Hackney campaigners call for divestment from Israel
“We are waiting for that victory,” Sussan Rassoulie, Core Secretary of Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), told The New Arab.
One month has passed since Hackney PSC handed over a petition - with over 58,000 signatures - to Hackney Council calling for their Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) to divest in companies deemed “complicit” with Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Thirty days later, no promises for divestment have been offered by the north London council; a council that celebrates its diversity and efforts towards inclusivity, composed of multiple ethnicities, languages and religions.
This dispute is nothing new to campaigners in Hackney and across the country. Numerous pro-Palestine activists have challenged councils over allegations of complicity with Palestinian oppression.
However, in the wake of the 11-day bombing of Gaza, in which at least 234 Palestinians, including 66 children were killed, campaigners who spoke with The New Arab believe the dynamic of this dispute has changed: the movement is gaining more support than ever before and assuming a new sense of urgency and relevance.
Things “went crazy” after the bombing in May, said Rassoulie. “We went virtual. We don’t want to stop,” she said.
FACT BOX: What are Local Government Pensions Schemes (LGPSs)?
Local Government Pensions Schemes are pots paid for by employers, such as the government, used to fund people's pensions
While pensions schemes must adhere to national regulations, around 87 local authorities are charged with administering the money, using any leftover funds to invest in companies that will yield a financial return
UK pension funds have a combined asset value of approximately £6 trillion
LGPSs accused of investing in Israeli occupation
The UK government has a “clear position” on Palestinian sovereignty, says its website. “The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
However, pro-Palestinian campaigners in the UK have challenged the clarity of this position, accusing local governments of investing in companies that facilitate illegal occupation via pension schemes. As such, they are charged with perpetuating the ill-treatment of Palestinians deemed a “crime against humanity of apartheid and persecution,” by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
LGPSs invest over £4.4 billion in companies supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, according to the PSC’s latest data.
“A company is complicit with Israeli occupation when there is credible and rigorous evidence that they: supply weapons, tech and equipment to the Israeli military, they provide infrastructure used as part of Israel’s illegal occupation or they are active in or with Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land,” PSC communications officer Lewis Backon told The New Arab.
Many of the businesses considered “complicit” with Israel’s occupation by the PSC have also been named and criticised by the UN Human Rights Council, added Backon.
PSC’s research found that 48 pension funds, over 85 percent of the funds analysed, invested in companies on the UN’s list of 112 businesses that are deemed active in Israel’s illegal settlements.
Elbit, one of Israel’s largest arms manufacturers with a number of factories in the UK, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are used to destroy Palestinian homes, are two businesses slammed as “complicit” by PSC.
Both businesses have been targeted by pro-Palestine campaigners routinely; with groups such as Palestine Action storming the factories of Elbit in an effort to shut down their activities and the Church of England choosing to divest in Caterpillar in 2006 following lobbying efforts from Christian groups.
Both companies receive investment from Hackney Council, a.k.a Hackney residents, according to Hackney PSC.
The New Arab reached out to both companies for comment but they did not respond.
Varying degrees of success
Last year, the UK Supreme Court overturned a ruling that obstructed local governments from divesting in companies for ethical reasons if this conflicted with the national foreign and defence policy.
While this ruling was hailed as a victory for pro-Palestinian campaigners, subsequent successes following the verdict have been sporadic and calls for divestment are often met with hesitancy and resistance.
“[Hackey] council are completely against” the idea of divestment, Rassoulie told The New Arab.
The council is accused of investing £28 million of its pension fund in at least 39 companies involved in the illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories, according to Hackney PSC.
However, “Hackney Council has refused to engage with us to discuss this issues,” said Rassoulie. “Their response to our many letters, emails and questions at the full council meeting and at Mayors Question Time has been completely unsatisfactory.”
At a question time with the Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville in May, Rassoulie expressed concerns about the pension scheme’s investments via Zoom call. The Mayor’s response emphasised that the investment was indirect and that the council’s priority was the financial security of pensioners, not Palestinians.
