A senior official at Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that Israeli banks' support for and involvement in the state's settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory amounts to "pillage", a crime under international law.
Sari Bashi, writing in a blog post for HRW, cited the example of Alfei Menashe, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, which, like all such settlements, are seen as illegal by the international community.
"In keeping with a pattern found in many settlements", Bashi wrote, Bank Leumi "is partnering with the developer to build the project in Alfei Menashe through what are called 'accompaniment agreements', used in Israeli construction projects to protect homebuyers' investments".
Bashi explained further: "Israeli banks often enter into such agreements, which go beyond mere financing and create close partnerships with developers to expand settlements on land unlawfully seized from Palestinians".
"The banks acquire an ownership interest in the development project, overseeing its construction, releasing homebuyer funds in accordance with building progress, and relinquishing ownership only upon completion", she added.
However, the HRW official continued, "an occupying country transferring its own civilians into the occupied territory, as in the case of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, is a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and according to the International Criminal Court".
In particular, "the involvement of banks in these transactions can amount to pillage—that is, seizing private property in conflict situations in violation of the laws of war".
Bashi noted that settlements, as well as being illegal, "are sites of human rights violations such as restrictions on Palestinians' freedom of movement, unlawful seizure of property, violence by settlers (which the army fails to restrain), and discrimination".
"West Bank Palestinians can't enter settlements except as labourers bearing special permits, and the Israeli authorities deny them the licenses and building permits they need to operate businesses while subsidizing and building infrastructure for ventures inside the settlements".
The HRW official concluded that, while "the Israeli authorities bear responsibility for the settlements", Israeli banks are "facilitating their expansion and thus bankrolling these abuses".