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Israel operator accuses French telecom giant of joining BDS movement

June 4, 2015 4:29 P.M. (Updated: June 5, 2015 12:43 P.M.)
A store of Israeli telecom operator Partner in Jerusalem, June 4, 2015. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)a
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israeli mobile operator Partner on Thursday accused government-owned French telecoms giant Orange of succumbing to pressures from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) after its chairman said the firm was looking to withdraw its brand from Israel.

Partner, which has a license from the French company to use its brand, has been attacked by rights groups for operating in illegal Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Orange's chairman Stephane Richard has said his "intention" was to cut ties with the Israeli firm.

The statement drew a furious response from Partner as well as from the Israeli government.

A senior official in Jerusalem reported that Israeli ambassador to Paris Yossi Gal was ordered to "demand that the government in Paris clearly issue its opposition to the Orange CEO's remarks," Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, adding that 25 percent of the Orange's shares belong to France's Telcom.

Israeli company Partner decried Orange's attempt to withdraw from the business relationship due to Partner's servicing of settlements considered illegal under international law.

"I am very, very angry. I think that what he said is the result of very significant pressure from pro-Palestinian (groups)," Partner CEO Isaac Benbenisti told Israeli army radio.

At the end of May, five non-governmental organizations and two unions in France asked Orange to state publicly its willingness to sever its ties with Partner and denounce "attacks on human rights" allegedly carried out by the Israeli firm.

Their claims were laid out in a report which alleged that Partner's business activities were contributing to the economic viability of the settlements and perpetuating a situation considered illegal by the international community.

Challenged on the matter in Cairo, Richard said, "Our intention is to withdraw from Israel. It will take time" but "for sure we will do it."

"I am ready to do this tomorrow morning ... but without exposing Orange to huge risks."

In an interview with Egyptian newspaper Daily News, Richard indicated that Orange's contract with Partner was "inherited" and out of his company's hands, however adding that the terms of the contract between the affiliates had been amended with a termination date to enable Orange to leave the deal.

His comments provoked an outcry in Israel, with deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely sending a letter to the firm demanding clarification.

Benbenisti accused Richard of attacking Israel and called for the public to get behind Partner.

"We need to mobilize as a country to take care of this. Israel is attacked by the world. They try to isolate us," he said.

The upcoming move by Orange is the latest development in the increasing influence of the BDS movement, which aims to put international pressure on Israel to end the now 48-year military occupation over Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

While Partner's business activities allegedly contribute to the economic viability of illegal settlements, Israeli policies regarding mobile service itself in the occupied West Bank have also been criticized by rights groups.

As countries across the Middle East graduate to 4G mobile service, service providers in the West Bank are unable to provide even 3G mobile data due to a refusal by Israel to grant the Palestinian Authority the bandwidth necessary.

As a result, Palestinians are forced to choose between outdated 2G service or buying contracts with Israeli companies servicing settlers illegally residing throughout the West Bank.

The issue garnered international attention when US President Barack Obama visited the West Bank in March 2013, to be welcomed by posters reading, "President Obama, don’t bring your smart phone to Ramallah; you won't have mobile access to Internet; we nave no 3G in Palestine!"

The BDS movement has gained momentum in France in recent years, with French corporate giant Veolia selling nearly all of its business activity in Israel last month.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
Mel / UK
No partners for Partner! BDS!
04/06/2015 17:30
hassan / canada
Not really a big problem - Israel will eventually get another partner that wants to grow their business - if and when France Telecom is no longer a partner.
04/06/2015 20:06
Tobias / USA
BDS IS more of a "paper tiger" with no bite or even growl, and this is
JUST COWARDICE AND FEAR, that Muslims murderers will go to Orange next, instead of just Kosher markets, and it will probably end up hurting Orange (who will soon know it's own BDS) far more than Israel.
04/06/2015 22:32
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