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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Israel finds allies in Europe's Christian fundamentalists

Flip through any issue of a major newspaper from the past decade and it is a safe bet you will be confronted with a warning about the dangers of religious extremism. So how could the mainstream media have failed to notice the growing influence of fundamentalists on the European Union's relations with one of its nearest neighbors: Israel? The explanation might lie in how the zealots in question are not Islamic but Christian.

Since September last year, the European Parliament's official delegation to the Knesset has been headed by veteran Dutch politician Bastiaan Belder. This has meant that the chief interlocutor with Israel for the EU's only directly-elected institution has been a man who makes Dick Cheney look moderate.

Belder belongs to the Political Reformed Party (known by its Dutch acronym SGP). Within the Netherlands, this Calvinist grouping has long been controversial because of its opposition to women's suffrage. Even though it has been forced to reverse its male-only membership rule by a 2003 court ruling, it has not yet fielded a female candidate in an election.

The party's literal interpretation of scriptures is especially pronounced in its policy on the Middle East. Adhering strictly to a Christian Zionist ideology, it views the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 as the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy. "For the SGP solidarity with the Jewish people is not negotiable," one of its key documents on foreign affairs states. "Therefore, we are committed to a secure existence for Israel in the territory that God has assigned to the Jewish people. The Jews are the 'beloved of the father's will,' to which the Lord assigned their country, as is written in the Old Testament."

Intriguingly, the same document displays a profound anti-Semitic bias. It identifies Judaism as a heresy and argues that Jews must convert to Christianity if they are to evade damnation. Islam, meanwhile, is described as a threat that needs to be "countered" because it "keeps people away from salvation."

In his 11 years as a member of the European Parliament (MEP), Belder has consistently defended Israel's oppression of the Palestinians. Frequently, his rhetoric is indistinguishable from the propaganda peddled by the Israeli diplomats with whom he is in regular contact. During a visit to Jerusalem in February, he contended that Israel would have nothing to fear if it set up an "independent" investigation into the conduct of its attacks on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. "When you are convinced that you did everything to prevent civilian casualties, when you have the moral high ground, show it and no one can blame you," he said.

Under Belder's chairmanship, meetings of the Parliament's delegation to Israel have generally been one-sided affairs. Last December, the main guest speaker at one such meeting was Emanuele Ottolenghi, then the Brussels representative of the American Jewish Committee, one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington. Ottolenghi has penned a book (“ Under a Mushroom Cloud”, published in 2009) and several pamphlets that make the case for waging war against Iran over its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. By contrast, Ottolenghi has portrayed Israel’s nuclear capability as necessary for stability in the Middle East, claiming that Arab leaders “sleep soundly under the shadow of Israel’s nuclear umbrella.”

Fortunately, Belder has not had everything his own way. Last year the Parliament's delegation to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) sought a discussion with him on how its work could be coordinated with that of his delegation. Initially, Belder turned down this request but when pressured by other MEPs, he agreed in the past few months that joint meetings between the two delegations could be held. Proinsias de Rossa, an Irish MEP who chairs the delegation to the PLC, said he had made "various overtures" to Belder and was "brushed aside for a long time." However, Belder eventually accepted the principle that each delegation should be kept informed of the other's activities and "we are now cooperating very well," de Rossa added. Belder did not respond to my requests for a comment.

While only a handful of Dutch politicians espouse the same religious views as Belder, his unwavering support for Israel has been echoed by larger parties in the Netherlands. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, a center-right Christian Democrat, will be garlanded as a "friend of Israel" in June when the American Jewish Committee presents him with an award. Verhagen has claimed that Israel "has no desire to see people in Gaza suffer." His comments were made when he travelled to the southern Israeli city of Sderot last year; Verhagen refused to venture across the nearby border crossing into Gaza to see for himself if Israel was making its 1.5 million inhabitants suffer.

Without doubt, the Netherlands' blood-splattered history helps explain some of the enduring attitudes towards Israel -- 70 percent of the Dutch Jewry were wiped out in the Holocaust. "After World War II, there was quite a lot of enthusiasm [in the Netherlands] about the small State of Israel," said Henri Veldhuis, a Calvinist theologian and a Palestine solidarity campaigner. "These new heroes fueled our faith. Some years later, there was guilt about the Holocaust and how most Jews in Holland were killed or deported. These deep feelings about faith and guilt are still quite strong in our churches."

