HSBC divests from major Israeli arms company ten years after Operation Cast Lead

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 27/12/2018

UK protests were held outside branches of HSBC bank over shares in an Israeli arms company accused of manufacturing internationally banned weapons [Ryan Ashcroft]

Activists come together to protest outside branches of HSBC bank over shares in an Israeli arms company accused of manufacturing internationally banned weapons [Ryan Ashcroft]

It is ten years since Israel launched a major military offensive against the people of the Gaza Strip, which it called Operation Cast Lead. Israel started its bombardment on 27 December, 2008, as Palestinian children were heading home at the end of the school day. The war lasted for three weeks, during which the Israelis killed at least 1,383 Palestinians, including 333 children. Thirteen Israelis also lost their lives, of whom 3 were civilians.

The first images of Cast Lead’s death and destruction were of police cadets hit by Israeli fire while in training. In all, 99 policemen were killed. Israel claimed that it had launched the offensive “in self-defence” and that Hamas had violated the terms of a ceasefire. In fact, it was Israel which had breached the terms of the agreement on 4 November when it killed six Hamas operatives.

The war was investigated by a UN Fact Finding Mission led by Justice Richard Goldstone, a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and an ex-Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Israel refused to cooperate with the mission and would not allow Goldstone’s committee to travel to the Gaza Strip via Israel.

Fire and smoke rise from a destroyed building as Palestinians carry a victim of an Israeli air strike that targeted Buriej refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 27, 2008. The Israeli air strike was part of it's 'Operation Cast Lead' offensive on Gaza. [YASSER SAYMEH/AFP/Getty Images]

Fire and smoke rise from a destroyed building as Palestinians carry a victim of an Israeli air strike that targeted Buriej refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 27, 2008. The Israeli air strike was part of it’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ offensive on Gaza. [YASSER SAYMEH/AFP/Getty Images]

The subsequent report, referred to as the Goldstone Report, stated, inter alia, that “the Israeli armed forces launched direct attacks against civilians with lethal outcome [chapter XI]. The facts in all bar one of the attacks indicate no justifiable military objective.” Hamas was also criticised by the report.

Goldstone pointed out that, “The Mission further examined an incident in which a mosque was targeted with a missile during early evening prayers, resulting in the death of 15 people, and an attack with flechette munitions on a crowd of family and neighbours at a condolence tent, killing five. The Mission finds that both attacks constitute intentional attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects.”

The report asserted that from the facts ascertained in all of the specific cases investigated, the Mission found that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces “constitutes grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and, as such, give rise to individual criminal responsibility. It also finds that the direct targeting and arbitrary killing of Palestinian civilians is a violation of the right to life.”

The above clearly indicates that far from protecting civilians as the occupying power, Israel deliberately targeted them in Operation Cast Lead. To this day, those responsible for the murderous attack on Gaza and the inexcusable loss of life continue to walk the streets of Israel and to travel safely around the world. Not one of them has been subjected to arrest and trial for the crimes committed. This makes a mockery of the so-called values that the international community continues to claim to uphold and which, it seems, do not extend to the Palestinians.

Israel rejected the report and continued to pressure its authors to retract it. While its lead author, Richard Goldstone, rowed back from its findings two years later, the report still stands. Goldstone’s reasoning was odd, claiming that subsequent Israeli military investigations had confirmed some of the report’s findings but also indicated that, “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy” by Israel.

Two major offensives later (Operations Pillar of Defence in November 2012 and Protective Edge in the summer of 2014) and further sporadic attacks by Israel following breaches of a number of ceasefire agreements, and the situation for the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip remains tense. The humanitarian situation and their living conditions have continued to deteriorate.

Operation Pillar of Defence on Gaza Strip [Wikipedia]

Operation Pillar of Defence on Gaza Strip [Wikipedia]

The political row between Fatah and Hamas is now over a decade old, still dividing Palestinians, and still evading any solution despite the efforts of a number of Arab states to bring this sad chapter to an end. The immoral and illegal Israeli-led siege imposed on Gaza continues into its 13th year, while the international community looks away, accepting for Palestinians what it would not accept for other human beings. By “international community”, of course, I mean predominantly western governments. It has been left to ordinary people in the West to seek ways to protest peacefully against Israeli crimes and violations of the most basic human rights, including the right to free movement.

Since March, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been marching to the nominal border with Israel and the fence that separates them from the homes from which their families were expelled at the point of a gun in 1948. The protestors have been demanding that they be allowed to return, a legitimate right enshrined in international law. They have been met consistently with lethal Israeli gunfire, which has killed more than 200 people, including children, journalists and medics.

Around the world, the growth in support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been encouraging for Palestinians. Israel, which sometimes declares BDS to be a failure, has nevertheless created a special ministry to delegitimise this peaceful movement and to condemn it as “anti-Semitic”. It has also pressured its allies to pass legislation to criminalise BDS; in the US this has raised serious questions about why Israel should be singled out for special protection, something not afforded to other countries. Furthermore, the denial of US citizens’ right to boycott any country is inconsistent with the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

BDS is a legal, peaceful and moral movement. Its demands are an end to the Israeli occupation; and end to the unequal treatment of non-Jewish Israeli citizens; and the promotion of the Palestinian refugees’ legitimate right of return. This year has seen the movement achieve a number of victories in the campaign. Singers Lorde, Shakira and Lana Del Ray, for example, all cancelled concert appearances in Israel. Chile’s congress, meanwhile, voted overwhelmingly to ban products from Israeli settlements, and the Argentinian football team cancelled a match in Israel.

Thus, 2018 is ending on a high note for supporters of justice, particularly in Britain, where HSBC has announced that it has divested in full from Elbit Systems, which is Israel’s largest private security and arms company. Elbit markets its weapons as “battle-tested” having been used against live targets, the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

This victory comes after a campaign calling on the bank to end its financial support for Israel’s military, led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), War On Want and Campaign Against the Arms Trade with huge support from the British public. The campaign saw more than 20,000 individuals writing to HSBC, monthly protests outside 40 HSBC branches across Britain, social media action and student activism at UK universities. At HSBC’s AGM in April, no issue received more questions than the bank’s complicity in supporting Israel’s arms trade.

The PSC is committed to continuing its campaign, together with its partners, until HSBC ends its complicity with all of Israel’s arms companies. “HSBC still invest over £800 million in, and provides syndicated loans worth up to £19 billion for, companies arming Israel,” said PSC in a press release. “This includes shares worth approximately £100 million in Caterpillar, a company which supplies the Israeli army with weaponised bulldozers to demolish Palestinian communities and construct Israel’s illegal settlements and apartheid wall.”

As we approach 2019, with early Israeli elections around the corner and a tired and increasingly floundering Palestinian leadership still in office in Ramallah, little relief appears to be on the horizon for the occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem. Palestinians in refugee camps in neighbouring countries and living in the wider Diaspora have even less cause for optimism.

Even so, what the HSBC disinvestment demonstrates is that peaceful pressure on Israel and those companies that are complicit in its occupation and oppression can expose the state’s crimes and those companies which persist in supporting them. The solidarity movement must now redouble its efforts to pressure Israel and its allies into changing course for a just and lasting peace.

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