Scots universities have shares worth £2m in firms linked to West Bank settlements

Scottish universities have shares worth more than £2m in companies linked to settlements in the West Bank which are considered illegal under international law, we can reveal.

Companies backed financially by Scots academic institutions include a bank which finances construction in the West Bank, and major global financial institutions underwriting Airbnb, which has around 200 properties for rent in illegal Israeli settlements.

Critics have raised concerns over these investments and called for divestment from some of the firms. The universities said in response they are fully committed to socially responsible investments while the banks all have policies to uphold human rights.

The Ferret obtained details of share holdings after submitting freedom of information requests to every Scottish university asking for information about their investments.

Universities’ investments

Glasgow University has a total of £751,568 invested in companies linked to West Bank settlements.

It has 5591 shares worth £25,354 in Bank Hapoalim which has been listed by the UN due to its involvement in the West Bank. The bank is a target of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and Human Rights Watch has highlighted its role as a partner in unlawful housing projects.

Last year The Ferret reported Bank Hapoalim had been fined for tax evasion and conspiring to launder kickbacks to football officials in a Fifa corruption scandal. 

Glasgow University also has shares in Hewlett Packard (HP) worth £85,412. HP is also a target of BDS which says the company provides computers and technology for Israeli security forces who occupy the West Bank.

St Andrews University has 11,910 shares in Puma SE worth £707,988. Puma has been questioned by human rights campaigners for its sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association (IFA).

Six of the teams the IFA governs are based in illegal settlements in the West Bank. The IFA has been condemned by UN advisersdozens of elected officialspublic figures and civil society and human rights groups.

Puma strongly denied having links to any football teams in the West Bank, stressing it does not support any political direction, political parties or governments.

In 2019, over 200 Palestinian football teams wrote a letter to Puma, calling on it to end its sponsorship, arguing it was lending legitimacy to the settlements and to alleged Israeli human rights abuses.

Puma told The Ferret it does not support any football teams in the West Bank nor any political group or government. St Andrews University said it does not believe that Puma’s sponsorship of the IFA is a violation of human rights.

Many states and international bodies have long recognised that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

Amnesty International says the West Bank settlements have been condemned as illegal in many UN Security Council and other UN resolutions. 

The human rights organisation says: “As early as 1980, UN Security Council Resolution 465 called on Israel ‘to dismantle the existing settlements and, in particular, to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.’ 

“The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention have reaffirmed that settlements violate international humanitarian law.

“The illegality of the settlements was recently reaffirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed in December 2016, which reiterates the Security Council’s call on Israel to cease all settlement activities in the OPT.”

The Israeli government argues that a Jewish presence has existed on the West Bank for thousands of years and was recognised by the League of Nations in 1922.

Jordan’s rule over the territory, from 1948 to 1967, was never recognised by most of the world. Israel also argues there was no legal sovereign power in the area and therefore the prohibition on transferring people from one state to the occupied territory of another does not apply.

The International Court of Justice rejected that argument in 2004, ruling that the settlements violated international law.

Some universities in Scotland have admitted to benefiting from slavery in the past – it is time that they took a moral stance on current human rights issues.

Gerry CoutTs, Time to Divest

Gerry Coutts, chair of the Time to Divest campaign and vice-chair of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “The universities in Scotland have large sums of money invested in companies that Palestinian society as a collective have called for boycott or divestment. Some universities in Scotland have admitted to benefiting from slavery in the past – it is time that they took a moral stance on current human rights issues.

“To retain investments like that of Bank Hapoalim is indefensible. The Time to Divest campaign has been at the forefront in exposing the reputational damage that investments like this can cause to institutions. In 2018 Falkirk Council pension fund divested £6M from Bank Hapoalim.”

Alys Samson Estapé, Europe campaigns coordinator for the Palestinian BDS National Committee said: “Puma sponsors the Israel Football Association, which includes teams in Israel’s illegal settlements. HP provides technology which enables the Israeli government to control and enforce its system of racial segregation and apartheid against the Palestinian people.

“Israel’s Bank Hapoalim finances the illegal settlements, and is included in the UN database of companies operating in Israel’s settlements. The Palestinian BDS National Committee, the broadest Palestinian civil society coalition, calls on St Andrews University and Glasgow University to support freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people by divesting from Puma, HP and Bank Hapoalim.”

Investment management and fund choice is a matter for individual academic institutions but those choices should be informed by ethical considerations.

Naomi mcAuliffe, Amnesty International

Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International’s Scotland programme director, said that Amnesty student groups across Scotland have “successfully lobbied” universities to divest from fossil fuel investments and “are now focused on highlighting illegal West Bank settlements and companies profiting from them”.

She added: “Investment management and fund choice is a matter for individual academic institutions but those choices should be informed by ethical considerations.”

Amnesty International also raised concerns recently about the role of banks – which are not the focus of BDS – underwriting Airbnb which has properties in the West Bank. Several Scots universities invest in these banks which invest in Airbnb’s vast global business of which West Bank properties form a small part.

