International Sanctions Against Israeli Banks

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By Terry Crawford-Browne, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Cape Town

Just World Educational is pleased to publish the following article, which is an abbreviated draft of Terry Crawford-Browne’s prepared remarks before the Democracy Convention in Minneapolis, August 2-6, 2017.

The writer is South African, a former international banker turned peace activist who, with [then] Bishop Tutu and the late Dr Beyers Naude, launched the banking sanctions campaign in 1985. He has subsequently been the main whistleblower in exposing South Africa’s arms deal scandal. He spent six months in 2009 and 2010 as a peace monitor for the World Council of Churches’ EAPPI programme at Israeli checkpoints in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, whilst also working with Israel and Palestinian peace movements. He became the secretary of the local organizing committee when the Russell Tribunal on Palestine met in Cape Town in November 2011. He participated in BDS conferences in Ramallah and Nablus in June 2017, followed by the INsecurity Military Industries shadow conference in Tel Aviv organized by the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace. The common conclusion of these conferences in both Palestine and Israel was the need to bring the Israeli arms industry under control, which has become a menace to the whole international community.

This year, 2017, marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and support by the British government for establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was in blatant disregard of the opposition of Palestinian Muslims and Christians, who constituted 95% of the population and who rationally and understandably objected to the give-away of their country to European settlers. When anti-Zionist riots erupted, Lord Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, declared:

“In Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the seven hundred thousand Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

A Jewish homeland with the express provision that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” was a deceitful and disgraceful cover and smokescreen for what in reality was a British land grab in pursuit of newly discovered oil in the Middle East.

British politicians, especially imperialists such as Viscount Alfred Milner and Winston Churchill, believed control of that oil to be the means of reversing declining British industrial and economic fortunes viz-a-viz the US and Germany. Milner with Cecil Rhodes had also been the prime instigator of the 1899-1902 South African War, motivated by determination to seize control of South African gold.

The balance in the scale of powers between Palestine and Israel is so disproportionate that meaningful negotiations are presently impossible. Accordingly, it is time to seek new options. The proposal outlined below seeks to “balance the scales” by way of nonviolent international banking sanctions via the SWIFT system in Brussels so that meaningful negotiations become possible to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

South African Parallels

The international community assumed that apartheid in South Africa would end in a racial bloodbath. The UN Security Council in 1977 judged that abuses of human rights in South Africa threatened international peace and security, and imposed an arms embargo.

Despite flouting of the embargo by numerous countries, including France and Israel, that UN decision was described at the time as the most significant development in 20th century diplomacy. No longer could pariah governments plead that rights of sovereignty excluded international judgment and intervention.

Astonishing the world, South Africa negotiated a relatively peaceful transition in 1994 to constitutional democracy. As President Mandela later acknowledged, the most effective boycott of apartheid came from American banks. The apartheid and Iranian nuclear issues are the only two instances where sanctions have achieved their political objectives and, in both cases, it was because of international banking sanctions.

The writer was Nedbank’s Regional Treasury Manager for the Western Cape during the mid-1980s, with responsibility for international banking in the region. In his personal circumstances however, he was also an Anglican Church representative to the Western Province Council of Churches (WPCC) whilst, in addition, his wife Lavinia was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s personal assistant from 1986 until 2008.

Following proclamation of a state of emergency, President PW Botha’s “Rubicon Speech” in August 1985 and the ensuing financial crisis, he was dispatched by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) to launch the banking sanctions campaign at the UN in New York and in Washington.

With government repression spiraling out-of-control, banking sanctions was a last nonviolent initiative by the SACC to avert a civil war. A year later in October 1986, in what was an unprecedented development the US Senate overturned President Ronald Reagan’s veto and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (C-AAA).

The similarities of South African apartheid with the US civil rights movement facilitated an extraordinary mobilization of American civil society, especially of university students, trade unionists and the churches.

Given Archbishop Tutu’s standing with American churches after being awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace prize, the major church denominations forced the major seven New York banks to choose between either the church pension fund business or the banking business of apartheid South Africa.

The timing was fortuitous, being the end of the Cold War and the time of perestroika. When President George Bush succeeded President Reagan in 1989, he volunteered his support to Archbishop Tutu and other church leaders when he invited them to the White House in May 1989.

The writer testified in support of sanctions before the US Congressional trade and banking sub-committee in July 1989 which, already, was working on closing the loopholes in the C-AAA in 1990 to prohibit all South African financial transactions in the US. He also testified at the UN in Geneva in September, which then set June 1990 as the deadline to rid South Africa of the apartheid system.

Without access to the New York inter-bank payment system and given the role of the US dollar as settlement currency in foreign exchange markets, South Africa would, in addition, have been unable to trade with third countries in Europe or Japan. In a nutshell: if you don’t get paid, you can’t trade!

