Norwegian Insurance Giant Divests From Multinational Firms Operating in West Bank Settlements

Companies excluded for exploiting resources in occupied territory, KLP says, in unusual 'tertiary' boycott; meanwhile, Orange CEO meets Netanyahu, apologizes for 'misunderstanding.'

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A truck receives a load of cement at the Cemex SAB plant in Monterrey, Mexico, on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.
A truck receives a load of cement at the Cemex SAB plant in Monterrey, Mexico, on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Norwegian insurance giant KLP Kapitalforvaltning has excluded two multinational building material companies from its investment portfolio because of their operations in the West Bank.

“KLP is excluding Heidelberg Cement and Cemex on the grounds of their exploitation of natural resources in occupied territory on the West Bank,” the company announced Thursday. “In KLP’s opinion this activity constitutes an unacceptable risk of violating fundamental ethical norms.”

KLP divested of its shares in these companies effective June 1, citing international law as set in the Hague and Geneva conventions. The Norwegian firm insures all municipal workers in the Scandinavian nation and holds 35 billion dollars worth of assets.

The decision is relatively unusual for divesting from companies operating in the West Bank because it constitutes a tertiary boycott – not on acquiring a product made in the West Bank or from an Israeli company producing it but rather a multinational company involved in a financial relationship with an Israeli company operating over the Green Line.

Both Heidelberg Cement, a German company, and Cemex, a Mexican firm, acquired smaller companies with Israeli subsidiaries operating quarries in parts of the West Bank known as Area C, under complete Israeli civilian and military control as defined by the Oslo accords.

Earlier this month, KLP wrote that “no such agreement can override the rules relating to occupation set out in the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Heidelberg, one of the biggest construction material companies in the world, operating in over 40 countries bought British firm Hanson, which in turn owns Hanson Quarry Products Israel. Cemex, a Mexican company supplying construction materials to over 50 countries acquired in 2005 RMC Group, owner of Readymix Industries Israel.

“From the perspective of international law, an assessment of this case has proved more difficult than similar assessments with respect to Western Sahara,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investment at KLP, about its divestment from Heidelberg and Cemex. “Nevertheless, the international legal principle that occupation should be temporary has carried the most weight. New exploitation of natural resources in occupied territory offers a strong incentive to prolong a conflict.”

The United Nations has condemned Israel for “depleting natural resources” from the West Bank. KLP noted that the subsidiaries of Heidelberg and Cemex “pay license fees and royalties to the state of Israel,” and that the “products deriving from the quarries are sold primarily for use in Israel’s domestic construction market.”

The move is part of KLP’s half-yearly review of companies in its portfolio. KLP announced that it was excluding, effective June, eight other companies – five because of their income from coal-based operations, one for corruption, one for severe environmental damage and one for production of tobacco.

KLP said was in contact with the two companies and asked for clarifications about their West Bank operations. Heidelberg confirmed that one of its subsidiaries operated quarries in the West Bank and was aware of the criticism about this operation. The company stressed that it had no intention to stop operating in the West Bank and remarked that although Israel controlled the quarries, most of the workers in them were Palestinians.

Cemex asserted that most of the workers at its West Bank quarry were Palestinians, and that they received the same conditions as their Israeli colleagues. Cemex also asserted that its operation in the West Bank was legal because the Oslo Accords allow Israel to maintain full control of Area C pending a permanent settlement.

KLP rejected these arguments.

“KLP considers that the ethical arguments carry the heaviest weight in this case,” the company announced. “The extraction of non-renewable resources in occupied territory may weaken the future income potential of the local population, including the Palestinian residents. Moreover, when this is undertaken in a way that is difficult to justify within the requirements of the law of belligerent occupation, KLP considers that this activity represents an unacceptable risk of violating fundamental ethical norms."

Orange apologizes

Meanwhile, the CEO of Orange met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to clarify his company's position on Friday, after he made a controversial comment last week that he would drop his company’s relationship with an Israeli firm “tomorrow” if he could.

The comment caused an international storm.

Netanyahu met with Richard, who arrived in Israel on Thursday to smoothen relations and apologize for his remarks, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. The prime minister said at the opening of the meeting with Richard that many understood the latter’s comments as an attack on Israel.

“Your visit here is an opportunity to set the record straight,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is the one country in the Middle East that guarantees full civic rights, the one country in the Middle East where everyone is protected under the law equally.

“We seek a genuine and secure peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but that can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions. It will not be achieved through boycotts and through threats of boycotts.”

Richard responded that his statements had been misunderstood, and that he regretted the controversy that was created.

“I regret deeply this controversy, and I want to make totally clear that Orange as a company has never supported and will never support any kind of boycott against Israel,” Mr. Richard told Mr. Netanyahu. “We are doing

We are doing business. We are doing communication. We are here to connect people, certainly not to participate in any kind of boycott.”

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