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The Business behind Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT): a Case Study of the Surveillance Industry

Author: Laura Caramignoli (2021)

Laura Caramignoli holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This in Focus article is an excerpt from her master thesis, discussed in March 2021, under the supervision of Prof. Pietro De Perini.


What the worldwide practice has revealed is a deeper and deeper involvement of businesses, in particular corporations, in conflicts. Globalisation has offered companies new opportunities to exploit, including the unstable environment typical of conflict-affected areas, but at the same time has resulted in governance gaps that allow them to commit abuses without being punished. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not an exception. Thus, Israeli occupation and its most concrete manifestation, the settlements, have become profitable for Israeli and foreign corporations at the expense of Palestinians’ deprivation of basic rights. By operating in those territories, companies have been increasingly commodifying Palestinians’ sufferings and have become complicit in Israel’s breaches of international law. Thus, the contribution of businesses to the maintenance and growth of Israel’s unlawful settlement enterprise is well recognised and documented up to now and is so widespread to become a matter of international concern.

Throughout the years, Israeli settlements have increasingly become synonyms of Palestinian human rights violations. These neighbourhoods - designed to be purely Jewish and located in the most strategic areas of historical Palestine - are one of the main reasons behind the long-standing nature of the occupation. Thus, they create facts on the grounds, obstacles difficult to reverse. These areas delineate the physical boundaries of the biggest ‘mega prison’, where Palestinians are its inmates and where their conditions are marked by houses demolished and lands stolen, unequal access to justice and legal protection, restrictions of movement, and daily deaths and injuries. As stated by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights in its 2019 Report on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), all these abuses amount to human rights violations and create a coercive environment, so unbearable to force Palestinians to leave their land. As a result, the Israeli neighbourhoods are acquiring more and more space, and an increasing number of Israelis are settling in an occupied territory – considered as a war crime under the Rome Statute. In turn, the expansion of Israel has developed in such a way to encrypt Palestinians in Bantustan, an archipelago of small, disconnected and overcrowded islands.

Video: The evolution of land grabbing in Palestine (by Conquer and Divide, a Joint Project of B’Tselem and Forensic Architecture).

Israeli settlements in the OPT have been not only a way to prevent the consolidation of a Palestinian state, but they have turned out to be an attractive recipient of foreign investments. The proliferation of companies in these territories is not accidental, but it is related to the nexus between the occupation and economy, well explained by the pioneering neo-settler colonialism paradigm. According to this lens, the framing of the Israeli occupation as a settler-colonial project – well adopted in academia – interconnects with the logic of Israel’s neoliberalism, by strengthening in this way the already existing dominance over Palestinians with the settlement enterprise. If the premises of decolonisation and of a slowdown in the settlements’ expansion – undertaken during the Oslo Accords – were crucial for Israel to be integrated in the global economy, now the settlements are needed to compensate the Jewish ‘losers’ of neoliberalism and to obtain more international investments. As explained by Clarno – who explored the political-economic aspects of the Israeli settler-colonial regime, ‘settlement construction creates tremendous opportunities for capital accumulation due to free land, low-wage construction workers from nearby villages, inexpensive stones and cement from West Bank quarries, and export-oriented agricultural and industrial zones that exploit Palestinian and migrant workers.’ In short, this market-based strategy of colonisation has enabled Palestinians to become disposable and Israeli settlements to attract a strong business presence.

According to the figures published by Human Rights Watch, Israel has 20 industrial zones that amount to 1,365 hectares in the West Bank under its administration. Israeli settlers have at their disposal agricultural land covering 9,300 hectares, and settlement businesses own 187 shopping centres inside the settlements as well as 11 quarries. Within this context, the incentives provided by Israeli administrations and the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labour are all factors that induce businesses to invest there and to benefit from the discriminatory policies in place in the OPT. Nevertheless, the resulting competitive advantage implies non-trivial human rights costs. In short, their physical presence on the territory has implied the unlawful confiscations and demolitions of Palestinian properties; the consequent disproportionate diversion of economic opportunities has led to a deterioration of the Palestinian economy; the job opportunities they have provided to settlers and the taxes they have paid to settlements’ councils have helped maintaining the settlement enterprise; their use of Palestinian cheap labour force has worsened the social protection of workers; by taking advantage of less rigorous environmental standards, businesses are contributing in making the West Bank a sacrifice zone, irrevocably impaired by environmental damage or economic neglect.

Video: Businesses Help Fuel Abuses in Israeli Settlements (by Human Rights Watch).

The companies’ capability to harm has never been under discussion, contrary to the extent of their international legal obligations. The illegality of Israel’s settlements under international law is on its way to reaching an international consensus, and so is the responsibility of businesses for their unlawful involvement under international standards. Thus, international humanitarian law prohibits the commission of war crimes that include unlawful acts like transfer and pillage, and since this corpus of norms applies to all the actors whose activities are linked to the conflict, companies cannot be excluded as legal subjects. The human rights framework is clearer in considering businesses as human rights duty-bearers. Specifically, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights advance the concept of human rights due diligence also in conflict-affected areas. Furthermore, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises boost the obligations of the home states, and establish the National Contact Points (NCPs) as non-judicial tools for implementing the access to remedies.