Archbishop Tutu met the US Under Secretary of State for African Affairs, Henk Cohen in early October 1989. Following this meeting, Cohen issued an ultimatum to the South African government demanding compliance with the first three of five conditions by February 1990 when Parliament was scheduled to reconvene in Cape Town. These conditions were:

a) The end of the state of emergency,
b) Unbanning of political organizations,
c) Release of political prisoners.

The fourth and fifth conditions were repeal of apartheid legislation, and commencement of constitutional negotiations towards a nonracial, united and democratic South Africa. That was the background to President FW de Klerk’s statement on 2 February 1990, and the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher right up until early 1990 still considered the ANC to be a “typical terrorist organization” and, despite falsely claiming credit for Mandela’s release, was still actively engaged in supporting the apartheid government.

“Resistance” is a giant wheat paste public art installation by Ralph Ziman, spanning a world record 100+ meters. The image depicts a broken AK -47 on the Parade in front of the Cape Town City Hall.

Israeli Apartheid

A huge volume of literature at the UN and elsewhere establishes that Israel is also an apartheid state, and also blatantly disregards its obligations in terms of the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute and other instruments of international law. Article 7 (1)(j) of the Rome Statute establishes apartheid as a crime against humanity. The term apartheid now extends to countries other than South Africa, such as Israel.

Within “Israel proper,” more than fifty laws discriminate against Palestinian Israeli citizens on the basis on citizenship, land and language rights. Similar to apartheid South Africa’s Group Areas Act (which restricted property rights in 87% of the country to “whites only”), 93% of Israel is reserved for Jewish only occupation. Such humiliations used to be referred to within white South Africa as “petty apartheid.”

“Beyond the green line,” the Palestine Authority is a Bantustan with even less autonomy than had the Bantustan governments in the system known as “grand apartheid” in which the Bantustans were purportedly independent. In addition and compounding the problem, there are more than 600 000 Israeli settlers illegally living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in contravention of international law.

The International Court of Justice in 2004 found that construction of the “apartheid wall” was contrary to international law, and that Israel was under an obligation to dismantle the structure forthwith and make reparation for all damage. In addition, the Court declared:

“all States are under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction: all States parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 have in addition the obligation, while respecting the UN Charter and international law, to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law as embodied in that Convention.”

The Who Profits? website maintained by the Israeli Women’s Coalition for Peace, documents illegal activities by Israeli and international corporations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Its 2010 report entitled “Financing The Israeli Occupation” found that all Israeli banks are criminally complicit in the Occupation, and in violation of international law.

The report further confirms that all Israeli banks are crucially and inherently involved in providing the financial infrastructure for all the activities of companies, government agencies and individuals in the OPT and the Golan Heights. The report notes:

“It can be stated that any and all aspects of Israeli control over the occupied territory have a financial foundation and that none of these financial activities of individuals, organizations, governmental institutions and commercial companies could take place without the active support of banks. The findings of this research show that as the providers of these services, Israeli banks are principle beneficiaries of financial activity in the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and in Israeli control over the Palestinian financial market.”

Just as South African banks were inherently part of the apartheid system, so too the operations of Israeli banks within the settlements “beyond the green line” are deliberately merged with those within “Israel proper.” It is therefore impossible to distinguish between settlement and non-settlement transactions. Accordingly, all Israeli banking transactions must be deemed complicit in acts that are illegal under international law, but also in terms of banking protocols such as “Know Your Customer.”

The French government in June 2014 warned French citizens that they risked financial and other consequences should they conduct transactions with settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, and this warning was almost immediately also adopted by most other member governments of the European Union.

Although also acknowledging that the settlements “beyond the green line” are illegal under international law, the US government regrettably abuses its veto powers in the UN Security Council to protect its Israeli surrogate in the Middle East.

In addition to facilitating illegal settlement transactions, all Israeli banks are highly complicit with Israeli arms exports in violation of specific UN arms embargoes to countries such as Myanmar and South Sudan. Of the four largest Israeli arms companies, Israel Military Industries and Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems are state-owned, whilst Elbit Systems is privately owned and publicly quoted on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and New York NASDAC.

Elbit is contracted to construct 54 surveillance towers along the Arizona/Mexico border. Its drones played a key role in the deaths of over 2 300 Palestinians during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014. Amnesty International reports that as consequence of Israel’s ten year illegal blockade the population of Gaza, numbering almost two million people, faces a “looming humanitarian catastrophe.”

The Israeli government’s purported objective in launching Operation Protective Edge in 2014 was to destroy Hamas. Evidently the real underlying motivation was the Israeli government’s determination to prevent Hamas from financially benefitting from development of the recently discovered gas field off Gaza. The scale of the offshore gas field and its potential to transform Palestine economically is the subject of several analyses, including a policy brief from the German Marshall Fund of the US based in Washington DC.

Another distressing aspect of this gas field discovery is the collusion of US and British energy companies, with backing by their governments, to divert and exploit this resource to Israel, and to deny its economic potential to Palestine. Such collusion includes the role of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his capacity as chairman of the Quartet.


