Belgian-French bank cornered over Israeli settlement financing

BRUSSELS (IPS) - New evidence has been uncovered to show that Dexia, a major Belgian-French bank, is still financing Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) despite official assurances that such loans have ceased.

Jean-Luc Dehaene, a former Belgian prime minister and now Dexia’s chairman, announced last year that the bank had not approved any new loans to authorities located in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank since June 2008.

This week, however, the Israeli human rights group Who Profits from the Occupation? obtained documents that contradict Dehaene. These papers give details of loans worth a total of more than eight million shekels ($2 million) to the Shomron regional council, which covers 30 Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and to Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements near Bethlehem. All of the loans were authorized by Dexia Israel between April and December 2009.

Earlier this month Who Profits? published details of a separate loan of 6.8 million shekels ($1.8 million) to the local authority in Gush Etzion. Earmarked for a water treatment plant, that loan was issued at the end of May last year — a fortnight after Dehaene’s announcement.

Merav Amir, a Who Profits? spokeswoman, said there is an “obvious discrepancy” between what Dexia Israel has been doing and what Dexia’s executives in its Brussels headquarters have been saying. Some 66 percent of Dexia Israel is owned by its Belgian-French parent company.

“The Belgians who have the controlling shares in Dexia Israel either don’t know what their subsidiary is doing or they have been misled,” Amir told IPS. “Or else they have suppressed that information. We know for sure that their declarations are not correct.”

Dehaene, who is also a member of the European Parliament, did not respond to IPS requests for a comment. But when addressing Dexia’s annual general meeting (AGM) for this year 12 May, Dehaene said he was a “little bit surprised” by the high level of interest in Dexia Israel’s activities among the bank’s shareholders. A lively discussion ensued, in which one shareholder accused the bank of being an “accomplice in the murder” of Palestinian civilians.

Asked about the loan that had been issued to Gush Etzion in May 2009, Dehaene told a questioner: “If you have any evidence showing a commitment to invest [in an Israeli settlement] after 2008, please give it to us. According to the information I have, there was no investment.”

Dehaene was also criticized by Palestinian solidarity activists for remarks he made about Dexia’s work in Jerusalem. After he was asked if the bank was financing Israeli settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem, Dehaene conferred with Pierre Mariani, Dexia’s chief executive. “East Jerusalem doesn’t exist, apparently,” Dehaene said, without elaborating.

At the previous year’s AGM, Dehaene had insisted that providing loans to Jerusalem was not problematic because “Dexia Group feels that Jerusalem is not contested territory.” That statement was at odds with the official stance of the United Nations, which has always considered Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 as unlawful. When Israel subsequently declared that Jerusalem was its capital in 1980, the UN Security Council insisted that no decision to alter the administrative or legal status of Jerusalem could be deemed as valid.

Mario Franssen, a campaigner with the Belgian human rights organization Intal, described Dehaene’s comments on East Jerusalem as “shocking” and “weird.”

Because Dexia specializes in providing loans to local authorities, any finance it gives to the Jerusalem municipality would inevitably be assisting settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem, including the confiscation of Palestinian homes, Franssen said. “Any money that goes to East Jerusalem can be judged as helping the occupation,” he added. “The majority of houses destroyed in East Jerusalem have been destroyed on the order of the Jerusalem municipality. I was shocked to hear Dehaene say that East Jerusalem does not exist. I can’t understand why a politician would make a statement like that.”

Franssen took issue, too, with the assurances that Dexia is no longer lending to the settlements. “There is a difference between what Jean-Luc Dehaene and Dexia Bank say and what is happening on the ground,” he said. “It has now been proven that there is a difference. The Dexia Group controls at least two-thirds of Dexia Israel. If they want, they can impose [their will on Dexia Israel]. But clearly, they don’t want to.”

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