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Viewpoint - July 5, 2018

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AXA brushes aside concern over role in Israel's war crimes
by: Adri Nieuwhof
electronicintifada.net

France-based insurance giant AXA is refusing to divest from Israeli firms involved in war crimes against Palestinians.

This includes banks that help build settlements and a company that makes weapons used to kill civilians in Gaza.

A year ago, 70 organizations, political parties and trade unions urged AXA to divest from three Israeli banks and arms maker Elbit Systems.

But AXA has tried to brush away its responsibility.

The global firm claimed in an October 2017 email to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center in London that its investments in Bank Leumi, Bank Hapoalim and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank are "non-controlling, minority investments" that account for "a very small fraction" of the company's assets.

AXA said its subsidiary AllianceBernstein was responsible for 99 percent of the investment in the Israeli banks.

AllianceBernstein is a global investment management firm and AXA is its main shareholder.

Financing crime

AXA also confirmed that it has no problem in principle with investing in Israeli banks despite how human rights researchers, especially Human Rights Watch, have documented the central role that these financial institutions play in facilitating the theft and colonization of Palestinian land and other abuses.

Israel's major banks are crucial to its unlawful settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and Syria's Golan Heights.

The banks finance construction and infrastructure on land stolen from Palestinians.

They voluntarily provide loans and financial services to settlement councils and businesses and provide mortgage loans to home buyers - all of which helps sustain and grow the settlement enterprise.

Settlement construction and settlement businesses are inseparable from grave violations of Palestinian rights including theft of land and water, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and damage to the Palestinian economy amounting to billions of dollars each year.

In all, Israel has, with the help of the banks, transferred some 600,000 members of its civilian population into the occupied territories.

That transfer is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and is one of the war crimes listed in the founding statute of the International Criminal Court.

The illegality of Israel's settlements was reconfirmed by the UN Security Council when it passed resolution 2334 in December 2016.

But AXA insists that it carried out a "careful and thorough examination of the situation, taking into account UN Resolution 2334 and the nature of activities of the three Israeli banks" but "concluded that these companies do not fall within the exclusion framework of our investment policy."

This is in stark contrast with the United Methodist Church which in 2016 divested from Israeli banks because of their role in settlements.

Luxembourg's national pension fund FDC also excludes five big Israeli banks for the same reason.

The publication Business Insider lists AXA subsidiary AllianceBernstein as one of the top 15 investors in Bank Hapoalim.

As of 1 July, AllianceBernstein owned a total of almost 312,000 Hapoalim shares spread across two portfolios, worth more than $2.1 million.

As of February, AllianceBernstein also held 15,750 shares in Bank Leumi and 4,620 shares in Mizrahi Tefahot Bank in its "Dynamic Diversified Portfolio" fund.

Investment in arms maker

Elbit Systems, one of Israel's biggest arms makers, has supplied drones, white phosphorus and other weapons used during major Israeli assaults on Gaza.

During Israel's three-week assault on Gaza that began in December 2008, for instance, human rights groups documented that dozens of Israeli drone attacks killed almost 90 civilians.

Israel sent its Elbit-made drones back into Gaza during its 2014 assault on the territory.

More recently, Israeli forces confirmed they used Elbit's Spear vehicle-mounted mortar system to attack Palestinians across the boundary in Gaza.

The weapon has "proven itself in a very effective manner in recent clashes," Boaz Cohen, an Elbit official and reserve officer in the Israeli military, said on 15 May, the day after Israeli snipers massacred dozens of Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return protests in Gaza.

AXA did not address its investments in Elbit Systems in a September 2017 response to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center's queries about its ties to settlement construction and weapons manufacturing.

But if AXA held no stake in Elbit it would certainly have mentioned that fact.

In a reply sent to an activist in Switzerland earlier this year, AXA labeled as "fragmentary and false allegations" any claims that it is "financing the production of banned weapons and the expansion of the 'disputed territories' through investments in the industrial group Elbit Systems and in three Israeli banks."

Despite such denials, as of mid-May, AXA owned more than $1.1 million worth of Elbit shares, while AllianceBernstein held more than $750,000 worth of the stock.

AXA also pointed to its "corporate responsibility" policy that commits it to the "10 universal principles on human rights, labor, the environment and the fight against corruption" of the UN Global Compact.

Clearly, investing in Israeli banks and arms makers makes a mockery of this commitment, which is why activists should continue to press AXA to divest.

Original Article: AXA brushes aside concern over role in Israel's war crimes

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