This week, PSC’s Acting Director Tricia Rich spoke at a side event at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Tricia spoke about corporate complicity in and the international community’s inaction towards Israeli settlement building – as well as the consequences for Palestinians. This is a version of the speech delivered at an event organised by the Palestinian Return Centre and co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch.
I first visited Palestine and Israel in April of this year. Before I went I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to see. I had learnt about the issue academically, I had worked on it professionally, I had spoken to people about their experiences, I had seen photos, I had watched films.
But, as is so often true in life, nothing prepared me for what I saw. Fundamentally the trip shifted my perception of what is happening to Palestine.
So often the situation is presented as an immovable protracted conflict and I guess I had to an extent internalised this viewpoint – the situation to me was at a stalemate, an impasse. But visiting for myself made it abundantly clear that this is a fundamental fallacy.
It is not immovable, it is not deadlocked. Things are getting much worse.
Palestinian are losing more of their homes, land and lives day-in-day-out. Palestine is being erased, Palestinian rights are being eroded.
Israel is relentlessly building settlements deep into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And before I went to Palestine the concept of settlement building and the consequences still did not resonate.
The word settlement conjures images of brave pioneers building their homes on deserted prairies in unexplored land. Settlements are small and rudimentary; they house people who are bold and adventurous. But this image is absolutely false.
Israeli settlements are bustling, contemporary, towns and cities. They range from small to enormous: Modi’in Illit settlement in the West Bank has over 60,000 residents. There are 125 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem housing over 500,000 people – that’s roughly the population of Luxembourg. They have electricity and running water, they have new apartment buildings and houses, they are serviced by a newly built and continually expanding road system, they are afforded protection from the military, and you can even get support from the Israeli government to move there. But the important point is this – these are not built on deserted prairies or in unexplored lands. They are built in Palestine.
They are Israeli-only neighbourhoods to which Palestinians do not have access; they are serviced by roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use. When I was there our guide and driver told us how you could tell the difference between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement as you are driving around – all the Palestinian houses and apartment blocks have black water tanks on top of them. Because they only have sporadic running water – settlement houses don’t need this, they’re hooked up and running all of the time. They can water their plants and wash their cars. While Palestinian neighbourhoods just across the wall may have to ration their showers. We went to one Palestinian village which didn’t have any running water or electricity right next to an illegal settlement described in the New York Times as “a lovely green oasis that looks like an American suburb. It has lush gardens, kids riding bikes and air conditioned homes. It also has a gleaming, electrified poultry barn that is runs as a business”. As I sat in the community centre of this village I was all too aware that the chickens of this settlement were hooked up to the national grid while this village of people had no connection.
One of the most stark memories I have is of being in a settlement and seeing the difference between there and the Palestinian neighbourhoods we had been in – rubbish collection, pavements, public flowers and plants to make the streets look nice! They have all of this when I could literally see down the hill to the other side of the wall, to where the Palestinians did not even have reliable running water – all their buildings topped with the black water tank markers, enclosed by a wall, watched by soldiers armed to the teeth.
And of course to build these settlements Palestinians are removed: their farm lands confiscated, their houses demolished – according to UN OCHA 769 Palestinian structures (homes, animal shelters, community centres) have been demolished this year (that’s already exceeded the amount demolished in the whole of last year – the biweekly average of demolitions this year is 24, last year it was 11. As a result of these demolitions over 1,000 Palestinians have been displaced. To make way for these settlements, Palestinians are made homeless, their livelihoods taken away.
So the relentless building of settlements is not a victimless crime. Palestinians suffer as a direct result.
Settlements themselves are an act of segregation – they create neighbourhoods for Israeli’s and deny entry to Palestinians, who they displace in the process of building them. And so they are not an isolated policy. They are part of a broader system of discrimination and military occupation – a system that serves one group and excludes another.
But Israel cannot and does not do this alone. They rely on two things:
- The international community’s continual inaction
- Companies to provide the equipment and technology needed to build, maintain and service their settlements
I’ll start by talking about corporate complicity in the building and servicing of settlements: that is, companies that profit from the illegal building of Israeli only neighbourhoods on Palestinian land.
In order to build a settlement you need first to remove the Palestinian population – for this you need diggers and bulldozers to tear down their homes and destroy their farmlands and olive groves. Then you can get building, so you need construction materials, cranes, and scaffolding. Once you’ve built the settlement you need electricity and water, you need buses to run, and you need rubbish collection. And then you need to keep Palestinian’s out.
Now the Israeli state does not have all of the technology or equipment to do this – so it needs corporations that it can buy this from.
And it needs a system of identity that distinguishes between Palestinian and Israeli. Much of this is too provided by a company.
It’s important to say at this point – Israel has de-facto control over the entirety of the Palestinian Territory. It controls the roads and the popular registry. It provides the ID card system, which restricts where Palestinians can go, where they can live, their access to services and their ability to participate in the legal system.
And there’s of course no point in having these ID cards unless you are going to use them – this is where checkpoints come in.