Three decades after South Africa’s struggle apartheid in the 1980s, banking technology has advanced dramatically, and the pressure point for international banking sanctions is no longer in New York, but Brussels.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) is headquartered at La Hulpe, just outside Brussels, and provides a secure messaging service between more than 11 000 banks in over 200 countries to authenticate international financial transactions. In essence, SWIFT is a giant computer that connects these institutions.

Although the US dollar is still the settlement currency for foreign exchange transactions, the leverage for political action is now in Brussels, which is also the centre of the European Union (EU). SWIFT is a cooperative owned by its member institutions, but is also supervised by the National Bank of Belgium. As an organization domiciled in the EU, SWIFT is therefore also subject to the regulations and other requirements of the EU.

The Wikipedia entry on SWIFT notes that US Senate banking committee in 2012 approved sanctions against SWIFT to pressure it to terminate its ties with Iranian banks. Under this pressure combined with a ruling by the Council of the EU, SWIFT disconnected Iranian banks from its network.

The step was unprecedented, and led to a situation where Iranian banks were unable to transfer money electronically anywhere in the world. The measure nonetheless, contributed very substantially and positively towards Iran’s agreement on nuclear weapons, whereupon sanctions were lifted and Iranian banks were then reconnected to the network.

Notwithstanding the present stresses such as the proposed Brexit, the EU makes an essential contribution in the international community. Accordingly, the writer suggests that in the interests of peace in the Middle East and beyond, the precedent of disconnecting Iranian banks from SWIFT should now urgently be applied to end the Israeli government’s repeated defiance of international law?

SWIFT professes pride in its leadership role in making international banks aware of their responsibilities in the increasing global concerns about their roles in international money laundering, and the security threats that they pose.

Just as apartheid South Africa was run primarily for the financial benefit of the Oppenheimer family, the mining industry and members of the Broederbond, so Israel is run for the benefit of eighteen to twenty families, who derive their wealth mainly from the interconnected diamond, banking and arms industries.

Under the spurious guise of “national security” so familiar during South Africa’s apartheid era, Israeli banks deliberately fail to conduct any due diligence on funds transferred through the international banking system resulting from plunder in the DRC, “blood diamonds” from Angola or Zimbabwe, or similarly tainted transactions including arms exports.

Israel has no diamond mines, but its cutting and polishing industry was established during the Second World War by refugees from Antwerp, Belgium who fled to what then was British-governed Palestine. De Beers supplied the rough diamonds for cutting and polishing, which became the basis of Israel’s industrial economy. Industrial diamonds are vital for precision tools required by the arms industry.

Israeli banks have all proved woefully derelict in enforcement of their money laundering obligations in respect of arms exports and the related matter of looting natural resources in Africa and elsewhere.

Every member of SWIFT has a SWIFT code, the fifth and sixth letters of which identify the country of domicile. Thus, the SWIFT codes of Israel’s two largest banks as examples, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi le Israel, are respectively POALITIT and LUMIILIT. Programmatically, it would be a simple matter for SWIFT to write a computer programme suspending transactions to and from IL accounts.

What so far has been lacking has been political will of European governments to apply and enforce legal criteria pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The crises in the Middle East stemming from the ill-considered Balfour Declaration in 1917 are currently such that the writer proposes that the European Council must take urgent and decisive action in the causes of peace and security.


In the aftermath of Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008/2009, the esteemed French diplomat and human rights activist, the late Stéphane Hessel established the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He pleaded that the world must not “commit the crime of silence” in respect of Palestine. Hessel was himself a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and was appalled by Israeli government conduct in Palestine and beyond.

During the period March 2010 to September 2014, the Russell Tribunal met in Barcelona, London, Cape Town, New York and twice in Brussels. The findings and recommendations of these sessions can be found on the website.

The World Council of Churches met in Bethlehem in June 2017, to which Palestinian Christians submitted a letter pleading for support of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign modeled after South Africa’s experience during the 1970s and 1980s.

Accordingly, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Cape Town, seeks to obtain a declaration by the European Council requiring SWIFT to suspend transactions to and from Israeli banks until such time as the Israeli government agrees to meet stipulated conditions already established by the BDS movement, i.e.

1. To release immediately all Palestinian political prisoners,
2. To end its occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, and that it will dismantle the “apartheid wall,”
3. To recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinians to full equality in Israel-Palestine, and
4. To acknowledge the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Per the banking sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa during the 1980s, the purpose of the proposed nonviolent SWIFT sanctions strategy against Israeli banks is to break a deadlock and to balance the scales, so that meaningful and balanced negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis actually become possible.

At that point, once the Israeli government has agreed to the four stipulated conditions, the suspension of SWIFT transactions can immediately be revoked, albeit conditional upon reimposition should the negotiations break down.