Boycott Movement Claims Victory as Veolia Ends All Investment in Israel

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign that advocates applying economic and political pressure on Israel to achieve equal rights for Palestinians in Israel and an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, hailed a decision by French infrastructure corporation Veolia to sell-off its final investment in the country as a "major" victory on Tuesday.

Transdev, a subsidiary of Veolia, last week sold its 5% stake in CityPass, which runs the controversial Jerusalem Light Rail that connects West Jerusalem with the Arab neighborhoods and Jewish settlements of East Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem is a majority-Arab area which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War but is mooted to be the capital of any future Palestinian state under draft proposals issued by the Palestinian Authority.

In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council described the light rail project as "built to service the settlements." BDS campaigners have sought to protest against Veolia's investments both inside and outside of Israel, perceiving the company to be complicit in "Israeli violations of international law."

The BDS movement has waged a seven-year boycott campaign against Veolia—a company that employs 179,508 people and boasts a market capitalization of $10.9 billion—and claims that lost contracts across Europe and the U.S. have cost the company approximately $20 billion.

Riya Hassan, the Palestinian BDS National Committee's (BNC) Europe campaigns officer, hailed the company's withdrawal from Israel as a sign of the movement's growing effectiveness and attributed the company's exit to years of activism.

"Veolia has become one of the first companies to completely pull out of Israel as a result of BDS campaigning. Its decision shows that our movement is leading major companies to rethink their relationship with the Israel," she said in an email to Newsweek. "This major success for the BDS movement follows years of dedicated grassroots activism."

The sale of Transdev's stake in the light rail project marks the end of Veolia's presence in Israel after selling off all of its energy, water and waste businesses in the country in April to private equity firm Oaktree Capital Management, leaving the light rail as its only remaining investment.

Sarah Colborne, director of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has led domestic campaigns against Veolia, believes that the company has chosen to exit Israel as it had gained a "toxic reputation" from its involvement in the country, losing a number of high-value contracts.

"Between 2010-2013, Veolia lost, or withdrew from, waste contracts worth over £10 billion worldwide," she says. "These contracts included many in Britain, such as the contract worth £4.7 billion for the North London Waste Authority."

Richard Dujardin, a member of Transdev's executive committee, confirmed the sale to Newsweek by phone but said the exit, which was decided last year, was a business decision and not influenced by any pressure from campaign groups.

"We had a review of our portfolio of businesses and some of them were in the category [of] non-strategic. The Jerusalem Light Rail was in the category of non-strategic assets because we don't expect a huge prospect in Israel for us," he said, adding that Transdev was approached first by the shareholders of CityPass.

"I will not say that it is pleasant to be chased by people saying we are not good guys all the time but really it was a business decision," he says adamantly. "I don't see Israel sitting in our strategy."

When asked if Transdev had lost other contracts because of its links to the Jerusalem Light Rail, Dujardin said: "To my knowledge, no. People can have perceptions and the facts are people can claim if they want, what can I say?"

Israel and its supporters have launched a counter-campaign against the BDS movement, which the government considers to be anti-Semitic in nature, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring it to be on the "wrong side of the moral divide." A number of Israel's high-wealth supporters held a summit in June, raising $20 million to combat the BDS movement.

Hilik Bar, secretary-general of the opposition Labor Party, told Newsweek in July that the BDS movement is a "very dangerous" movement prompted "because of the wrong ideas, some of it anti-Semitism."

The movement has seen a number of other notable successes. In June, a new report revealed that foreign direct investment (FDI) in Israel dropped by almost 50% last year, due to the impact of boycotts and the fallout of last summer's Gaza War.

A spokesperson from the Israeli Economy Ministry was not immediately available for comment.