Belgian campaign targets bank financing Israeli settlements

Adri Nieuwhof, The Electronic Intifada, 1 April 2009

In a remarkably short period of time, activists in Belgium have built a strong basis for the campaign “Israel colonizes — Dexia funds,” asking the bank to divest from its subsidiary Dexia Israel because of its financing of the expansion of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Israeli settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva, prohibiting the Occupying Power to deport or transfer parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies, as well as Article 53 prohibiting the destruction of property on occupied territory. The Dexia campaign is flourishing in Belgium and may potentially spread to other countries where Dexia subsidiaries are based.

The French-Belgian bank Dexia bought the Israeli Municipality Treasure Bank in 2001 and established Dexia Israel. Centrum voor Ontwikkeling, Documentatie en Informatie Palestijnen (CODIP), an organization focusing on Palestine, raised its concern about the transfer in a letter to Dexia’s board of directors in April 2001. The organization argues that Dexia’s investment in an Israeli bank involved in public loans might give the impression that the bank “supports Israel’s policy of occupation, colonization and discrimination.”

Seven Belgian organizations decided to join forces in the Dexia Committee in 2008. The committee summoned the help of the Who Profits from the Occupation? project to investigate the relationship between Dexia and Israel’s occupation. In late October 2008, Who Profits informed the Dexia Committee that Dexia Public Finance Israel is involved in activities in the illegal settlements. This was clear from statements by the CEO of Dexia Israel to the Israeli parliament, that since 2005 long-term loans and other financial services were given to at least seven Israeli municipalities in different regions of the occupied West Bank, including Ariel, Alfei Menashe, Beit Aryeh, Beit-El, Elkana, Har Hebron, Kedumim and Givat Zeev.

Deputy executive vice-president of public finance, Francois Durollet, told the campaigners on 16 November 2008 that Dexia Israel was called to account in Israel’s parliament, because it did not pay enough attention to funding of the development of settlements.

The Dexia Committee successfully rallied for support from the Belgian parliament, city councils and districts. This resulted in questions in parliament, and decisions to support the campaign of one province and 18 city councils support the Dexia campaign. This is relevant, because the Belgian government, regions and municipalities hold respectively 5.7 percent, 5.7 percent and 14.1 percent of Dexia shares.

The public in Belgium has responded positively to the Dexia campaign. During a massive demonstration against the Israeli attacks on Gaza in Brussels on 11 January, in which 70,000 citizens participated, participants threw shoes at the Dexia offices to show their dissatisfaction with the bank’s investments in the illegal settlements. An informational meeting organized at the end of January was attended by 265 persons and 60 individuals had to return home because of the meeting hall was at capacity. In a video message from Ramallah, Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, spoke to the audience about the need to become active in the Dexia campaign. Several weeks later, many responded to the call to phone Dexia’s complaints service and ask for the bank’s divestment from Dexia Israel during the week of 16-20 March.

At a well attended press conference was held on Land Day, 30 March, which commemorates the deaths of six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were killed by state forces in 1976. During the press conference the Dexia Campaign announced the launch of an online petition to call for Dexia’s divestment from funding illegal activities in the Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

The Dexia Committee has raised substantial support for the “Israel colonizes — Dexia funds” campaign. In a few months’ time, 45 organizations, including political parties and national trade unions, gave their support. Trade unions organizing workers in the banking sector also joined the campaign, including the Christian ACV. The ACV, with almost two million members, is the largest Belgian federation of labor, and its branch organizing office workers is the largest in the ACV federation. The ACV is part of a broad national Christian workers movement, organized under the umbrella organization Algemene Christelijke Werknemer Bond (ACW). The ACW own 13.9 percent of the shares in Dexia and its chairman, Jan Renders, is a member of the board of directors of Dexia. The support of the ACV is crucial to influence the position of ACW as co-owner and co-governor of Dexia. The workers at Dexia own another 2.6 percent of the shares and their interest is protected by their trade union leaders, who task one representative to speak and vote for the workers at the shareholders meeting.

Dexia can expect a heated debate about divestment from Dexia Israel at its shareholders meeting in May 2009 as the Dexia campaign has raised the support of Dexia shareholders.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.

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