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HSBC's retreat from Elbit is a victory for people power

GIANT bank HSBC’s decision to stop investing in weapons firm Elbit Systems is a testament to the power of protest.

Elbit is, like most weapons manufacturers, an unpleasant outfit. 

All arms companies rely on war to keep their coffers overflowing, and in the cold light of the profit motive Elbit is no doubt onto a winner by marketing its wares as “battle-tested” because they have been used against Palestinian victims of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. 

The ongoing colonisation of Palestine has turned that country into a useful laboratory for the merchants of death. If we are to prevent this lethal “testing,” we need to make equipping the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) more trouble than it’s worth.

The campaign to get HSBC to divest from Elbit was determined, patient and well organised. More than 20,000 people wrote to the bank, while monthly protests were held outside more than 40 branches. 

Questions were put to its AGM, where protesters also put pressure on politicians by pointing out that Elbit had been named by Israeli newspaper Haaretz as producing cannon for firing cluster munitions — banned by international treaty. Israel may have refused to sign the treaty, but Britain is a signatory, and campaigners are right to demand that our government take its responsibilities seriously when British firms are assisting the production or trade of weapons it holds to be illegal or when companies guilty of such activities seek to market their products on our territory.

The mammoth effort involved co-ordination between War on Want, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (Caat).

The campaign will continue — HSBC continues to invest in and lend to other companies equally complicit in the dispossession of the Palestinian people. But this marks a significant victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and it could hardly be more timely.

Israel has been emboldened by an uncritical ally in the White House who enjoys the controversy involved in tearing up international treaties and abrogating long-held commitments. 

Many of those commitments were hollow and hypocritical in the mouths of his predecessors, none more so than the lip service paid to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine by a United States that provided the financial, military and diplomatic support that Tel Aviv needed to keep stealing land and ignoring all pressure to negotiate. 

Even so, the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the IDF’s cold-blooded massacre of scores of unarmed Palestinian protesters over the course of 2018 as they participated in the Great Return March demonstrations and Israel’s decision to resume its bombing of Syria on Christmas Day point to a dangerous sense of impunity.

The BDS campaign can give the warmongers a rude awakening as to the limits on their power. That’s exactly why the Conservatives sought to ban it, interfering in local authorities’ investment decisions by declaring that they were not allowed to pursue BDS against any country or company unless it was to enforce government-approved sanctions, rather than adopting investment “policies that are contrary to UK foreign policy.”

A PSC challenge to the ban was initially successful, but the government got its way in June at the Court of Appeal. 

Our answer to that should be exactly what PSC, War and Want and Caat have managed over HSBC — an escalation of the BDS movement. 

Britain is not going to get an ethical foreign or trade policy until Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is in power; but if we can get things moving in the meantime it will be far easier for Labour to act.

Besides, it isn’t just Israel that acts with impunity. Banks, ministers and even councils are accustomed to doing what they please regardless of what we think. Every occasion when we force them to stop and listen through people power is a win for our democracy.

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