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Revealed: Edinburgh investment firm’s links to illegal West Bank settlements

An investment firm that sponsors Scottish cultural organisations invests in companies linked to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, The Ferret can reveal.

They include an online travel firm, a Mexican construction multinational and a US tech company with Israeli subsidiaries.

Edinburgh-based Baillie Gifford also has around £4bn invested in Amazon, which has been criticised for its role in an artificial intelligence project with Israel that some people fear could be used to surveil Palestinians.

Human rights campaigners are asking Baillie Gifford to divest from all companies linked to illegal settlements and Israel’s “brutal occupation” of Palestinian territories.

Protest group Art Workers for Palestine Scotland has urged Scotland’s cultural organisations to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and put pressure on Baillie Gifford.

The concerns were raised as the war in Gaza continues — with 18,600 people, mostly Palestinian civilians, killed at time of writing. Israel launched its attack on Gaza after Hamas murdered 1200 people on 7 October, and seized about 240 hostages. Hamas is thought to be holding about 138 hostages in Gaza.

In reply, Baillie Gifford said the “violence and loss of life is deeply distressing” and it would consider some of the “important points” raised by campaigners over its investments, while “recognising that this is a complex and polarising topic”.

The asset manager was at the centre of controversy in the summer after The Ferret revealed it had up to £5bn invested in companies which make money from the oil, coal or gas sectors. 

Baillie Gifford’s links to fossil fuels prompted the high profile climate activist, Greta Thunberg, to cancel coming to Scotland for the Edinburgh Book Festival, which Baillie Gifford sponsors. 

However, organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival defended Baillie Gifford and warned that the arts sector could “implode” without its financial support.

west bank National Galleries of Scotland
Several cultural organisations in Scotland have received funding from Baillie Gifford, including the Edinburgh Fringe and the National Galleries of Scotland. Image: Charles Wollertz

Illegal Israeli settlements

Many states and international bodies such as the United Nations have long recognised that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law.

Analysis by Art Workers for Palestine Scotland and The Ferret found that Baillie Gifford invests in companies linked to the settlements, including Booking Holdings, Cemex and Cisco Systems.

Booking Holdings, an online travel company, has been condemned for advertising accommodation in the West Bank. It was named last year in a report by a coalition of groups called Don’t Buy Into Occupation which said firms linked to the West Bank “raise particular human rights concerns”.

Cemex — a Mexican multinational that makes construction materials — has a subsidiary called Ready-Mix which has provided materials to build checkpoints and Israel’s “apartheid” wall in the West Bank. In July 2017, more than 200 Latin American organisations and activists published an open letter calling on Cemex to stop supplying Israel with building materials.

The US tech firm Cisco Systems has Israeli subsidiaries and, according to a research group called Who Profits, has a “broad base of complicity with Israel’s occupation economy, predominantly through the provision of services to the Israeli military”.

Booking Holdings, Cemex and Cisco Systems did not respond to our requests for a comment.

Project Nimbus

Baillie Gifford’s latest portfolio holdings show it had 41 million shares in Amazon worth £4.1bn in September 2023. Amazon is contracted to provide technology services to Israel’s government for Project Nimbus, a “cloud computing system” which critics fear could be used for surveillance or other militarised purposes.

Opposition to Amazon’s role in Project Nimbus is led by a coalition called NoTechforApartheid. The campaign is supported by activist groups Jewish Voice for Peace and MPower Change

Amazon employees have been protesting against Project Nimbus since 2021. In an open letter published that year, they wrote: “Our employers signed a contract called Project Nimbus to sell dangerous technology to the Israeli military and government. The technology our companies have contracted to build will make the systematic discrimination and displacement carried out by the Israeli military and government even crueler and deadlier for Palestinians.”

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Amazon is contracted to provide technology services to Israel’s government for Project Nimbus, a “cloud computing system” which critics fear could be used for surveillance or other militarised purposes. Image: Joshua Brown

Baillie Gifford’s cultural sponsorship

Art Workers for Palestine Scotland said many cultural organisations in Scotland have received funding from Baillie Gifford, “but few will have been aware that it invests in companies with connections to the Israeli state”.

In May 2023, for example, Baillie Gifford donated £50k to the Edinburgh Fringe, and it is listed by National Galleries of Scotland as a “corporate” supporter. Baillie Gifford also sponsors Scottish Opera.

Art Workers for Palestine Scotland — which told The Ferret it is a “growing coalition of over 180 arts workers in Scotland” showing solidarity with Palestinians — said it is “deeply disappointed by the Scottish cultural sector’s unthinking complicity” regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza.