Veldhuis, whose work for Palestinian rights has led one of his co-religionists to dub him a "follower of Hitler," says that the essential problem with the SGP and the like-minded ChristenUnie (the two parties contested last year's European Parliament election as a combined force) is that they view their reading of the Bible as more important than international law. "For me, this is quite shocking," he said.

A general election is scheduled to take place in the Netherlands in June after the Labor Party recently walked out of the government in protest at efforts to prolong the Dutch involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Many pundits expect the flamboyant anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders to perform strongly in this summer's poll. The electoral list that he leads includes several candidates who have previously worked for the pro-Israel lobby in the Netherlands. Among them are a former Dutch representative for Likud, the party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nonetheless, the increasingly brutal nature of the occupation of Palestine has caused some Dutch politicians to reconsider their support for Israel, according to Ghada Zeidan from United Civilians for Peace, a Utrecht-based human rights group. "People are outraged here," she said. "Even some of the more conservative political parties like the VVD [one of the main opposition parties], who are seen in Holland as 'friends of Israel' are asking questions. I can see some movement at the moment but I also should say that the Israel lobby in general remains rather strong."


It would be comforting if Belder could be dismissed as unrepresentative of mainstream Dutch or European society. Yet he has proven to be an astute networker at a time when Israel’s political establishment is eagerly courting allies in the Brussels institutions with a view to deepening its diplomatic and economic ties with the EU. His close links with Israeli officialdom indicates that he is appreciated as someone who slavishly defends Israel’s agenda in an assembly it frequently regards as hostile. However extreme he may be, it would be foolish to ignore him.


•Originally published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Europe Imports Torture from US

A U.S. company has admitted for the first time that it exports equipment designed to inflict pain on prisoners to Europe.

Under rules in force since 2006, the European Union (EU) has outlawed trading in a range of instruments used for torture. Among the products expressly prohibitied is the 'Band-It' system; attached to a prisoner's arms or legs, it can administer an electric shock of 50,000 volts.

Despite the ban, the manufacturer of the device, Florida-based firm Stinger Systems, has acknowledged that it exports such goods to Europe. Bob Gruder, the company's president, refused to say which countries have bought this item.

"We only sell to military and law enforcement authorities," he told IPS. "Our products are sold worldwide but we prefer not to disclose where."

Stinger, formerly named Stun Tech, has distributors in several of the EU's 27 nations. The Romanian company Gate 4 Business has confirmed that it had imported some Band-It devices.

"We just took a few samples", said Gate 4 spokesman Cristian Anasteseu. "Romanian law considers it a lethal weapon."

Anasteseu added that he has not been a Stinger agent for "at least one year", and that he is now seeking to import a pepper spray for use in 'crowd control' by riot police after meeting representatives of Mace, the company making this tear gas, in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Last month the human rights organisation Amnesty International published a report highlighting how some companies have circumvented the EU's ban which explicitly refers to "stun belts" by giving products that have a similar effect a different name.

Nidec, a Spanish firm, had been offering "stun cuffs", which are also intended for attachment to a detainee's limbs, for sale. But the company told Time magazine recently that it had withdrawn such products from its online catalogue.

"Electric shock belts are on the banned list," said David Nichols, a foreign policy analyst in Amnesty's Brussels office. "What we have been saying is that there are other devices which are effectively the same that have been reclassified or renamed and traded as if they were completely legitimate, even though they have no other use than as torture instruments."

Stinger's flagship product is the S-200 stun gun, which it describes as a "smart" weapon intended to incapacitate someone who the police deem as dangerous by subjecting them to a shock of up to 56,000 volts. According to Stinger's Bob Gruder, the gun is less dangerous than one made by its rival Taser. "It's different technology," he said. "We can adjust on the fly, whereas with Taser you just have a predefined amount of voltage, without adjusting." Nobody has been killed or seriously injured as a result of the S-200 gun, Gruder claimed.

