The United States and Israel not only delayed the UN’s list of companies exploiting Palestinian occupation for three years, but omitted the most egregious profiteers, concealing activity that could be a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
In February, the United Nations Human Rights Committee published a list of 112 companies that profit from the Israeli occupation on Palestinian and Syrian land. Now the colonization of occupied territory, and the exploitation of property and people in that territory, is prohibited by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention. It’s interesting to note that that convention was prompted, these international rules were prompted, because of the Nazi theft and exploitation of Jewish land and property, in large part. The companies listed by the UN are all involved in activity benefiting from this illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. That makes them complicit in a war crime. What will all that mean? We’re going to talk about.
The original list of companies was researched and completed three years ago, but it wasn’t published because of pressure from the United States and Israel to prevent the UN from releasing the original findings and data. Now the list has finally been published, but many companies known for their role in assisting the occupation, and destroying and exploiting Palestinian land, are missing from this list. Rupert Colville is a spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and tried to understate the importance of this list. Let’s have a listen.Rupert Colville: We’re fully aware of the sensitivity of this report for people on all sides of the debate and for of course, the companies themselves, and for this reason, we’ve taken particular care not to go beyond the remit set down for us by the Human Rights Council. It’s important to note that it is not, as some claim, a blacklist, nor does it qualify any company’s activities as illegal.Marc Steiner: As we verge on the abyss of a new Israeli government that is hell bent on officially annexing Palestinian land into Israel, this becomes more than just a list to be boycotted and protested, and we’re joined by Real News correspondent Shir Hever, who is based in Heidelberg, Germany. His latest book is The Privatization of Israeli Security, published by Pluto Press. And Shir good to see you here as a guest.
Shir Hever: Thank you Marc.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about this original list. The original list was suppressed by Israel and US, and they tried to stop it’s publication. Now it’s been published, but much revised. So what do we know about the struggle around the publication of this list and about why and who was left off?
Shir Hever: Well, I was a little bit involved in compiling that list among many, many other activists in Israel and Palestine and elsewhere. There’s already organizations that are creating databases like this. Most notable of them is Who Profits and which belongs to the Coalition of Women for Peace, and anyone can just go and browse their website and see more, see hundreds of companies listed there. So the UN originally had a list of 400 companies. The thing is that whenever they want to put on the agenda of the Human Rights Committee, that they want to talk about their findings and present them and effectively publish their list, Israel and the U S send their delegates to try to sabotage this and prevent it from being published. And even though both Israel and the United States have actually, stepped down from the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, they still continue to wield influence and prevent that list from being, or prevented that list from being published until now.
So now we only have 112 companies on the list. The reason that so few companies stayed on the list is because the UN, was very tryinG to play it as safe as possible. They were terrified of repression by the United States and Israel. So what they did is they first of all, only put companies on the list where they were absolutely sure and had all the information on that company, and that they could cross reference it and prove it. But then they talked to the companies and asked them, “Do you have anything to say? If you say that you are no longer active in the illegally occupied colonies or in the occupied West Bank of Gaza, then we’re going to just take you out without checking.”So of course hundreds of companies and just used that option and said, “Oh well, we’ve stopped.”, regardless of whether they have or haven’t. And so they were taken off the list and now we only have 112.
Marc Steiner: But so now companies like Airbnb and booking.com are there because they’re promoting accommodation in settlements across the West Bank. And there’s groups in there like Alstom and Motorola because they’re helping build the infrastructure of the occupation. But, and many of the companies on this list are not international companies. They’re actually Israeli companies. And so, you just described what just happened, but then there are groups like Heidelberg Cement and Caterpillar, which were left off the list and Heidelberg Cement in a recent article that I read was part and parcel of taking apart one village entirely, and doing this major excavation, Caterpillar tearing down homes. So how did they get left off the list?
Shir Hever: Right. Well, I think the reason that of the 112 companies that are still on the list, the majority of them are actually Israeli companies, is because the Israeli companies as a rule didn’t bother to answer the Human Rights Committee. And they just didn’t bother to write them back and say, “No, we’re no longer active.” Maybe because they knew it’s going to sound ridiculous if they say they’re no longer active when they still have their address listed in illegal colonies. So they stay on the list. And that creates, I think, a very strong bias because in fact, if you go, if you travel in the West Bank and you look around you, you will see Caterpillar bulldozers everywhere, you will see in East, Occupied East Jerusalem, the tram built by Alstom, you will see a lot of imported machinery and materials from international companies that are fully aware that they’re supporting occupation.
But for these companies, it’s very easy to say, “We have nothing to do with that.”
Marc Steiner: But, I’m sorry, go ahead.
Shir Hever: But getting to Heidelberg Cement, I actually live in Heidelberg. I’ve been to their stock holder meeting once, and it’s a very interesting story. Heidelberg cement is a company that keeps insisting that they’re on their way out, and they’re going to sell their illegal quarries in the West Bank and they’re going to stop providing cement and other materials to the Israeli colonies. But Electronic Intifada, the website has uncovered A document in Hebrew, which I read, that shows that they have extended their license for mining natural resources in the West bank by another year, meaning that they are intended to keep on doing that. So this is very surprising that they are not on the list, actually. We have absolute proof of that. This is a company that is pillaging Palestinian property, the natural resources of Palestine, and pays taxes to the Israeli occupier instead of to the people who actually live on that land.