“We are organising as workers because cultural institutions are connected to our livelihoods,” a spokesperson for the group added. “Many of them commission us to exhibit or perform in programmes connected to social justice, decolonisation and care, yet refuse to acknowledge the racist, colonial and destructive outcomes of accepting sponsorship funding from companies benefiting from illegal occupation and genocide. We cannot work with cultural organisations who refuse to align their public-facing politics and their structural management.

“We urge Scotland’s cultural organisations to join us in asking Baillie Gifford to divest from all companies which perpetuate illegal Israeli settlements, including Booking, Cemex and Cisco Systems.”

Last month, Art Workers for Palestine Scotland protested at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and temporarily closed the Glasgow venue when dozens of campaigners sat down in the main hall.

A Scottish Opera spokesperson said: “We have no comment at this stage. Please refer to our partner Baillie Gifford’s statement for further detail. We remain grateful for all the support Baillie Gifford gives to the arts in Scotland.”

Both National Galleries of Scotland and the Edinburgh Fringe declined to comment.

Edinburgh during the Fringe festival. Image: Ossiridian/iStock

Calls for divestment

Gerry Coutts, of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, also urged Baillie Gifford to cut links with the West Bank. He said Palestinians have “pleaded with the rest of the world not to profit from their suffering” for 70 years, and firms “need to consider” they may be investing in “enterprises and technologies that Israel utilises to surveil and intimidate the Palestinian population as part of collective punishment in contravention of international law”.

Project Nimbus is expected to increase the Israeli Defence Force’s competence in artificial intelligence technologies, Coutts claimed. He added: “Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign has exerted pressure over the years on (Scottish) local authority pension funds to scrutinise their ethical social governance when it comes to companies riding roughshod over international law in Israel/Palestine. 

“Our ‘Time to Divest’ campaign saw millions of pounds of investments dropped from companies who are the worst offenders when it comes to profiting from apartheid and the occupation economy.

“South African apartheid was defeated when major companies started to divest from the country, leading to democratic elections.”

A Baillie Gifford spokesperson said: “The violence and loss of life is deeply distressing, and we have huge sympathy for the families of all the victims.”

“We are committed to thoughtfully analysing the businesses we invest in and believe they should act responsibly and legally. We take this duty seriously and, like other firms in our industry, are guided by international sanctions.

“Baillie Gifford is a long-standing supporter of the arts. This is driven by a belief that we should contribute to our communities, and we hope they will gain lasting benefits from this.”

An Amazon spokesperson: “AWS (Amazon Web Services) is focused on making the benefits of our world-leading cloud technology available to all our customers, wherever they are located.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch and several other human rights organisations have written to the UK Government calling for an immediate halt to UK arms transfers to the government of Israel.

South African apartheid was defeated when major companies started to divest from the country, leading to democratic elections.

Gerry Coutts, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign

The open letter argues “there is a clear risk that arms and military equipment transferred to Israel might be used to facilitate or commit serious violations of international law, including attacks that may amount to war crimes”. 

The signatories point out that since 2015 the UK has licensed at least £474m worth of military exports to Israel, including components for combat aircrafts, missiles, tanks, technology, small arms, and ammunition.

“The UK provides approximately 15 per cent of the components in the F-35 stealth bomber aircraft currently being used in Gaza, including the rear fuselage and active interceptor system, ejector seats, aircraft tires, refueling probe, laser targeting system, and the fan propulsion system,” the letter adds.

It was signed by War On Want, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Amnesty International UK, Quakers in Britain, Welfare Association, Sabeel-Kairos UK, and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. 

At a press conference in Geneva last week, a United Nations commissioner explained what he had witnessed during a visit to Gaza. General Phillipe-Lazzarini, of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the near east (UNRWA), said: “Hunger is something people in Gaza have never ever known before. But hunger has now emerged over the last few weeks and we meet more and more people who haven’t eaten for one, two or three days.

“As of today, we have 135 UNRWA staff who have been killed since the beginning of the war. And you’ve heard me many times say: no place has been spared, not even the places that normally should be protected by the laws of war.  

“I was absolutely horrified yesterday when I saw a video circulating of an UNRWA school being blown up in northern Gaza. Schools, medical and UN facilities are not and should never, ever be a target. Unfortunately, in Gaza, they have quite often become just that.”

The Israeli Embassy in London and the UK Government have been asked to comment. 

Main image: rrodrickbeiler/iStock

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