Rights group blasts Is­raeli banks for set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion

The Myanmar Times - - World -

IS­RAELI banks are con­tribut­ing to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of West Bank set­tle­ments by pro­vid­ing loans and mort­gages for con­struc­tion there, vi­o­lat­ing their hu­man rights obli­ga­tions, Hu­man Rights Watch said in a re­port Wed­nes­day.

The re­port said that Is­raeli law does not re­quire banks to pro­vide such ser­vices to the set­tle­ments, and urged them to dis­tance them­selves from such ac­tiv­i­ties. It also urged the banks’ share­hold­ers to “en­sure that their busi­ness re­la­tion­ships do not con­trib­ute to or ben­e­fit from” hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

Hu­man Rights Watch says the banks have helped the ex­pan­sion of the West Bank set­tle­ments, which are now home to some 400,000 Is­raelis.

Sari Bashi, the group’s Israel and Pales­tine ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor, said the banks should abide by the U.N. guid­ing prin­ci­ples on busi­ness and hu­man rights, a set of non-bind­ing guide­lines meant to ad­dress and rem­edy abuses com­mit­ted in busi­ness ac­tiv­ity, or else face ac­tion by share­hold­ers.

“There are many, many steps banks can and should take to at the very least re­duce their in­volve­ment in set­tle­ments, if not stop it en­tirely,” she said. “If they choose not to take steps, in­sti­tu­tional in­vestors who care about their own hu­man rights ac­tiv­ity should take ac­tion.”

Israel cap­tured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel has since an­nexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not rec­og­nized in­ter­na­tion­ally, and it with­drew from Gaza in 2005.

Most of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity con­sid­ers set­tle­ments il­le­gal and an ob­sta­cle to cre­at­ing a Pales­tinian state. Israel dis­putes this, say­ing the fate of the set­tle­ments must be re­solved through ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Pales­tini­ans.

Israel’s banks lend money to home­buy­ers, set­tle­ment coun­cils or to com­pa­nies car­ry­ing out con­struc­tion in the West Bank. Most also have branches in set­tle­ments.

Is­raeli law re­quires banks to ac­cept set­tlers as cus­tomers, mean­ing they can­not refuse to open ac­counts for them. But a le­gal anal­y­sis by Hu­man Rights Watch of Is­raeli bank­ing laws con­cluded that banks are not ob­li­gated to pro­vide financial back­ing for con­struc­tion in the West Bank.

While an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law pro­hibits re­fusal of ser­vice based on place of res­i­dence, the re­port said banks could cite other rea­sons for de­clin­ing to pro­vide loans, such as the con­struc­tion’s im­pli­ca­tions for Pales­tini­ans’ hu­man rights. The law also al­lows com­pa­nies to de­cline to serve cer­tain ar­eas so long as they pro­vide ad­vance no­tice to cus­tomers.

“It is Hu­man Rights Watch’s as­sess­ment that banks can, un­der do­mes­tic law, avoid pro­vid­ing many ser­vices that sup­port set­tle­ments and set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity, and that do­ing so is nec­es­sary to ful­fill their hu­man rights re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” the re­port said.

The rel­e­vant laws have yet to be chal­lenged in court, mean­ing the re­port offers only one in­ter­pre­ta­tion of how they may be read. But the group presents a warn­ing to Israel’s bank­ing sec­tor: Op­er­at­ing in the set­tle­ments risks invit­ing di­vest­ment from eth­i­cally-minded share­hold­ers. Bashi cited a 2016 move by the pen­sion fund for the United Methodist Church that blocked five Is­raeli banks from its in­vest­ment port­fo­lio, say­ing they profit from rights abuses.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Banks in Israel, an um­brella group, de­clined to com­ment on the re­port’s claims. Spokes­peo­ple for Israel’s ma­jor banks ei­ther de­clined com­ment or re­ferred queries to the bank­ing as­so­ci­a­tion. Israel’s cen­tral bank had no im­me­di­ate com­ment.

Hu­man Rights Watch said the five largest banks in Israel did not re­spond to ques­tions about whether they ad­here to the U.N. guid­ing prin­ci­ples. Four of the coun­try’s big­gest banks are mem­bers of the U.N. Global Com­pact, a group of com­pa­nies that calls on its mem­bers to “make sure that they are not com­plicit in hu­man rights abuses.”

Eu­gene Kon­torovich, an in­ter­na­tional law ex­pert at the Ko­helet Pol­icy Fo­rum, a con­ser­va­tive think tank, dis­puted the re­port’s claim.

He said that pri­vate com­pa­nies are not obliged un­der in­ter­na­tional law to re­strict where they work even if oth­ers be­lieve the set­tle­ments are il­le­gal. He said com­pa­nies are not nec­es­sar­ily vi­o­lat­ing hu­man rights if they con­duct busi­ness in an area where vi­o­la­tions are said to oc­cur. “Grant­ing a mort­gage is not a hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion,” he said.

Set­tle­ments have grown rapidly over the decades, pro­vid­ing a lu­cra­tive mar­ket for bank loans and mort­gages, and an in­cen­tive for the banks to con­tinue to of­fer fund­ing.

Hu­man Rights Watch has pre­vi­ously is­sued a re­port claim­ing busi­nesses op­er­at­ing in the set­tle­ments con­trib­ute to Israel’s vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights and has called on them to cease their ac­tiv­i­ties there. – AP

Photo: AP

In this De­cem­ber 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish set­tler looks at the West bank set­tle­ment of Maaleh Adu­mim, from the E-1 area on the eastern out­skirts of Jerusalem.

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