Marc Steiner: So it was interesting to me, when you take this particular story, of Heidelberg Cement, I think it was a mini story, it was this fascinating article about a Palestinian village, Al Zawia, where they have this huge, open mine pit going on, Heidelberg is running. And so it begs a lot of questions. A, they’re expanding the work, not narrowing the work. There are many other companies involved who are not on these lists doing similar work around in the occupied territories. So, and then you have this new Israeli government coming in, as I said earlier, that is hell bent on annexation. So, so to me, this can be complicates the story in many ways. And [inaudible 00:07:43] what the response is, because you are talking about a companies that are just literally taking away the land, and if they become part of Israel, it changes the nature of what can really happen. So how do you see this playing out? I mean I know BDS is calling for a boycott, but in some ways this might be beyond that and maybe I’m wrong, but talk about that.
Shir Hever: Well, officially the UN is not going as far as calling for a boycott. They even don’t dare to write on the list that what the company’s doing is illegal. They’re even, they’re trembling in fear, and they’re not even writing this very simple fact. So they’re just saying, “This is a list for your information.” Of course, nobody can really see any kind of use for that list except in order to organize boycott, divestment and sanctions against these particular companies. So, of course it has something to do with the BDS movement. The BDS movement is the movement that has now the responsibility to take that list and make use of it. So now it’s up to people, for example, myself living in Heidelberg, to protest against Heidelberg Cement and what this company is doing.
And it is going to play out absolutely as an international action to make these companies accountable for corporate accountability in war crimes. The UN has already published lists like this for Myanmar and for the DRC. And in both cases they were not so timid about writing these are companies doing illegal things and these companies maybe should be put on a black list rather than just mentioned for the information value.
In the case of Israel, Palestine, there is a lot more pressure and to keep the UN quiet, but the activists are not going to keep quiet. And I think the companies should be aware that there’s going to be a heavy economic price to pay when these companies become the pariahs, the companies that cross a red line, violate international law. Some companies have already been severely burned, like Veolia the French infrastructure company that lost billions of dollars worth of contract all around the world because of their involvement in illegal activity in Occupied East Jerusalem. And now these companies, on that list is 112 companies are facing a similar fate. And I think beyond that we have other companies that didn’t get to the list like for example, Heidelberg Cement that are also going to be held accountable.
Marc Steiner: So as we close this out Shir, one quick question here. A sidebar interested me about this. When I read about Heidelberg’s, well Heidelberg said about their work in certain villages in the West Bank and in Palestine. And when I read about General Mills’ statement which said, “Look, we hire Israeli and Palestinian workers at the same rate, for the same pay, the same benefits.”, the same thing Heidelberg said, and it reminded me of what goes on in many indigenous reservations and territories in the United States like Peabody Coal on the Navajo and the Hopi where they are exploiting the land, and a story we’re working on here for Real News, they’re exploiting the land and destroying the land, but at the same time they’re giving Navajo and Hopi men and women work, that’s paying them more than they’ve ever been paid before. The same thing is happening with Heidelberg and General Mills. So how does that fit into the mix? I mean that doesn’t, I mean because that’s also a reality about how people have to survive.
Shir Hever: Right. Thank you for asking that, because I think there is a difference. The difference is that the companies are outright lying. They are not just providing jobs for Palestinians because officially according to the Israeli law, Palestinian workers working in the illegal colonies, working for international or Israeli companies are supposed to receive the same conditions and the same pay as Israeli workers. They are supposed to be protected by Israeli labor laws. The problem is that no employer actually enforces that. And the courts don’t enforce that either, when it gets to the court, and it gets to the court frequently, there is an organization called [inaudible 00:11:57], Workers Hotline, which specializes in representing Palestinian workers in court. And when Palestinians don’t receive the minimum wage, don’t receive health benefits, don’t receive the basic insurance that they’re supposed to receive, then they can go to court. And the court usually, and then the company would argue, “Oh, but you’re actually subject to Jordanian labor laws, not to Israeli labor law.”
And even though the court has repeatedly said this is not acceptable, and the Israeli laws should be in effect, there is no sanction, and the companies can continue to violate again and again, and nothing really happens to them. So that’s a structural problem with the way that Palestinians are treated in these companies. And the amount of money that they have lost because of that over the years is tremendous. Starting from 2008 the Israeli government even imposes a special Palestinian only tax in order to discourage Palestinians from working for Israeli companies. They take a an almost 50% tax on their income in order, and then they give that money to the Palestinian Authority. They give it to the government, so that the workers will not see the money and then they say, “Well, it’s not a real tax because we didn’t take the money for ourselves.” But the result is to try to create a segregated workforce or Jewish only workforce, and to keep Palestinians as second rate workers wherever they go. And unfortunately that is working. That is something that these companies are complicit in when they allow this system to work, and when they agree to pay this racist tax, a Palestinian only tax. But I want to say one last thing about this.
Marc Steiner: Okay.
Shir Hever: Because companies have often said, “If you sanction us, if you boycott us, we will fire the Palestinian workers. We’re providing work for Palestinians, and they need that work. So you’re actually harming Palestinians. Don’t boycott us.” This is an argument that is essentially taking the Palestinian workers hostage. It’s telling about the same workers, if we are human rights activists, we care about international law. We see a company, that is violating their rights and we say, “Oh, but we don’t want to boycott that company because they’re providing jobs for Palestinians.” What we’re actually saying, “Oh, you Palestinians, you don’t know what’s good for you. We know better than you do what is good for you.”
Because even though all labor unions in Palestine support the BDS movement, support the boycott, we’re going to ignore all that and just decide for ourselves what is your interest. It’s an extremely patronizing and racist approach and of course I do not support it.
Marc Steiner: Well, Shir Hever, there’s so much more to talk about here and there’s a larger piece of their story that we have to continue talking about because the annexation and more that could be taking place, and how this fits in, but we’ll be doing that together. Shir Hever, thanks for your work and thanks for joining us once again. Talk to you very soon.
Shir Hever: Thank you Marc.
Marc Steiner: Thank you.
And I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network. I want to thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.
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Studio: Cameron Granadino, Taylor Hebden
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