 and 700 civilians. The conflict left the beleaguered territory devastated and infrastructure destroyed. Israel, which destroyed Gaza’s principal power station that supplied two-thirds of its 1.3 million residents and operated pumps that provided water supplies before Operation Cast Lead,7 continues to enact collective punishment by obstructing the entry of humanitarian aid into the territory, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, causing shortages of dietary staples like bread and flour. President Obama and the UN humanitarian chief have called for the reopening of border crossings to alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza;9 Israel’s inhumane siege of Gaza continues however.

Israeli Arabs, who comprise roughly 20% of Israel’s population and represent the descendants of Palestinian families who did not flee their homes in 1948, have also endured decades of segregation and institutionalized discrimination. Because the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel as a “Jewish” state rather than a state for all its citizens, state policies consistently favor Jewish citizens. According to a 2004 U.S. State Department report on human rights, Israeli officials “[have done] little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens.” In fact, Israeli policy has long been dictated by the desire to establish and maintain a Jewish majority. Playing on the fear of a potential Arab majority within Israel, Israeli leaders openly discuss the ratio of Jews to non-Jews as a national security issue and speak ominously of the ticking Palestinian ‘demographic time bomb.’ Even the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, trumpeted as a bold step towards peace, stemmed from Israel’s desire to separate itself entirely from the 1.3 million Palestinians of Gaza. As former Prime Minister Shimon Peres admitted, “we are disengaging from Gaza because of demography.” While maintaining a Jewish majority is conventionally seen as a liberal aspiration, it would be regarded as racist in any other context. Imagine, for example, the Texas state legislature undertaking policies to maintain white domination in the face of growing minority populations. Such aspirations have long been relegated to the dustbin of history.

The Israeli legal system, unfortunately, is constructed on these racist notions. The Law of Return, for example, grants automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, but denies that same right to native Palestinians and refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Under this system, a Jewish American can tomorrow migrant to Israel and be granted immediate citizenship, whereas a Palestinian refugee, languishing for decades in refugee camps yearning to return to his/her native home, is denied this right. According to the New York Times, Israeli Arabs cannot buy state land, which represents 91% of the country’s territory, and state land held by the Jewish National Fund cannot even be leased to them.10 Non-Jewish Israelis also attend ‘separate but equal’ school systems, which categorically receive less funding than those for Jewish Israelis, and have less access to housing, subsidies, and employment. According to a January 2007 report by the Arab Center for Alternative Planning in Haifa, the human development index of Israeli Arabs ranks 44 slots below the general ranking of the state of Israel on the multinational chart and their level of education ranks lower than that in the Occupied Territories and Libya.11 Israeli Arab villages, neglected by the government, often lack basic services; in fact, forty Palestinian villages are not even recognized by the government and lack basic infrastructure, including electricity, sewage, and running water.12 Israeli marriage laws grant citizenship and residency to the spouses of Israeli citizens of every different nationality, except Palestinian.

The responsibility for the preservation of this apartheid structure does not solely belong to the Israeli government. While Israel is in direct violation of over 60 U.N. resolutions and many other articles of international law, this system may have long ago crumbled if not for US support. Since 1967, the US has granted Israel roughly $85 billion in total aid, meaning that Israel, a country smaller in both area and population than Hong Kong, receives more than one third of America’s annual foreign aid.13 This foreign aid is more than all of the aid received by Africa, South America, and Central America combined and more than any other country in the world, excluding Iraq.14 Israel receives an average of $3 billion annually, or over $10 million a day, most of which comes in the form of military grants. Moreover, the U.S. government has offered Israel billions in loan guarantees over the years, enabling it to borrow at far below market rates.

Multinational corporations also shoulder significant responsibility, as they have engaged in a variety of practices that have helped to maintain the apartheid system that systematically violates Palestinian human rights. International law holds corporations responsible for their role in facilitating human rights violations; in fact, the UN Human Rights Norms for Business specifically requires “businesses to exercise due diligence regarding the source or potential uses of goods or services, and in some instances to forego business opportunities in order to avoid complicity in, or encouragement of, human rights violations.”