So let’s talk about the ID cards – Israel uses a system of biometric identification cards for citizens and residents of Israel and for those who want to work in Israel. That is to say – pretty much everyone. Unemployment in the West Bank according to the World Bank is over 15% – many of those who are employed work within Israel or in settlements. For many working within Israel and settlements is the only way to get a job. This means that Israel holds biometric information on virtually every single Palestinian over the age of 16. This information includes fingerprints, retinal scans and facial recognition.
There are several different types of ID cards – the one you have depends on your “nationality” and area of residency these include: Jewish Israeli, Palestinian Citizen of Israel, Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza, and Bedouin. Your rights and your ability to access areas depends on which nationality and residency your ID card states.
These ID cards are used at checkpoints, which are controlled by the Israel military and are how Palestinians are or are not allowed to access certain areas. They are also how Israel determines where people are or are not allowed to live. That is a Palestinian living in the West Bank may be able to enter a settlement to work – to service the settlement built on their land, perhaps in the wake of their village. But their ID card makes it quite clear that they have no right to live there.
The biometric information stored in these ID cards that distinguish between the different nationalities and different areas of residency and apportions rights and freedom of movement on that basis; the automated access control system used in many checkpoints, the biggest contractor employed in both of these systems: Hewlett Packard.
This worldwide brand, the IT giant Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services is the technology behind the system of segregation. It is their technology that allows Israel to stop Palestinians from moving from one area to another. This services settlements as it keeps Palestinians out, it stops them using the roads – but that is not the only effect. This absolute control also prevents Palestinians from moving freely between Palestinian areas.
HP is profiting from the segregation, discrimination and theft that settlements enact and rely on. So we need to hold them to account. If we are saying that the settlements are illegal (which we are) then those companies that help to prop them up should be considered as conspiring with the crime. If the crime were any other it would be so.
The next point is the continual inaction of the international community. In July this year the Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry made a plea to the international community in response to yet another Israeli announcement of more settlements – automated and repetitive responses are no longer needed.
We have heard time and again from our partners in Palestine – they are absolutely fed up of the international community breaking out their statements of condemnation every time Israel announces and expands their settlements.
It is clear that Israel is not listening. Despite of the inevitable strong statements – Israel goes ahead and builds more settlement houses. And a little bit more of Palestine disappears.
So it is time to stop making statements – it is time for action. It is time for governments to review their bi-lateral relationships with Israel, to impose restrictive measures on Israel to show that there are consequences for their actions.
I am currently the Acting Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign; we are the largest organisation in the UK dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights, equality and freedom.
We work with people from all backgrounds, across all political persuasions in order to challenge our government to change their policy towards Palestine and Israel and to take on companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and illegal settlement building. So everything I have described is at the heart of what we do.
Our two major current campaigns focus on Hewlett Packard and on the UK governments policy towards settlements.
We are working with international partners to get HP to withdraw from Israel – not only for their role I’ve described, but also because of the IT support they provide to the Israeli Navy that is used to enforce the blockade of Gaza. We are building a global activist campaign to highlight HPs complicity in Israel’s breaches of international law and for their role in supporting the occupation. And while a bunch of activists might not seem much in comparison to the global mega-company HP, we have past successes to draw on and inspire us.
With our partners globally we forced Veolia to sell their shares in the Jerusalem light railway that connected Israel’s illegal settlements. Also with our partners we forced Soda Stream to move their factory out of its base in an illegal Israeli settlement. With enough pressure from civil society organisation and campaigners around the world HP will be forced to pull out too.
But we also know that ultimately we need to change government policy to stop companies from being able to profit from Israel’s illegal settlement building.
While the UK government (and many across the world) already state that “settlements are illegal and a barrier to peace” they have taken no action. In fact the UK continues to provide substantial support to settlements by way of preferential trade agreements with Israel. Agricultural produce grown in illegal settlements ends up on the shelves of supermarkets around the UK.
It is time for the UK to bring their policy in line with their statements. If settlements are illegal then trade with those entities should be considered conspiring with that illegality and therefore banned. How can we take seriously any government or institution that names an act illegal but does nothing to stand against it?
I want to end by returning to the village I spoke about earlier. The village is called Umm al Khair which is in the south Hebron Hills – right next to it is the illegal settlement Carmel. And when I say right next to I mean they are neighbours – only neighbours separated by an aggressive looking barbed wire fence and no end of difference in circumstance.
The Israeli government wants to expand Carmel and demolish Umm al Khair in the process. I can’t explain to you, if you haven’t been for yourself what it is like to sit in a community centre, sharing coffee with families who are recounting their stories of having their homes and shelters for their animals destroyed. This community sharing coffee with you in their village with no electricity or running water when I could literally see a settlement on the other side of their houses which had everything they did not. A settlement that would, unless action was taken, one day soon subsume their village.
Since then, last month, five homes were demolished in Umm al Khair: five less buildings in the way of expanding the illegal settlement next door.
The destruction goes on and so our campaign for action must get stronger too.
Umm al Khair and the illegal settlement Carmel in the background. While the electricity wires for Carmel run through the Palestinian village they do not provide Umm al Khair with electricity. Five homes in this village were demolished last month.