Students for Justice in Palestine has had a branch in Maastricht for two years. It started off as a casual movement in the United States, after which many autonomous branches followed in many countries.
In December, SJP Maastricht wrote a letter to the Executive Board and the University Council. Appealing to the values that the UM propagates too (“human rights and non-discrimination”), the group urged to avoid all connections with HP from now on and to no longer purchase HP products because of what they call the Israeli ´apartheid politics´ against the Palestinians. The letter lists a number of HP activities in Israel. Hewlett-Packard, a worldwide operating IT concern, supplies services and technology to the Israeli defence forces and to the prison system. It also provides technology for checkpoints at the borders – in particular the wall - and for the biometric identity cards that also affect the Palestinians. And there are activities in the illegal Israeli settlements.
Rector Rianne Letschert answered the SJP letter a week later: she values their concerns about HP’s involvement in possible violations of human rights in Israel/Palestine, she wrote. As to the matter itself, she reports that the Executive Board inquired with ICTS and was told that the UM “no longer purchases printers from HP” because they have a contract with another supplier.
Letschert's suggestion is clear: the matter has already solved itself.
SJP did not respond to this: it seems as if the rector's e-mail had gone unnoticed. If they had noticed it, the group could have seen that the Executive Board did not answer the actual question. After all, they had asked for a boycott on HP products in general, not just printers. In the whole SJP letter, which is more than three pages long, the word ‘printer’ is mentioned only once, where it concerns appliances for Israeli prisons.
Why then would the Executive Board give such an answer? “Because that is the question I was asked,” says ICTS director Jacques Beursgens. This was in a meeting with the UM directors, the CBB. Vice chairman of the Executive Board, Nick Bos, asked Beursgens what the story was with the HP printers and obviously passed on the answer to the rector, who in turn passed this on to SJP.
So, what is the real story with HP at this university? The UM is still doing business with HP, albeit not directly, but through two suppliers who have been selected through European contract procedures. Over the past six years, says Beursgens, purchases of both server systems and workplace equipment (desktop and laptop computers) have been made from HP on a large scale, and this is still the case today, in particular the latter category. HP is preferred because of its favourable price-quality ratio. There is, by the way, no contractual obligation for the UM to buy HP equipment, says head of procurement, Hans Schnock. The only obligation we have, concerns the use of the services of the two intermediaries. Whatever brand they subsequently order, is up to the UM. Abandoning HP can therefore be done at any time.
However, the Executive Board sees no reason for this, their spokesperson said this week: we are “very satisfied with the products supplied,” and are committed to “sound financial policies”. As far as the boycott that SJP wants is concerned, the Executive Board recognises that “the situation in the Middle East” indeed “requires a solution. This should be achieved through political and diplomatic routes. That is also an approach that fits in with the values that the UM stands for.”
The phrasing is slightly cryptic but the gist is clear: the Executive Board feels that a boycott of HP is not the way.
HP has been under fire for some time regarding Israel policy
Boycott actions against HP, one of the first Silicon Valley businesses, which started in Palo Alto, have been going on for a few years and as of yet without much visible result.
In 2014, the American Presbyterian Church sold its shares in HP. Methodists and Quakers had already taken action before that. The Presbyterians turn their backs on businesses that “profit from the occupation, ethnic cleansing, the illegal acquisition of land and natural resources, and the policy geared towards enforced resettlement as well as the deprivation of the rights of Palestinians,” as appeared from their website. In it, they refer to HP's activities in Ariel, a settlement deep in the occupied area on the West Bank: HP acted as if the settlement was part of Israel, using a map that didn't distinguish between the West Bank and Israel. Aside from this: only last week, Dr. Jess Bier received the UM Dissertation Prize for her thesis on the political nature of the cartography in Israel and Palestine.
As early as 2012, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, former professor of International Law at Princeton, Richard Falk, called for a boycott of businesses active in the occupied areas, including HP, Caterpillar and Veolia.
HP reacted extensively to the accusations by the Presbyterian Church in a letter in 2014, signed by its director of Global Social & Environmental Responsibility and Human Rights. In the letter, HP states that they are advocates of socially responsible entrepreneurship, and denies that their presence in Israel leads to violations of human rights. As far as activities in the occupied West Bank are concerned, HP argues that Israeli law prohibits differentiation between civilians in Israel itself and on the West Bank; that would be discrimination, says HP.
At the end 2015, the company was split into HP Inc. and HP Enterprise, the first being responsible for printers, PCs and laptops, while HPE is responsible for servers and networking equipment, software and services. In the circles of worldwide boycott activists, which includes SJP but also others, the split is not regarded as being relevant for HP’s policies in Israel.
As far as the UM is concerned, they buy both types of products (apart from printers), so both from HP Inc. and from HPE.
After the question was raised by Students for Justice in Palestine, the UM asked HPE for a reaction to the boycott actions. This was done through the Facility Services' procurement department. An employee from HPE passed on the question to the American top of the enterprise. The answer from that side elaborates on the split and says the following: “HPE hasn’t been implicated in the boycott week and most of it is an issue for HP Inc. and not for HPE.” That was all.
Students for Justice in Palestine is not only active in Maastricht, but also in Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam and Nijmegen. Chairperson for the Maastricht branch, consisting of some thirty members, is 22-year-old master's student of International Law, Selma Rekik.
SJP, she said, focuses mainly on raising awareness among students. “Many don't know what is going on in Israel and the occupied territories. Our main concern is the fact that Palestinians are being denied equal rights. We are not questioning the state of Israel's right to exist, but we are questioning the actual apartheid system that exists there. The fact that we set up this branch in Maastricht in 2015, had everything to do with the war in Gaza and Israel's actions.”
Rekik no longer believes in a two-state solution, now that large parts of the West Bank have been seized by the illegal Israeli settlement politics. “That has become impossible. Now it is about creating one state with equal rights for everyone. That is the objective.”