When United Methodist delegates gather as a plenary to vote on church policies this week, two petitions will be presented that reflect opposing approaches to helping Palestinians. The first is the approach Palestinian Christians themselves have asked for: divestment from companies that support the occupation. The second, re-written by the Financial Administration Committee, calls only for the church to explore peacemaking strategies, including investment in Palestine, and “prayerfully consider advocating” that companies in which it invests sign the “Ruggie Principles” on human rights. There is no requirement for any party to take any action.
While the choice between the two proposals may seem confusing to those who have never lived under occupation, the right decision is very clear to Palestinian Christians, who first called for divestment in their 2009 letter to churches: “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth.”
“It may shock you, but whenever there is a viable project identified in Palestine, we can raise the funds,” said Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian Christian and CEO of Coca-Cola Palestine. products in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “We don’t need your financial help, your charity. What we need is to be able to operate freely. Divestment is the best, most immediate way that you can help us achieve that. We have been waiting for more than 40 years; we need action now.”
Khouri speaks from a solid background in business. He earned a master’s degree in engineering and an MBA from the European Institute of Business Administration. In 1967, he moved to the United States, where he settled in Richmond, VA, and built a career in international business. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, which granted limited self-government to the Palestinians in parts of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Khouri moved back to the region. In addition to the beverage franchise, he helped establish the Palestinian Development and Investment Company (PADICO). He also served as the CEO of Jawwal, the first Palestinian telecommunications company and cellular service provider.
However, Khouri and his colleagues have done as much as they can while Israel continues to restrict movement of goods and people, demolish Palestinian homes and businesses, divide communities with its “separation wall,” siphon off most of the water from the underground aquifer and – in the case of Gaza – prohibit virtually all exports.
“One thing that is very clear when I am in the U.S., is that it is one thing to be here and preach about what will help, and another to actually live under occupation,” Khouri told attendees at a reception sponsored by the United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR). “Palestinians have tried everything under the sun in terms of non-violent resistance. We need the help of people around the world, and I am appealing to you as fellow Christians. Boycotts and divestment helped end apartheid in South Africa and it can help end the oppression of Palestinians.”
In a statement issued just a few days before Khouri’s arrival at the UM conference, Archbishop-Emeritus Desmond Tutu threw his own support behind the plea of Palestinian Christians: “If international courts and governments refuse to deal with this matter, we in the churches and in the rest of civil society really have no choice but to act … Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to be liberated, but at this stage the greater onus is on the Israelis since they are the ones who are in power, economically, politically and militarily. ..I therefore wholeheartedly support your action to disinvest from companies who benefit from the occupation of Palestine. This is a moral position that I have no choice but to support, especially since I know of the effect that boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions had on the apartheid regime in South Africa.”
Reverend Alex Awad, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College, put it even more bluntly when he testified to the committee: “We are fighting for the very survival of the Christians of the Holy Land. Israel won’t do the right thing without a ‘push’ from moral leaders like the United Methodist Church. When you support divestment, you support peace.”