The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced that it will begin its process of ‘progressive engagement’ – a process that could ultimately lead to divestment – with five companies it says contribute to the ongoing violence plaguing Israel and Palestine.

The companies slated to be part of this motion are heavy-equipment producer Caterpillar; the large international bank group Citigroup; a diversified manufacturer, ITT Industries; communications-gear manufacturer Motorola; and the large military contractor United Technologies.

The church intends to use its huge investments in these companies to pressure them to contribute to the end of violence in Palestine and Israel, according to a church statement.

The plan was established by the church’s Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) Committee in response to a resolution passed last year by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. It is consistent with the church’s long-standing practice of ensuring its investments are used to further the church’s mission, the statement said.

Carol Hylkema, chairperson of the MRTI committee said, “We have chosen these companies because we believe that they can make changes that will increase the possibilities for a just peace in the region. As shareholders of these companies, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) calls on them to act responsibly.”

Caterpillar manufactures heavy equipment used for demolition of Palestinian homes, the uprooting of olive trees, construction of roads and infrastructure in the occupied territories for use only by Israeli settlers, and facilitating  military incursions into the occupied territories by the Israeli military.

In March 2003, American peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed when a military Caterpillar bulldozer ran her over as she was working with other members of the International Solidarity Movement to protect a Palestinian house in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, from being demolished.

According to the church’s statement, Citigroup was cited by the Wall Street Journal on April 20, 2005, for having moved substantial funds from charities later seen to be fronts funneling money to ‘terrorist organizations.’ The Journal claims that some of these funds ended up as payments to the families of Palestinian bombers.

ITT Industries supply the Israeli military with communications, electronic and night-vision equipment used by its forces in the occupied Palestinian territories, according to the church.

Motorola is a majority investor in one of Israel’s four cell phone companies, called Pelephone.

It also recently won a contract to develop wireless encrypted communications for the Israeli military in the occupied territories.

‘This investment is controversial,’ says the church, ‘because cell-phone companies, according to the Oslo Agreement of 1995, must be licensed by the Palestinian Authority in order to operate in the West Bank and Gaza. With powerful facilities in the settlements, with a range covering all of the occupied territories, this licensing has not occurred.’

United Technologies is a large military contractor whose subsidiary has provided helicopters to the Israeli military. They have been used in attacks in the occupied territories against suspected Palestinian resistance men.

Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, staff to the MRTI Committee, said that the next step will be to engage senior management of each company in a conversation aimed at persuading them to change practices that enable or support violence in Israel and Palestine: ‘We are initiating a slow, deliberate process, designed to produce opportunities for engaging companies around the social witness policies of the denomination through dialogue, shareholder resolutions and public pressure, so that these corporations might change their business practices which inflict harm on the innocent, and delay movement toward a just peace.”

The church may resort to divestment as an option if dialogue with these companies fails to lead to the desired change.

“If these dialogues fail,” said Somplatsky-Jarman, “we may conclude that our investments are not being used for activities that support the broad mission of the Church. At that point, divestment is an option that the General Assembly may consider.”

Companies named to the focus list were selected based on criteria developed by the Committee in November 2004, which directed research toward corporations whose activities and products are used to support and maintain the occupation, establish, expand, or maintain Israeli settlements, support or facilitate violent acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians, or support or facilitate the construction of the separation wall.

The occupation ‘is at the center of the cycle of violence in the region, whether it is suicide bombings or the displacement caused by the occupation… and impedes a peaceful solution to that conflict,’ the committee now selecting possible divestment targets said recently.

The church has about $8 billion in investments covering pensions and other holdings.  It is unclear yet how much of these investments might be at issue.

This step apparently upset Jewish groups in the U.S. The New York Times reported that some of them have accused the Church of anti-Semitism.

‘Instead of talking about peace, we’re talking about Presbyterians,’ David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said this month. ‘They have deflected conversation in a very negative way.’

The move was also condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. ‘As we have said repeatedly in conversation with Presbyterian Church leaders,’ National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement, ‘divestment policies are counterproductive and a detriment to the newly revived peace initiative between the Israelis and Palestinians, and fundamentally flawed as a mechanism for resolving the conflict. Divestment hurts not only Israel, but has economic impact on Palestinians as well.’

Apparently, the church is motivated by the ruling of the international court of justice made on July 9, 2004 which called on the world not to support companies that are involved in any way with the construction of the separation wall, since the court falsified the Israeli pretext of security needs for building the wall.

The church is part of the World Council of Churches (WCC) which is leading a project called Decade to Overcome Violence, (DOV).

In their project, WCC, an umbrella for 342 Protestant and Orthodox member churches, is trying to fight small arms and light weapons in many countries around the world.