Investment in Palestine no substitute for divestment from oppression

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Supporters of divestment at the Methodist General Conference. (Photo: UM Kairos Response)

Below is an article I wrote for the newspaper of the Love Thy Neighbor coalition (the “liberals”) at the UM conference. A subcommittee of the church’s Financial Administration Committee voted Friday to totally transform the petition to divest from the Israeli occupation into a pollyannish call for “positive investment” in Palestine. On Saturday, the full committee rejected an attempt to return to the original wording (55-24) and adopted the “whitewashed” version (37-36 with 3 abstentions).

Despite the fact that in their Kairos manifesto of 2009, Palestinian Christians had specifically appealed for divestment, and despite the fact that no less than the World Bank has reported that until movement and access restrictions are removed, the West Bank economy cannot thrive, the subcommittee concluded that selling the church’s shares in three companies that enable the Israeli “matrix of control” was an unnecessary sacrifice. Their attitude seemed to be part orientalist condescension (none of the Palestinian Christians present at the conference were consulted) and part pure self-interest, plain and simple. After all, it’s their own pension fund we are talking about. As one member noted, there are about 25 companies in the pension fund portfolio that could be challenged by one party or another due to their questionable activities. If divestment from three of them were to set a precedent, what then? (But shouldn’t the question really be, why are those companies in the portfolio to begin with? Maybe a careful look at all of them is in order. That is, unless the UM principles are just words on paper.)

The fight is not over. Support for divestment was sufficient enough to force the presentation of a “minority report” to the full conference sometime next week. And that means the issue will get its “day in court” in front of the full membership. 

Propose divestment from companies profiting off of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and invariably, a more “positive” option is offered: investment in Palestinian enterprise. And that is just the thinking of some members of the UM Financial Administration Committee. A subcommittee Friday voted to amend the petition calling on the church’s Pension Board to divest from three companies that enable the occupation (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions), and look for opportunities for Palestinian investment instead.

But, while it sounds nice, it not only leaves the oppressive practices of occupation intact, it simply doesn’t work.

That is conclusion of none other than the pro-capitalism World Bank, which states in a report on its website: “As long as access and movement restrictions are in place, and the majority of the West Bank remains to a large degree inaccessible for Palestinian economic investments, the investment climate will remain unfavorable and business opportunities much below potential.”

Consider these facts:

  • Israel has built more than 700 kilometers of roads throughout the West Bank that are open only to Jewish settlers, forcing Palestinians to travel hours out of their way to get from one point to another. 

  • On the roads Palestinians can travel, more than 600 permanent and temporary roadblocks and checkpoints (equipped with the help of Hewlett Packard technology) force either lengthy delays or still more detours. On one UM delegation, participants met a Christian farmer near Bethlehem who recounted watching his entire crop of grapes rot in the sun as he waited at a checkpoint.

  • If a Palestinian businessman wants to build a new road to improve transit of people and goods, getting the required permits can take years, if they are granted at all. Bashar Al-Masri, developer of the Palestinian community of Rawabi — a common destination for United Methodists, reports that it took three years for Israel to approve a roadway to the new town, and even then, it is only temporary. The permit must be reneweed every year. And, of course, it has checkpoints.

  • Further complicating Palestinians’ ability to do business is a chronic water shortage imposed by the Israeli occupation. According to a 2010 report by the World Bank, Palestinians are given access to just one-fifth of the mountain aquifer that feeds the region (and that lies primarily in the West Bank). Israel pumps the rest. The result: The 450,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank have access to four times as much water as the indigenous 2.3 million Palestinians.
  • To add insult to injury, many infrastructure projects financed by private investors and/or donors have been destroyed by Israel or threatened with demolition.

“Former Israeli President Shimon Peres first bagan preaching investment in the Palestinian economy to divert attention from his country’s own culpability 25 years ago,” says Alex Awad, dean of Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank and a visitor to this year’s UMGC. “It didn’t work before, and it won’t work now. Why? Because without lifting the yoke of occupation, businesspeople and their ventures simply can’t thrive.”

And then there are the moral implications.

“To consider investment a substitute for divestment is to help the Palestinians try to re-build while at the same time financing their jailers,” observes John Wagner, convener of the United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), which drafted the petition calling for divestment from the three companies. “How can we in good conscience continue profiting from the oppression of Palestinians, including our fellow Christians?”

Caterpillar manufactures weaponized bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes; Motorola Solutions makes motion-detection systems used by the Israeli government to enforce “no-go” zones around illegal settlements; and Hewlett Packard markets biometric technology that gathers data at checkpoints used to monitor and, often, prohibit Palestinian movement. Repeated attempts since 2005 to convince these companies to stop supplying the Israeli military have been unsuccessful.

“Palestinian Christians are calling upon us to move from words to action and align its investments with its principles,” notes Wagner. “It is time to divest.”

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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