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After years of pressure, is Veolia quitting Israel?

Veolia, the largest publicly-traded water company in Europe, is selling its water, waste, and energy businesses in Israel, and intends to ‘step back’ from the country as a marketplace.

The news is a boost to Palestinians and global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaigners, who have targeted the French multinational for ties to illegal Israeli settlements and their associated infrastructure in the Occupied West Bank.

According to reports in mid-July, Veolia has agreed to sell its activities in Israel to “funds managed by Oaktree Capital Management LP”, cutting the company’s debt by $341 million. The sale includes the company’s 50% stake in Ashkeon desalination plant.

Veolia described the divestment as part of a strategy to concentrate efforts on “less capital-intensive opportunities”. Importantly, a company spokesperson told Global Water Intelligence “that the group’s Israeli holdings are being sold as a full operating business rather than a collection of assets, and that Veolia would be stepping back from Israel as a marketplace“.

Paris-based Veolia spokesperson Sandrine Guendoul confirmed with me that the “divestment should be closed and completed by the end of the year”, since approval is required “from Israel’s competition authorities”.

Veolia remains complicit in the City Pass consortium-run Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR), however, which links western Jerusalem to illegal settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and was the target of angry Palestinian protesters earlier this year).

Veolia’s financial and operational stake in City Pass was previously transferred to Transdev, a 50-50 joint venture between Veolia and Caisse des Dépôts. Guendoul told me that Veolia “has started to disengage from the transportation business completely and sell its stake of Transdev” as part of “a broader divestment plan initiated and engaged in 2011.”

Veolia’s involvement with the JLR has been a major focus of protests against the company. Campaigners point to lost contracts worth billions of dollars. Already by 2010, an anonymous Veolia official told AFP that the JLR had earned the company “boycott threats” and “lost us important contracts“.

In 2012, CEO of Veolia Israel Arnon Fishbein admitted that “many people in the group” believed “that the company lost many contracts because of this project [the JLR]”. By late 2013, Veolia had already sold off all its settlement bus lines, offering further confirmation of the role of pressure in the company’s decision-making.

Palestine solidarity activists are thus asking whether the summer’s developments mark “the beginning of the end“, and the ultimate success of the international drive to ‘Dump Veolia‘, which has included local authority-focused and campus-based campaigns, as well as divestment initiatives.

“Thanks to the tireless and dedicated campaigning of unions, churches, NGOs and solidarity activists across the world that has cost Veolia billions of dollars, the company is clearly starting to realise that the BDS campaign against it makes doing business in Israel more trouble than it is worth”, commented Mahmoud Nawajaa, the coordinator with the Palestinian BDS National Committee.

Nawajaa stressed that with the sale still not confirmed, and with Veolia’s remaining involvement in the operation of the JLR, “the campaign against Veolia shall continue until it ends all aspects of its involvement in Israeli projects in the occupied Palestinian territory”.

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