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Divestment

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

D is for 'Divestment'

Countries flouting UN Security Council resolutions are subject to sanctions and economic embargoes - with notable exceptions. A 'divestment' movement championed within civil society is gaining support to bring Israel to book. Citing both moral and legal grounds, the movement is taking action against companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A recent company in the limelight is Caterpillar Corporation, who's D9, D10, and D11 bulldozers are widely deployed by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes, uproot olive groves and establish the clearances for the new concrete and steel barrier that is separating Palestinians from their farmlands and cutting of villages from the rest of the West Bank.

The British MP Gerald Kaufman has noted that "economic sanctions and an arms ban against Israel are the only way of breaking the impasse. Such a policy brought down apartheid in South Africa" (The Guardian, 12th July 2004). The leading activists in the British-led academic boycott are Professors Hilary and Steven Rose, who in 2002 launched a petition supported by over 700 academics. In December 2004 Hilary Rose (emerita professor of social policy at Bradford University) called for a revival of an Israeli academic boycott - the original petition she launched with Professor Steven Rose in 2002 supported by over 700 academics.

The impetus for the divestment movement was given by students at the University of Berkeley, California, an institution with a massive investment portfolio - $54 billion in 2002. Soon a grass-roots campaign spread to 50 universities, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale. The Harvard-MIT divestment petition was supported by 74 Harvard and 56 MIT faculty, along with that of hundreds of students and alumni.

The petition of the 'Yale Divest from Israel' Campaign argued that by investing in Israel the university was violating its own strict ethical investment policy - one based on guidelines dictated by Yale law professor John G. Simon's 1972 book 'The Ethical Investor'. This stipulated that Yale should divest when investments lead to social harm - especially when they violate human rights laws concerning the deprivation of health, safety and freedom.

A stock response of some university authorities - notably Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers- has been to describe the movement as anti-semitic. Jewish supporters of the Divestment campaign have been prominent in repudiating this. Sylvain Bromberger, an MIT philosopher responded with a tough letter to Summers: ''They are good and courageous people, the sort of people who took great risks to save Jews during the occupation. What you insinuated about them was sheer, crude calumny. You must have known that. You must know people like them. ... As a Jew, I found your statement to be slanderous. As a holder of a Harvard degree I found it embarrassing.'' Along similar lines, Charles Gross, psychology professor at Princeton observed, "'As a Jew, it's so personally disturbing to me that this is even happening in Israel. I am a little bit more concerned with social justice in Israel than in some other countries.'' The US Jewish peace group, Jewish Voice for Peace, has filed a shareholder initiative asking Caterpillar to investigate whether it is violating its own company code of conduct.

The Divestment movement within the Churches was pioneered by the Presbyterian Church in the US, which has an investment portfolio of $8 billion. It has 3 million members who in July 2004 voted overwhelmingly for a boycott of Israel. Its spokesperson Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote to US Congressmen explaining "the decision to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment…was not taken lightly. It was born out of the frustration that many of our members, as well as members of other denominations, feel with current policies of Israel and those of our own government" (Christian Science Monitor, 6th December 2004). The Presbyterian lead has been taken by the US Episcopalians.

In September 2004, a delegation of the 'Anglican Peace and Justice Network', after 8 days in Israel and Occupied Palestine, observed its members were so shocked by the plight of the Palestinians, that "there was no question that there has to be a very serious kind of sanction in order to get the world to see that at least one major church institution is taking very, very seriously its moral responsibility". (The Guardian, 24th September 2004). The Network's report is being submitted to the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting (Church Times, October 2004).

The academic boycott of Israel was in the headlines in the UK as a result of the actions of Mona Baker of the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST), where she is Director of Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies. In June 2002 Professor Baker sacked two Israeli academics from journals under her control in a show of support for the Palestinian cause. In her view, "the academic boycott of Israel is one part of a broader boycott and divestment effort which involves economic, cultural and sports agendas". She notes that "to date, all but a small number of Israeli academics remain quiescent in the face of the violent colonial war their government wages in the Occupied Territories. As a group they have had nothing to say about Israeli violations of scores of United Nations resolutions and the transgression of international law in the form of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This includes not only human rights violations of a general nature, but also, specifically, the systematic destruction of Palestinian education and academia. Nor, as a group has they come to the defense of their very few fellow academics who have been persecuted for public ally criticizing Israeli policies against the Palestinians…. We have asked ourselves what we, outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories, can do to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation and thus, at least help, bring about the beginning of the end of this crisis. The boycott is one of our main answer." (1).

In October 2004, the US-based National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution to "(a) support divestment campaigns to make full public disclosure of any and all investments it or other institutions have in Israel and of any and all profits earned from companies invested in Israel, and (b) either immediately divest from those companies, or cause such companies to disinvest from Israel until all of the following conditions are met" (2).

The Divestment movement has yet to take stock of the sizeable EU-Israel trade which amounts to an annual $8 billion - Israel can export its goods on a tariff-free basis. There is a protocol in place (the EU-Israeli Association Agreement) that prevents Israel from benefiting commercially from activities of its settlements on land expropriated from Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) has offered evidence of such goods exported under a 'Made in Israel' tag, in violation of the protocols. However "Germany, because of its history, until recently blocked consensus on allowing the EU to examine how Israel has consistently broken rules of origins in its trade with Brussels (Financial Times, 23rd May 2004).

There are also generic clauses in EU trade agreements that include human rights provisions. With the backing of Sweden, Chris Patten, during his tenure as External Affairs Commissioner was alert to this lever and strongly hinted its potential for application in certain countries, taken as a reference to Israel. However Peter Mendelson now holds the post of EU Trade Commissioner and will be shaping future strategies in this area. Human rights activists are not holding their breath.

In July 2002 news of the supply of 'heads-up display units' by Britain for U.S. F-16 fighters sold to Israel entered the public domain - the F16s warplanes have caused considerable Palestinian casualties, such as the bombarding of a two- story building in Gaza in the same month that killed fifteen Palestinians, including women and children, and wounding approximately one hundred residents. Calls by Amnesty International to halt UK arms exports to Israel, on the grounds that it was using the arms against Palestinians in the territories, have been rejected by government. According to Ben Bradshaw, one-time Foreign Office minister, Israeli assurances were "taken on trust" and there was no evidence that British equipment was being so applied - a statement that reflects real- politik and trade considerations alone. The Divestment Movement is civil society's quest for an ethical foreign policy.

(1) http://www.counterpunch.org/baker09182003.html
(2) http://www.palestinemonitor.org/new_web