In light of this obligation and the university’s strong commitment to investing in a socially responsible manner, we call for the Georgetown University Board of Directors to divest from companies engaged in specific sets of practices in Israel and the Occupied Territories that cause substantial social injury by violating international law and abusing human rights. We specifically call on the Board of Directors to adopt the following criteria and divest from companies that:

1. Facilitate acts of collective punishment, including home demolition, land confiscation, and military activities against civilians. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has signed and ratified, specifically states that, “No…person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation…are prohibited.” This article governs conduct both during times of war and peace.

2. Operate on illegally occupied land and within Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Territories in direct contravention of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that the “occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies.”

3. Support the building and/or maintenance of the ‘separation barrier’ that Israel has built in the West Bank, which was deemed illegal and “contrary to international law” by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

4. Engage in practices that institutionally discriminate against people of a particular race, religion, or ethnicity. Such discrimination violates the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “all human beings are born…equal in dignity and rights” (article 1), and that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law” (Article 7).

We specifically call on Georgetown University to divest from Ahava, Motorola, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Riwal, Roadstone Holdings, Mekorot Water Company, and Veolia Transport. Companies like these profit from the occupation and violate one or more of the criteria explained above. There are many more companies that profit from the occupation and Georgetown University’s divestment from these specified companies would demonstrate its commitment to human rights.

Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, a cosmetics company, operates out of the Israeli settlement Mitzpe Shalem near the shores of the Dead Sea in the Occupied West Bank. Ahava’s use of Palestinian natural resources from the Dead Sea is, according to the 4th Geneva Convention, a wholly illegal use by an occupying power of stolen resources for its own profit. Furthermore, Ahava’s labels claim that the country of origin of its products is “The Dead Sea, Israel”—Oxfam, among other human rights groups, has decried this type of labeling, as blatantly misleading. While the company advertises with the slogan “This leaf has nothing to hide,” they continue to economically benefit from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, by exploiting the natural resources of the Palestinian people.

Motorola-Israel, a full subsidiary of the multinational electronics giant Motorola, has constructed a radar detector system in over two dozen illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In some cases, the radar towers were constructed on Palestinian land and, in other cases, newly occupied sections of land. The company also offers a similar system called MotoEagle Surveillance, which is employed in at least 16 settlements, mostly in the occupied Jordan River valley in the West Bank.

Riwal is a Dutch construction company that provides equipment used in the construction of the wall around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Lima Holding, which operates in Israel under the Riwal brand name, provides mobile cranes for putting into place the 9-metre high concrete slabs that make up the Wall. In 2006 the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, warned Riwal to terminate its involvement in building the Wall, citing the 2004 ICJ advisory opinion that the Wall is illegal. In 2007, after evidence showed that Riwal was still providing equipment to contractors building the wall, Mr. Verhagen again warned Riwal. “I expect Riwal to stop providing cranes for the wall. I hope this is the last we hear of it.”
Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH) is an Ireland-based multinational corporation. CRH benefits from a monopoly on cement production within Israel through its 25% holding in the Israeli group Mashav Initiating and Development Ltd., which is the holding company for Nesher Cement. Nesher stands as Israel’s sole producer of cement, providing it with the material it has used to build the wall, checkpoints, and settlements on Palestinian land. Numerous reports cite Nesher’s usage in construction sites on West Bank settlements and in the construction of the Israeli-only light rail project in Jerusalem, which connects illegal settlements with the city center.

Caterpillar supplies custom-made D9 bulldozers to the IDF, which uses them to destroy Palestinian homes, orchards and olive groves in the Occupied Territories. Israel also relies upon them to clear Palestinian land for illegal Israeli settlements, Israeli-only roads and the wall. Despite years of corporate engagement by investors, Caterpillar is expanding its role in the occupation, recently announcing a joint venture with InRobTech to develop unmanned remote-controlled bulldozers for Israel.