Therefore, when considering the concerning scale of business abuses in the OPT, it becomes crucial to evaluate how this positive trend in developing a normative framework for companies has been translated into concrete accountability. Accountability is a broad concept, which entails not only legal liability but also all the actions aimed at making perpetrators answerable for their misconducts, such as loss of reputation, denial of access to foreign markets, and shareholders dissent. Business accountability for their illicit involvement in the OPT is still a journey that is not complete. Still, several solutions have been undertaken at the international, state and civil society levels. For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released in 2020 a Database listing all companies with activities linked to Israeli settlements. This tool has proven to be valid to break the UN impasse on all questions related to Israel/Palestine, and to enhance transparency and accountability as an authoritative source. Even if it does not provide a comprehensive list and does not include legal implications, more efforts are required to update the database annually, and if effective, to extend it to other illicit situations around the world. At the state level, ensuring extraterritoriality is the key when a country like Israel is unwilling to cooperate. In this regard, non-judicial mechanisms like the NCPs and judicial tools like criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits are included in their cases businesses involved in the Israeli occupation. Although they rarely result in verdicts, in light of their financial, commercial and reputational impacts, these tools need to be further strengthened.

Video: A brief explanation of the National Contact Points (by OECD Responsible Business Conduct).

Analysing the surveillance industry could be an interesting way to explain the business involvement in Israeli settlements and the solutions to enhance their accountability, especially due to its significant role in Israeli politics and economy. By exploiting the continued state of war with Palestinians, Israel has been developing sophisticated surveillance technologies, tested on the Palestinian civil population and eventually sold to other governments around the world. Thus, the surveillance industry appears to be a key player in the Israeli neo-settler colonialism, since it is the perfect tool for Israel to strengthen ties with other countries, to attract foreign investments, and to maintain the regime of control implemented against Palestinians. An excessive control that does not only affect the right to privacy but also implies other collateral damage, just as dangerous. Phone and internet monitoring and interception, CCTV, voice and facial recognition, recording of telephone conversations, are all tools used in the OPT to enhance discrimination, profiling of people, arbitrary arrests and limitations of the freedom of expression and association.

Businesses and the Israeli government are collaborating to get as many profits as possible out of this sublime practice of surveilling Palestinians. Therefore, the proliferation of cross-investments and ownership between the surveillance industries in Israel and the U.S. has been supported to strengthen their long-lasting political and economic relationship. With this regard, the case of the multinational leader in communication and electronics Motorola Solutions Ltd and its Israeli subsidiary falls perfectly within this category. These two entities have thus been listed within the UN Database for supplying surveillance and identification equipment for settlements. Specifically, the supply of their MotoEagle Wide Area Surveillance System to several settlements have eventually resulted in the reinforcement of settlements’ infrastructure and the dispossession and restriction of movement of Palestinians. Furthermore, the companies’ attempt to hide their involvement and their listing within the UN Database has suggested additional violations related to the human rights due diligence requirement to mitigate possible adverse impacts.

Figure: Motorola radar detectors (Bracha Settlement, Apr 2011, Photographed by Dror, from Who Profits)

As in the case of Motorola, the companies operating in the surveillance sector are often recipients of Israel and U.S. benefits. For instance, the joint project of Motorola Solutions Israel and Eclipse Identity Recognition Corporation on the development of distributed enhanced video analyses has been granted funding by the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD). Home states and host states should refrain from supporting businesses involved in international law violations. On the contrary, Israel is actually encouraging the presence of surveillance companies in the settlements by granting benefits and funding, and sponsoring their products abroad. Concerning the implementation of effective legislation and enforcement measures, Israel is not making available enough data to deduce comprehensive, organic, and clear provisions and judicial mechanisms for business and human rights, and is not willing to prosecute companies involved in Palestinian human rights violations. On the other hand, the United States is actually taking a side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by advancing initiatives in the business and human rights field marked by incoherency. As an example, even if the U.S. NCP is the second NCP most utilised in the world, this body has never dealt with U.S. companies involved in Israeli settlements. The same modus operandi has occurred in relation to domestic accountability. Thus, although instruments that allow the prosecution of illicit corporate acts committed overseas exist, when it comes to Israel, the cases are discharged on the basis of the political question doctrine. As a result, Israel and the United States clearly fail in meeting their potential as host and home countries by favouring politics.

Reasoning motivated by political interests is, in fact, affecting generally viable pacific resolutions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, in particular, possible solutions to make businesses accountable for profiting from that dramatic situation. It is unlikely that ensuring corporate accountability will lead to a pacific resolution of this long-standing conflict, but it definitely would be a start. However, the reality on the ground suggests that Israel’s relations with Palestinians are still marked by the former uncompromising attitude towards any kind of retreat and by the Iron Wall policy – in other terms, the resort to force in order to achieve a strong power position. Since Israel already achieved that desired position, the fact that this policy is still ongoing means that its final aim to live in peace as good neighbours has been betrayed. Therefore, it is urgently needed the development of a strong solidarity movement that will lead Israel to leave all those advantages arising from its supremacy position in the name of fairness, peace, and humanity. No political excuses are allowed.

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