World

UN releases long-delayed list of companies operating in Israel's West Bank settlements

After repeated delays, the UN human rights office has released a list of more than 100 companies it says are operating in Israel's West Bank settlements — a first ever attempt to name and shame businesses that has drawn fierce criticism from Israel and the U.S.

List includes non-Israeli companies Motorola, General Mills, Expedia, Airbnb

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yeriho seen from the air. The UN Human Rights Council released a list of more than 100 companies it says are operating in Israel's West Bank settlements and whose activities 'raised particular human rights concerns.' (Oded Balilty/The Associated Press)

After repeated delays, the UN human rights office on Wednesday released a list of more than 100 companies it said are complicit in violating Palestinian human rights by operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The list, the first ever attempt by the UN to name and shame businesses contributing to settlement activity, included a number of well known names, among them Airbnb, Motorola and General Mills. Coming just weeks after the publication of a U.S. Mideast initiative, its publication was swiftly condemned by Israel and hailed by the Palestinians.

The Human Rights Council in 2016 instructed the UN's human rights office to create a "database" of companies deemed to be linked to or supportive of the settlements, which are considered illegal by the vast majority of the international community.

Beginning with a potential list of over 300 companies, it narrowed the list down to 112 businesses involved in areas such as settlement construction, security equipment and services, equipment used to demolish Palestinian property and banking and financial services.

"The fact-finding mission set out a list of activities that raised particular human rights concerns," said Wednesday's report.

The report does not have any concrete impact on the companies that were singled out. Instead, it is largely symbolic, appearing to be aimed at drawing negative attention to their activities in the settlements.

The vast majority of the companies are Israeli, including banks and construction firms. But there are a number of international companies, including travel companies like Airbnb, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Opodo. Many offer vacation rentals in the settlements.

Other names include consumer food maker General Mills, tech and communications giants Motorola and Altice Europe, and infrastructure companies like France's Egis Rail and Alstom, and British company JC Bamford Excavators.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called the publication of the list a "shameful surrender" to countries and organizations that want to hurt Israel. He accused the council of assisting a global anti-Israel boycott movement.

"The state of Israel will not accept discriminatory and anti-Israel policies, and we will work in every possible way to prevent such decisions from being carried out," he said.

Focused on Israel

Israel and the United States regularly accuse the council of anti-Israel bias, and the Trump administration withdrew the United States in 2018 — faulting the UN for accepting autocratic governments that the administration said have repeatedly violated human rights.

Countries like Libya, Venezuela and Somalia are currently among member states, and China's term finished at the end of 2019. The overwhelming majority of resolutions passed by the council has focused on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, and Israel is the only country in the world whose policies automatically face scrutiny at every council session.

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Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki hailed the list as a "victory for international law and for the diplomatic effort to dry up the sources of the colonial system represented by illegal settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory."

The list was released just two weeks after the U.S. announced its long-awaited Mideast initiative.

The international community considers Israel's more than 100 West Bank settlements to be illegally built on occupied territory. With wide international backing, the Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967, as part of a future independent state.

But in a departure from his predecessors, President Donald Trump, whose key Mideast advisers are strong settlement supporters, has taken a more lenient approach toward the settlements.

His Mideast plan calls for allowing Israel to keep all of its settlements, and following its publication, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex the settlements and large chunks of the West Bank. Under American pressure, he later put his annexation plan on hold until after March 2 elections.

Never before

The Palestinians have rejected Trump's plan, and other countries have expressed little support for it while remaining opposed to the settlements.

The rights council, which is made up of 47 governments, had never before requested such a list scrutinizing corporate activities.

The release of the report — a politically fraught document that could cast a shadow over firms doing business in Palestinian areas — has been repeatedly delayed.

Human Rights Watch applauded the report, calling on the rights council — the UN's top human rights body — to update it regularly to help companies comply with international law.

"The long awaited release of the UN settlement business database should put all companies on notice: to do business with illegal settlements is to aid in the commission of war crimes," said Bruno Stagno, HRW's deputy executive director for advocacy. "The database marks critical progress in the global effort to ensure businesses end complicity in rights abuse and respect international law."

'Defamatory'

The report's authors called on the council to set up "a group of independent experts" to update the database each year. The report said its authors had communicated directly with the companies to allow them to defend themselves or say whether they had changed their operations in the settlements.

NGO Monitor, an Israeli group that is highly critical of the rights council, called the list "defamatory" and an endorsement of the anti-Israel boycott movement.

Anne Herzberg, the group's legal adviser, called on countries to "reassess their relationships" with the rights office and urged the "maligned companies" to consider legal action against UN officials who prepared the list.

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