Lockheed Martin supplies the Israeli military with AGM-114 Hellfire Missiles and F-16s, both routinely used to bomb Palestinian homes and kill innocent civilians in acts of collective punishment. It stands as the single biggest overseas supplier for the Israeli armaments industry, having received at least $4.4 billion since 1995 for supplying missile systems and fighter planes to Israel. According to a military trade publication, Lockheed also produces Israel’s main battle tank, the Merkava MK-4.

Mekorot Water Company Ltd., a government-owned company that manages Israel’s water resources and supplies about four-fifths of the total water used in the country, distributes water in an inequitable manner between Israeli settlers and Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. While Israeli settlers receive on average 127 cubic meters per person per year, Palestinians average 26 m3 per person. Israel controls over 80% of the water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Mekorot conducts operations in and around illegal settlements. 115 settlements, in fact, are located directly over water highly sensitive areas and the route of the wall directly corresponds to the location of strategic water reserves, especially around Qalqilya. Mekorot also supplies water to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, though on similarly inequitable terms.

Veolia Transportation, a partner in the CityPass consortium, owns Connex, a central partner in a new $500 million light rail system designed to link Jerusalem to the illegal settlements of the occupied West Bank. The rail line itself, constructed on stolen Palestinian land, will be Israeli-only, discriminating against Palestinians who would not be able to use the line. Connex recently secured a contract to operate the system for the next 30 years.

Selective divestment from companies that profit from human rights violations in Palestine builds on the precedent Georgetown set through its divestment from South Africa and Sudan. Georgetown’s Board of Directors voted in September 1986 to divest all holdings in companies doing business in South Africa, amounting to $28.6 million. This step, in conjunction with similar steps towards divestment, boycott, and sanctions across collegiate campuses, played an important role in ending the apartheid system and building a free South Africa where all citizens are treated equally under the law. In April 2008, the university’s investment office voted to divest from companies that operate in Sudan. The public statement put out by the university explicitly declared that “it is Georgetown’s view that companies operating in Sudan have an obligation to ensure that their business activities do not inadvertently or indirectly contribute to the violence.” Just as divestment helped end systematic apartheid in South Africa and greatly advanced the dialogue on human rights violations in the Sudan, we believe that it can generate the pressure to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and produce peace.

The campaign across the United States and Europe to divest from such companies has gained significant momentum over the last decade, especially following the call for divestment, sanctions, and boycott issued by Palestinian civil society, represented by 171 NGOs, in July 2005. The Presbyterian Church, in July 2004, adopted a policy of divestment from certain companies in Israel as a means of influencing governmental policy. The British Anglican Parish of Virginia Water in October 2006 divested from the Church of England’s Central Board of Finance in protest over continued support for corporations involved in the Israeli occupation.15 Similar decisions to pursue boycott and divestment from Israel have been undertaken by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Academic Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Irish Parliament, and many others.

On American campuses, Hampshire College, the first university to divest from apartheid South Africa, successfully divested in February 2009 from corporations that profit from the occupation after a successful campaign led by concerned students. Divestment campaigns have also been launched across the country, including at Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Brown.

Divestment from Israel fundamentally reflects the values upon which Georgetown is built. The Georgetown University Investment Office established the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility, in accordance with our Jesuit identity, with the intention of “investing in a socially responsible manner.” Georgetown also espouses its “commitment to justice and the common good” in its mission statement. Such lofty ideals are contradicted by investment in companies that violate human rights and support the apartheid system and we must fight to reestablish these principles.

Bloodshed, dispossession, suffering, and deep-seated animosity have been the principal themes governing Arab-Jewish relations since the creation of Israel sixty years. Palestinians and Israelis both deserve a better future— one of happiness, peace, freedom, and justice. While the prospects for peace often seem bleak and we may feel that no effort can solve the ongoing conflict, we, in fact, can do something. Just as divestment helped end systematic apartheid in South Africa and greatly advanced the dialogue on human rights violations in the Sudan, it can make a difference in Israel and Palestine. Given the great imbalance of power that exists today, with the United States firmly behind the Israeli government, only external pressure on Israel can bring the government to the negotiating table and produce peace. We, right here at Georgetown, can play a role in generating pressure to end apartheid and bring peace to the region through selective divestment.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: