On May 28, 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued yet another publication targeting Israeli banks, “Bankrolling Abuse: Israeli Banks in West Bank Settlements,” along with a companion video and infographics. These materials are part of HRW’s continuing role in a broader BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign to damage Israel’s economy through the financial sector.

Attempts to isolate and cripple Israel’s banking sector have long been a goal of anti-Israel activists. HRW’s advocacy on this particular issue intersects with the UN Human Rights Council blacklist, currently being prepared by UN functionaries in conjunction with BDS groups, targeting Israeli companies and companies that do business with Israel.

HRW’s second publication on Israeli banks in less than a year makes numerous false accusations and invents international law. If HRW’s recommendations were to be adopted, the result would not be to advance human rights but rather contribute to further violations, religious and national origin discrimination, significant economic harm, and greater conflict.

Demonstrating the role of this publication in the wider BDS campaign against Israeli banks, “Bankrolling” was unusually promoted through its European Press office, rather than its local Israel representatives. Its released coincided with a report by a group of Belgian BDS organizations advocating for European bank divestment from Israel. In “Bankrolling,” HRW references a similar report issued in March 2017 by a group of French boycott groups.

False Claims and Flawed Methodology:

  1. Claims that international law prohibits the operation of Israeli banks across the 1949 Armistice lines.
    1. There is no international law that prohibits banking operations across armistice lines or in “occupied territory” (the paradigm applied by HRW). In fact, HRW’s claim has been rejected in every court case where it has been raised: All courts that have examined this issue have ruled that only states, and not corporations, are subject to international humanitarian law (IHL) (the body of law setting out the rules of occupation), and there is no international rule whatsoever imposing liability on corporations for allegedly aiding and abetting claimed violations of a state.
  2. Distorts and Damages the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) Framework
    1. The UNGPs are not intended to be a punitive framework. Nor are such instruments to be used to serve as the basis for blacklisting and boycotts. These principles are similarly not meant to be used to prohibit business activity in conflict zones or disputed territories.
  3. HRW Promotes Discrimination Not Human Rights
    1. A core principle of human rights law is that of non-discrimination. In contrast, HRW’s primary complaint in “Bankrolling” is that Israeli banks are providing financial services to Jews who reside (or visit) settlements. HRW also considers parts (if not all) of Jerusalem and the Old City to be “settlements” and “occupied.”
    2. According to this bizarre logic, HRW considers it a “war crime” that Israeli banks do not discriminate and choose to serve all Israeli citizens regardless of where they live.
    3. HRW provides no support for its claims that Israeli banks or ATMs deny services to Palestinians; in fact, HRW admits (in a footnote) that Palestinians can open accounts at Israeli banks. HRW also admits that most Palestinians have access to and choose to use Palestinian and Foreign Banks that operate in the West Bank (most likely because of proximity and convenience of service in Arabic).
    4. HRW fails to provide information as to whether Israeli citizens are allowed to open accounts in Palestinian and foreign banks in the West Bank. HRW also does not inform its readers that Israelis are forbidden to enter areas under PA control, and are therefore entirely blocked from accessing Palestinian and foreign banks.
    5. Absurdly, HRW appears to advocate for regulations that proscribe which nationalities or ethnic groups can be involved in commercial activities. In a further violation of human rights, HRW is advocating for Israeli banks to actually refuse service on the basis of national origin and ethnicity.
  4. Extensive Reliance on BDS NGOs
    1. HRW’s publication is largely based on information from BDS groups, most notably, Who Profits, DanWatch, and Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS).
    2. Who Profits initiates international BDS campaigns, targeting Israeli and foreign banks, security companies, civil infrastructure facilities, and private companies. It supports BDS campaigns around the world in finding target companies. The website provides the option to “Report a Company,” and calls on the public “to identify companies that should be included in their database.” Who Profits initiated the campaign against Israeli banks in 2010.
    3. DanWatch promotes BDS under the guise of “business ethics.” DanWatch initiated the project “Business on Forbidden Land,” focusing on Danish companies allegedly conducting business in Israeli settlements and calling for a ban on “settlement goods”.
    4. HRW consulted a “coalition” of French NGOs, citing a report published by the BDS organization AFPS. In March 2017, AFPS, along with groups including International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Al-HaqCCFD- Terre Solidaire, and the French League of Human Rights (LDH), published a document ‘The dangerous ties between French banks and insurances companies with the Israeli occupation‘, which recommends that the French government pressure French financial institutions to “disengage without delay from any financial link with the Israeli banking system,” and create “a legislative proposal prohibiting enterprises from all sectors to invest in the settlements.” The report only points to very minor and indirect connections, if at all, to settlements, and French courts have repeatedly found that such business activity is not illegal. In 2015, these same NGOs published “Orange’s Dangerous Liaisons in the Occupies Palestinian Territory,” targeting the French corporation Orange Group and “the French State as Orange’s principal majority shareholder.” Efforts to pressure Orange included attending the Orange annual shareholders meeting and lobbying of the French government.
  5. Flawed Methodology
    1. In addition to its reliance on one-sided politically oriented NGOs, HRW’s methodology suffers from other failures and the resulting report is therefore wrought with bias. For example, HRW claims that it interviewed an “expert in Israeli property law” and an “Israeli real estate agent” without providing the details of these individuals, their qualifications, or even what questions were asked to them. HRW also states that it only visited a selection of banks, construction projects, and Palestinian villages. It is unclear how or why these locations were selected.