Fact check: does Durham invest in companies “complicit” in Israeli actions in Palestine?

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Social media posts alleging that Durham University invests in companies connected with Israeli actions in Palestine are based on outdated and partially incorrect information, a Palatinate investigation has found.

Quoted figures from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PCS) suggest that the University has investments worth £2.6m in four companies – HSBC, AXA, Booking.com, and Microsoft – which PSC describes as “complicit in Israeli violations of international law”. The figure is outdated and misleading.

Three of the four companies mentioned are allegedly connected with the ongoing conflict because they themselves invest in companies which are directly or indirectly involved, with the fourth being itself directly involved.

Durham University’s investments are privately managed by an external company. The University’s Ethical Investment Policy states that “the University will adopt investment strategies that seek to minimise and ideally eliminate irresponsible corporate behaviour”. Among the issues the Investment Policy focuses on are human rights violations, discrimination against protected characteristics, and armaments sales to military regimes.

Durham University also previously had an exchange programme with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it funds significant scholarships for Palestinian students to study at Durham.

Meanwhile, the PSC has been subject to allegations of antisemitism. In a 2017 report, it was alleged that Jew-hatred was “present consistently” in local branch meetings of the group, and cases of Holocaust denial were reported.

The University’s investments

The exact figure of £2,577,050 worth of investments given on the PSC’s website is from February 2020, and is likely to have since changed. The given figure is the total sum of the value of the University’s shares and bonds in those four companies, which is not the same as the money the University spent on those shares.

The book cost (cost of purchase) for the AXA bond totalled £127,621, while the book costs of the shares for HSBC, Booking.com and Microsoft are £1,174,148, £108,275, and £842,513 respectively. Including Microsoft, that gives a sum total spent by the University on holdings and bonds in these companies as £2,252,557.

PSC claims that HSBC invests and provides financial services to companies which arm Israel. In 2017, HSBC owned shares in BAE Systems, Caterpillar, and other companies which supply the Israeli army. It is unclear whether HSBC still has those investments: for example, HSBC divested from weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems in 2019 after public scrutiny.

PSC claims that Microsoft invests in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition company whose products have been used by Israel at military checkpoints in the West Bank and for surveillance of the Palestinian population there. It is true that Microsoft used to own shares in that company, but the company faced scrutiny as a result of its investment and sold its stake. As of March 2020, Microsoft no longer owns shares in AnyVision, so the University’s Microsoft shares are not currently relevant in the PSC’s claims.

PSC alleges that AXA invests in Israel’s major banks and largest private arms manufacturer, all of which are alleged by PSC to be “directly involved in Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian people”. AXA, as of July 2019, held equities in five Israeli banks, all of which are on the UN’s 2020 list of companies active in ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’. These banks, according to the UN, are involved in “helping to develop, expand or maintain settlements and their activities”.

Booking.com is itself directly involved, indicated by its presence on the UN list of businesses active in Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Exchange and Palestine Educational Trust

In terms of Durham’s exchange programme for Theology students with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Palatinate can confirm that Durham does not run exchange programmes with this University at present, so that information is outdated.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem itself is deemed “complicit” by PSC for two reasons. Firstly, some of its campus is on land in East Jerusalem allegedly confiscated from Palestinians in 1968. Secondly, it has close links with the Israeli armed forces, running a programme for advanced students who study at the University for three years before working in research and development within the armed forces. Moreover, the chairman of the largest privately-owned armaments manufacturer in Israel is honorary chairman of the Hebrew University’s board of governors. Palatinate can validate the claims about the chairman and about the University’s links to the armed forces.

Separately, the Durham University Palestine Educational Trust exists to “contribute to the social, economic and political development of Palestine through scholarships for Palestinians to study at Durham University”. Tuition fee scholarships are given to selected students and are worth an average of £16,000, paid for by the University. These are for graduates of Palestinian universities and predominantly used by students on Masters’ courses. Scholarships for two students are funded per year. Students’ travel and maintenance costs of roughly £13,000 per year are covered by the Trust’s own fundraising and contributions from members.

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