Glanville said businesses with connections to Israel’s occupation were “complex large companies” and warned about “politicising something that’s about pensioners and future pensioners”.
“I know this is a big issue for Hackney residents. I know that whenever there is loss of life in the Middle East, especially in Israel and Palestine, we are a campaigning borough, people feel that hurt on both sides,” said Glanville.
Rassoulie thinks the council’s arguments are “flawed”.
She explained that investing in companies deemed “complicit” with Israel’s occupation is first, a risky investment - which nullifies the monetary argument that the investments should continue because they provide security for pensioners. Secondly, she argued that their indirect nature does not negate the council’s moral responsibility against international crimes.
After the petition was handed in, the council contacted Hackney PSC requesting more information and for a digitalised version of the petition. They “crunched the numbers”, said Rassoulie, and found that 516 signatures out of the total 58,000 had a valid Hackney address. Rassoulie thinks "there must be loads more" without complete information.
The council will refer the petition to the next subcommittee meeting on the pension fund, according to Rassoulie. But this provides no promises that anything will change.
The New Arab reached out to members of the Hackney council to discuss this issue. The Mayor’s office sent back a link to a statement that had already been posted online in June 2021.
The statement reads: “The Pensions Committee’s primary duty is a financial one - to ensure that the Fund is able to pay pension benefits to its members when they become due.
“The Fund cannot make investment decisions based on moral or political grounds alone.
“In the case of Elbit Systems, the Pension Fund’s stake in this company in December 2020 only amounted to approximately £34,500 - 0.01% of the particular external investment fund that the holding is contained within, that whole investment fund was valued at £344.8 million.”
The New Arab asked for more specific information about divestment decisions and inquired what “a greener and more sustainable portfolio” actually means. TNA waited for ten days and received no response.
Hopes are high for future victories
However, not every campaign group is greeted with the same reaction as Hackney PSC.
There are some examples of divestment from companies deemed “complicit” with Israeli occupation taking place across the UK and abroad.
East Sussex council confirmed in February 2021 that it intends to divest from Elbit.
This is “a victory,” said Laurie Holden to The New Arab, Branch Secretary of Hasting and Rye PSC. But, they would “never admit they did it because of us”.
There are still several companies “complicit” with Israel’s occupation that receive funding from East Sussex LGPS, said Holden. So the campaign is not over. Around £71 million worth of funding is funnelled to illegal settlements and occupation efforts, according to PSC data.
“The chair is forever trying to not deal with this,” Holden said.
However, Holden believed that a “paradigm shift” took place in May. “There has been a huge increase in awareness and a record number of members,” he said.
Hasting and Rye PSC is joining forces with the Brighton and Eastbourne branches to continue lobbying efforts and will contact more “sympathetic” members of the new pensions subcommittee following the May elections.
In June, Lancaster Council voted in favour of divesting around £8 million from companies linked to Israel’s occupation.
In July, Norway’s largest pension fund announced it had divested from 16 companies that operate in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Rassoulie called the development “really interesting”. Backon suspects that a “domino effect” will take place soon.
The Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF) - which Hackney council’s pension fund is an “active member” of - has started to engage with companies on the UN’s list, LAPFF announced.
"The Forum cross-referenced the companies of concern with a UN list of companies raising concerns based on their operations," read a report by the LAPFF published in October/November 2020.
"The first engagements have taken place with three of the seventeen companies approached on this issue. So far, there has been pushback on two fronts from all three companies," the report said.
Bacon said this was evidence that the issue was being taken seriously. He added that divestment was a “concrete step…following the great outpouring of solidarity with Palestine."
“It feels like the dam has broken. The genie is out of the bottle,” said Katy Colley, chair of Hastings and Rye PSC.
Rosie McCabe is a journalist at The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @RosieMcCabe3