Celebrities urged to cut ties to settlement financier

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - Having successfully lobbied the UN Children’s Agency UNICEF to stop accepting donations from Israeli billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev, activists are urging celebrities who have made public appearances with Leviev to cut all ties with him.

Leviev is the chairman of Africa Israel Investments, a global conglomerate that has been criticized by a variety of non-governmental organizations for its involvement in building settlements in the occupied West Bank. During an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this year, Leviev said that he would continue building in the Palestinian territories as long as he had permission from Israel.

Seven diverse groups committed to justice, human rights and peace and representing hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of people in the US, Palestine and Israel have also called on Susan Sarandon, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, to follow UNICEF’s lead and cut all ties with Lev Leviev. Sarandon appeared as a guest at Leviev’s 13 November 2007 New York jewelry store gala.

Last month, UNICEF rejected all offers of partnerships and financial support from Leviev, who had previously sponsored UNICEF fundraising events in France. Leviev’s support of UNICEF is featured in several places on his company’s website.

A representative for Sarandon told IPS that the award-winning actress, known for her embrace of progressive causes, is not a spokesperson for any jewelry company nor is she an expert on this matter. “She has read information from various sources about both sides of the issue,” wrote her representative in an email. “Beyond this Ms. Sarandon does not feel qualified to make any further comment.”

On 9 July, human rights advocates gathered outside the storefront of the Leviev jewelry store on Madison Avenue in New York to demand that the businessman be brought to justice for his alleged human rights violations.

Such violations “include the illegal construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land,” stated Adalah-NY, a Jewish-Palestinian coalition of activists.

Protestors chanted, “You sparkle, you shine, but settlements are still a crime” and “You’re glitzy, you’re glam, you’re stealing Palestinian land” while carrying mug shots of Leviev emblazoned with the words “Wanted, Lev Leviev, For Violating International Law.”

The protest took place on the fourth anniversary of a critical decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, the world’s highest legal body. In 2004, the ICJ declared both current Israeli settlements and the wall Israel is building inside the West Bank to facilitate future settlement expansion to be illegal under international law.

Following the protest last Wednesday, similar demonstrations have been held in Palestinian towns directly affected by Leviev’s illegal settlement construction.

The Manhattan protestors also expressed their support for the striking workers of Lev Leviev Diamonds in Windhoek. These 153 Namibian employees have been striking for three weeks because, among other things, they are paid less than two dollars per day. Adalah-NY, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and Palestinian civil society groups issued a joint statement supporting the Namibian workers early this month.

Leviev has yet to publicly respond to the protests or UNICEF’s statement, and IPS was unable to reach him for comment.

“Susan Sarandon’s denunciation of Lev Leviev would be a blow to his companies’ prestige and his ability to operate within polite high society,” Ethan Heitner, a spokesperson for Adalah-NY, told IPS. “By associating himself with the Hollywood elite and with major charities, Leviev has deflected attention from his companies’ human rights abuses in Palestine, Angola and Namibia.”

Christopher de Bono, UNICEF’s chief of media, told IPS that, “UNICEF responded by letter to a civil society organization that had advised UNICEF that some of Mr. Leviev’s websites represented him as a donor to UNICEF … The decision was made after UNICEF undertook an internal screening process [and] concluded that donations from him would not be appropriate, because of the nature of some of his business activities.”

De Bono said that the decision was about fundamental principles and good practice for UNICEF. “It was made on the basis of the normal screening process that UNICEF undertakes regarding partnerships and large or controversial donors,” he said.

“In response to enquiries from a number of civil society organizations that noted that Mr. Lev Leviev was represented on his websites as a donor to UNICEF, UNICEF reviewed the activities of Mr. Leviev’s corporate vehicles and determined that it would decline any further support from him.”

The basis for Leviev’s representation as a donor was the gift of one item auctioned by the French magazine Gala at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival in support of the French National Committee for UNICEF, and the loaning of jewelry to Gala for a related charity fashion show and fashion calendar, produced by Gala for UNICEF’s benefit. “To the best of our knowledge, this was his only donation,” emphasized De Bono.

UNICEF’s review of Leviev’s donations is not an unprecedented action. “UNICEF currently assesses some 400-500 prospective partners and donors each year to ensure they share the core values of the organization,” said De Bono. “In the past 12 months, UNICEF declined to be involved with more than 20 potential partners or donors, [which], in some cases, are legitimate businesses engaged in activities that are legal but are not in the spirit of UNICEF’s mission.”

“Like UNICEF, which did not know until we informed them, we understand that when you attended the gala opening of Leviev’s Madison Avenue jewelry store, as Adalah-NY protested outside, you were unaware of Leviev’s record of human rights abuses in Palestine, Angola and beyond,” wrote Adalah-NY in a public letter to Sarandon asking her to cut ties with Leviev.

“However, as a popular and respected human rights advocate and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, not publicly severing ties with Leviev has sent and will continue to send a message to the world that you support Leviev’s highly unethical business activities which result in grave human rights abuses in Palestine.”

“Ms. Sarandon promised us in December 2007 to explore Leviev’s companies’ human rights violations, which are well documented. UNICEF, the organization which she represents as a Goodwill Ambassador, explored the issue and severed their ties,” Lubna Ka’abneh, a spokesperson for Adalah-NY, told IPS.

“We remain hopeful and confident that Ms. Sarandon will again courageously do the right thing. The human rights of Iraqis, Palestinians, Angolans and Namibians should all be defended,” she said.

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