Leaders of the church, which has roughly 2.5 million members in the United States, have criticised the Israeli Government's continual expansion of settlements in the West Bank, captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The Presbyterian Church has condemned what it describes as Israel's oppressive security measures in Palestinian towns and villages, which the church partially blames for stunting progress on a potential peace agreement.

Finally, Presbyterian officials have harshly criticised Israel's construction of a security barrier which they say would illegally annex land that should be part of a future Palestinian state.

So, in July the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly decided to take action, voting 431 to 62 to initiate selective divestment in certain corporations that do business in Israel.

Research started

The church has nearly $8 billion invested in companies currently operating in Israel.

Although one official said any actual divestiture of stock would take more than a year to complete, the church has already begun researching which companies may be engaged in business activities deemed harmful to the Palestinian people and the peace process.

Israel's security measures have
been condemned by the church

"The goal is to persuade these companies to change their actual corporate behaviour," Jerry Van Marter, the coordinator for the Presbyterian Church (USA) news service, said.

The divestment plan has drawn heavy criticism from several Jewish organisations, who called the proposal "one-sided and counterproductive".

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the resolution put forward by the Presbyterian General Assembly ignored the problem of armed Palestinian organisations when condemning Israeli security measures.

"Their plan is blind to the other side of the argument and is essentially silent on the issue of terrorism," Yoffie said.

Van Marter said the Presbyterian Church had "repeatedly condemned violence on both sides".

Little progress

Leaders from the Reform and Conservative Jewish groups recently held a meeting with Presbyterian officials to address their concerns with the divestment plan and its potential negative impact on interfaith relations.

Although Yoffie described the meeting as cordial, he said little progress was achieved in resolving the core disagreements.

"The goal is to persuade these companies to change their actual corporate behaviour"

Jerry Van Marter,
Coordinator for the Presbyterian Church (USA) news service

"As to the heart of the matter, I don't think there was any breakthrough," he said.

The Presbyterian Church has begun the process of researching companies that may be engaged in business practices in Israel that warrant divestment. Its initial scrutiny has focused on Caterpillar Inc, a company that builds bulldozers used by the Israeli army to destroy the homes of Palestinian bombers.

Presbyterian Church (USA) holds 37,000 shares of stock in Caterpillar worth roughly $2.7 million.

Caterpillar targeted

The Presbyterian Church's General Assembly will meet in early November to officially confirm Caterpillar as a target for divestment.

In the meantime, Van Marter said church leaders were trying to establish a dialogue with Caterpillar before moving to the next phase of the divestment plan. Presbyterian officials have addressed their concerns to Caterpillar in the past, largely without success, he said.

Caterpillar supplies bulldozers
used by the occupation forces

"In my observation, Caterpillar is generally uninterested in dialogue," he said.

Although he acknowledged that the church's 37,000 shares of stock in Caterpillar were a "drop in the bucket", he said no large company "likes to show up in the press being hassled by shareholders on any issue".

Reports on the Presbyterian Church's move towards divestment were taken seriously by 14 members of the US House of Representatives, who recently wrote a letter criticising the decision and supporting the construction of Israel's security barrier.

Irresponsible

"We believe very strongly that the efforts of the Church to divest from companies doing business in Israel, thus penalising Israel for acting in its own self-defence, are irresponsible, counterproductive, and morally bankrupt," the congressional members wrote.

"It has been very disappointing to us that the US Congress has not proven to be an ally or a balanced arbiter in the negotiations for peace
in the region"

Rev Clifton Kirkpatrick,
Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

The clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev Clifton Kirkpatrick, wrote a letter in response, saying Congress had failed to press Israel to abide by international law.

"It has been very disappointing to us that the US Congress has not proven to be an ally or a balanced arbiter in the negotiations for peace in the region," Kirkpatrick wrote.

For critics of the Presbyterian Church's divestment plan, the main concern appears to be the possibility that other religious groups and organisations may be convinced to pursue similar measures.

More to follow

Church groups are rallying to the
defence of besieged Palestinians

There have been reports that the Anglican Communion, with 75,000,000 members worldwide, is also considering divestment from certain companies doing business in Israel.

Brian Grieves, the US representative of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network, told Aljazeera.net by email that there were no official recommendations for divestment and that any decisions on such action "would be determined in the future".

Nevertheless, officials from the Anglican Communion recently visited Israel and issued a subsequent press release criticising "the draconian conditions of the continuing occupation under which so many Palestinians live".