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British universities invest £450m in companies complicit in Israeli crimes: Report

Research from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign suggests more than 100 universities have funds involved
Several universities invest in some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, including BAE Systems which sponsors UCL's Centre for Ethics and Law (AFP)

More than 100 British universities have over £454m (about $600m) invested in companies complicit in Israeli violations of international law, research from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has claimed, revelations that have angered pro-Palestinian activists. 

At the end of last year, the PSC unveiled a publicly accessible database listing 117 of the UK’s 151 universities with investments in companies that the group deems complicit in Israeli war crimes against Palestinians. 

For the PSC, those companies help sustain “Israel’s system of institutionalised racist discrimination, amounting to the crime of apartheid… [through] weapons, technology and other support it receives from companies around the world.”

The campaign began when Huda Ammori, the PSC’s campaigns officer, set up a chapter of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the University of Manchester in her student days.

At the time, she suspected many universities as well as her own were involved in such practices. That spurred her to begin collecting information for PSC’s database. 

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“For me it was an outrage, as any student, especially as a Palestinian student, who has to pay tuition fees towards institutions that are investing in companies enabling these abuses,” Ammori told Middle East Eye.

“But I knew that it wasn’t just the University of Manchester, and this would probably be something that’s happening across UK institutions.”

Visual surveillance in Jerusalem

The PSC sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 151 British universities asking for their direct and indirect investments and the value of those investments.
Of the universities, 53 refused to hand over information, 42 used the public interest exemption for the Freedom of Information Act and 11 did not respond.

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In order to determine an estimated number of investments for universities that did not provide information, PSC used the data from universities that did supply their details and calculated an average percentage of investments in complicit companies.

The PSC notes that universities in the UK invest in a range of companies that supply Israel’s military with weapons and help construct Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.  

The University of Oxford is the highest offender, with an estimated £130,447,800 of investments in complicit companies.

A number of institutions are invested in Cisco Systems, such as Imperial College London, which has £2,995,670 in investments in the company.

Cisco has set up technological hubs in the West Bank, Naqab (Negev) and occupied Syrian Golan, expanded visual surveillance in Jerusalem, and provides information technology to the Israeli military.

'Ethical investment policy'

Several universities invest in some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, including Boeing, Airbus and BAE Systems - all of which supply weapons and aircraft to the Israeli military.

University College London, which has £2,901,978 in complicit investments, ironically has BAE Systems sponsoring their Centre for Ethics and Law.

The University of Manchester has £734,000 in investments in Caterpillar, a company providing the Israeli military with the D9 bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes, schools and communities.  

Despite this, Manchester is one of nearly 90 British universities who say they conduct an “ethical investment policy”.  

“As a university, we work closely with our investment managers to ensure our portfolio complies with our published Socially Responsible Investment Policy and considers environmental, social and governance issues, as well as financial factors,” a University of Manchester spokesperson told MEE. 

Students take action

The database’s publication sparked outrage among students.

Ammori said more than 20 student-run Palestine solidarity groups are now using the database in their campaigns.

At campuses without active Palestinian societies, like the University of St Andrews, students are reaching out to the PSC about how they can take action.

When the PSC published its database, it also sent out letters to the universities with the information collected. 

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It also sent the universities a pledge to sign, which would see the institutions affirming they will commit to principles of anti-discrimination and anti-racism.

The PSC is urging students to get their universities to sign the pledge, which includes promising to sever ties with companies complicit in Israeli crimes and abuses against Palestinians.

“A university is nothing without students,” Ammori said. 

“And the database is for the students, and the university community, to hold their institutions to account on these investments linking to human rights abuses, because by default they are making students complicit in this as well.”

The Aberdeen University Palestine Society met with the vice principal of education and the director of finance on 13 December.

Thanks to that meeting, the director of finance committed to urging Northern Trust – one of the pooled funds the University of Aberdeen invests in – to divest from complicit firms. 

The university is expected to give the Aberdeen University Palestine Society an update this month.

“Our goal is for the university to pressure the fund to divest, and if they won’t, then for the university to divest from the fund since these investments are against our university’s sustainable investment policy and are complicit in breaking international law,” Alba Utrera Roman, president of the Aberdeen University Palestine Society, said.

“There’s still a long way to go but this was an important first step in our divestment campaign.”

Divesting investments

According to the PSC, the University of Exeter has £2,328,707 in investments in complicit companies, and a partnership with QinetiQ, which provided testing services for the British Army Watchkeeper WK450 drone, a model based on Israeli crafts used in military assaults on Gaza.

However, Colter Louwerse, Exeter Friends of Palestine’s publicity officer, believes the PSC “massively overshoots” the true amount of investment, saying the estimation is skewed by the rejection of the PSC’s FOI request.

Moreover, Louwerse notes there had been a reduction in these investments because the university recently moved its funds from being managed by JPMorgan Chase to Rathbone Greenbank Investments, a firm dedicated to ethical and sustainable investments.

“That’s not just the product of activism having to do with Palestine, it’s also the product of activism on climate change because there’s been a strong movement on campus to get the university to divest from fossil fuels,” Louwerse said of the university’s decision.

Given the University of Exeter’s investments are no longer deeply embedded with these complicit companies, Exeter Friends of Palestine is now focusing their activism on QinetiQ’s presence on campus.

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“These companies that the University of Exeter may not be investing in are nevertheless providing research funding for projects that are connected to security systems, weapons manufacturing and all those things,” Louwerse said.

“So this research is being done on our campus and then being repurposed by these companies to be sold for use in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

The University of Sheffield Palestine Society plans to mimic this tactic, by targeting its university’s research centre collaborations with complicit firms.

The main goal is to inform students, especially those working at the research centre, about the university’s connections to these companies.

“Even if we don’t accomplish something big like divesting from companies, we are still very satisfied with raising awareness and making sure as many students know about our university’s unethical cooperation and investments,” Yazan Khader, president of the University of Sheffield Palestine Society, said.

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