Amnesty issued a statement in December ahead of Airbnb preparing to go public in a multi-billion-pound Initial Public Offering (IPO), saying the US firm must withdraw listings of rental properties built illegally on “Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Airbnb is one of more than 100 companies around the world listed in a UN database of firms whose business operations link them to Israeli settlements. 

Airbnb stock is expected to be purchased by investment and pension funds across the world, Amnesty said, which could mean a large number of people will indirectly hold investments in Airbnb “without understanding the full ramifications”. 

Amnesty said that Airbnb’s Registration Statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission ahead of the IPO made no mention of business operations in the Israeli settlements or the fact that the company appears on the UN database.

The campaigning group also said banks underwriting Airbnb’s IPO, including Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital and Morgan Stanley, have a responsibility “to ensure that material disclosure to shareholders is accurate”.

Investments in banks

Several Scots universities hold shares in these banks.

Glasgow University has shares in Barclays worth £179,767 and shares worth £261,382 in Goldman Sachs. Strathclyde University has shares worth £301,654 in Goldman Sachs. Abertay University has shares worth £215,500 in Barclays and £68,420 in Morgan Stanley.

Naomi McAuliffe said companies such as Airbnb have human rights responsibilities. She added: “Despite this, Airbnb has been benefiting from a situation causing systemic human rights violations for millions of Palestinians. The company should do right by future investors by ending its business relationship with Israeli settlements built in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“These settlements are a war crime under international law and any company profiting from them is deeply compromised.”

In reply to concerns over its investments in Bank Hapoalim and HP, a University of Glasgow spokesperson said: “We are committed to socially-responsible investment and we ensure that information about our investments is available on our website. We have a clear policy on ethical investment which is reviewed annually by staff and student representatives.”

A spokesman for the University of St Andrews said: “Through asset managers, we seek to invest in companies that are proactively managed particularly in terms of how their business interacts with our shared environment and society including human rights.

“We are aware that human rights violations do occur in the disputed territories and are aware that asset managers have divested from companies specifically because of their direct involvement, usually associated with owning assets or a business physically located in those territories.

“In this case, we think that Puma’s sponsorship of the Israeli Football team, while controversial, does not, in itself, render it ineligible for inclusion is this fund based on violations of human rights.”

Puma said: “Puma does not support football teams in settlements nor does its Israeli distributor have branches in settlements. Puma’s local distribution partner supplies the Israeli National Teams with Puma branded football equipment to compete in international competitions. Puma’s local distribution partner does also not have any operations or branches in settlements. 

Puma stressed it does not have any other connection, or association with any other Israeli football club team, neither in mainland Israel nor in settlements.

The company says the six football clubs – Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, Bikat HaYarden, Kiryat Arba, Givaat Zeev and Oranit – which play in different leagues of the IFA and are based in the West Bank, are not equipped with Puma products, but by other sports brands. 

The sports firm added: “Puma continues to support and outfit athletes from all backgrounds, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation and national origin. As a brand concerned only with the power that Sport has to bring people together, Puma does not support any political direction, political parties or governments. We welcome the opportunity to help everyone compete in sports no matter who they are or where they are from.”

We are aware that human rights violations do occur in the disputed territories and are aware that asset managers have divested from companies specifically because of their direct involvement, usually associated with owning assets or a business physically located in those territories.

St Andrew’s University

The Ferret asked Abertay University if had any concerns over its investments, given Amnesty’s statement on Airbnb. A spokesperson said: “Abertay University’s investment portfolio is managed by an external provider and the university does not have sight of specific investments undertaken by outside companies.

“The university operates a sustainable and ethical investment policy which excludes investment in companies or industries such as weapons, tobacco, alcohol, gambling and adult entertainment.”

Strathclyde University did not reply to our request for a comment. Airbnb, Barclays and Morgan Stanley did not respond to our emails or phone calls. Goldman Sachs declined to comment but a statement in its website says the firm “takes seriously its responsibility to help protect, preserve and promote human rights around the world”.

Barclays says on its website that as a global business, it has a “clear responsibility to support governments and civil society groups in respecting and upholding human rights”.

Morgan Stanley says it is “committed to being a responsible corporate citizen, respecting human rights and supporting the protection and advancement of human rights”.

Airbnb says: “At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and that every community is a place where you can belong. I sincerely believe that [discrimination] is the greatest challenge we face as a company. It cuts to the core of who we are and the values that we stand for.”

Strathclyde University’s responsible investment strategy is to “consider a range of environmental, social and governance issues” to inform any changes to its investment portfolio.

Two weeks ago The Ferret revealed that Scots universities signed up to a COP26 green network of academic institutions committed to tackling climate change have shares worth nearly £5.2 million in fossil fuel firms and arms companies.

An investigation ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, aka COP26, found that both Glasgow and Strathclyde universities invest in Royal Dutch Shell and BP. Glasgow University also invests in Halliburton, a US firm which operates in the oil and fracking sectors.

This story was published in co-production with the Sunday National.

Cover image thanks to iStock/rrodrickbeiler.

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