Falcon, a company headquartered in the Belgian town Beernem, confirmed to IPS that it acts as a distributor for Stinger, even though there is no mention of this fact on Falcon's website. Jean Nicodéme, Falcon's managing director, said that because Stinger's products are "strictly forbidden" in Belgium, only public authorities could have access to them. While an elite unit of the Belgian police acquired Taser weapons in 2009, Falcon said that it had not sold any of Stinger's guns to the country's law enforcement agents until now. "Our general policy is that we are not selling outside Belgium," Nicodéme added.

A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs in Flanders, the predominantly Dutch-speaking community of Belgium where Falcon operates, said: "We deny licences for the import and export of everything related to torture. If a company importing such goods can prove that they will only be transferred to law enforcement people, then there is an exception in the law (to allow such transfers). These imports are rare."

Luc Mampaey from Grip, a Belgian group monitoring the arms industry, said nonetheless that he is "not satisfied with the position" of the Flemish government or other authorities in his country. "The problem is that there is little precision about these types of weapons in Belgium," he said. "Weapons that are considered less than lethal are a grey area in terms of the law."

Sirien, another Belgian company, has been named too as a Stinger agent. Yet it ceased advertising the S-200 stun gun on its website after the Amnesty report was published. "The problem with Amnesty International is that they only see the bad side to everything," Erwin Lafosse, a Sirien representative, told Time magazine in March. "Yes, these can be used to torture but so can all sorts of ordinary devices like knives, forks and spoons."

First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Tories - still the nasty party

Those posters still haunt me. ‘Wanted for Murder’, they proclaimed in heavy type above a stony-faced Margaret Thatcher. It was 1981; I was 10 years old. Young men were starving themselves to death 70 miles away from my sleepy hometown in north Dublin. There were black flags everywhere; I was fascinated by how they would proliferate but also a little frightened.


I trace my loathing of the Conservative Party back to that spring and summer 29 years ago. Although I never supported the IRA, Thatcher’s withdrawal of political status from its prisoners and her indifference to the ensuing hunger strikes in Long Kesh convinced me at an early age that the Tories were a heartless bunch.

Strictly speaking, the May 6 general election in the UK is none of my business, considering that I hail from the Irish Republic. Yet as Britain has interfered so brazenly in the affairs of innumerable other lands, I feel an innate entitlement to express a preference for who should and should not take up residence in Downing Street. For the next month, I’ll be hoping that the baton of power won’t be handed over from a repugnant Labour government to the even more repugnant Conservatives.

My distrust of the Tories has grown considerably by monitoring the activities of the party’s MEPs. David Cameron’s ill-advised decision to enter a formal alliance with anti-Semites and homophobes in the European Parliament has rightly generated much outrage in the blogosphere. Far less attention has been paid, unfortunately, to the regressive positions taken by his Euro representatives on a range of issues.

Whenever an effort is made to temper the increasingly raw capitalist orientation of EU policies by giving employees some basic rights, the Tories act as a proxy for the continent’s most unreasonable bosses.

Frequently, they employ spurious arguments to justify the unjustifiable. Marina Yannakoudakis, a London MEP, is currently leading a campaign against a plan to extend the EU-wide minimum maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks. Giving mothers a longer period of paid leave would “reduce a woman’s right to choose”, she has said.

Her frankly absurd arguments echo those made by the Tories in 2008 when they fought unsuccessfully to ensure that Britain wouldn’t have to sign up to an EU law stating that nobody should have to slave away for more than 48 hours per week.

On that occasion, the Tories claimed that Britain’s exemption from the working time directive was beneficial for employees as it made them free to choose their own hours. (Interestingly, Gordon Brown also sought to maintain the UK’s opt-out but most Labour MEPs voted in favour of its removal).

There may not be many politicians in Europe more cravenly obsequious towards the US than Brown and Tony Blair but veteran Tory MEP Timothy Kirkhope is one. Whereas a majority in the European Parliament recently opposed a secretive transatlantic deal enabling the American authorities to snoop on our bank transactions, Kirkhope has happily swallowed assurances from Washington that our privacy and civil liberties will be respected.

That guarantees from such a malign force in world affairs as the US State Department should never be taken at face value does not appear to have occurred to him.

Given how the political grouping to which Conservative MEPs belong is led by the notorious Jew-hater Michal Kaminski, it might seem ironic that Charles Tannock, the Tories’ foreign policy spokesman in Brussels, is an inveterate supporter of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

In practice, however, the Israeli establishment has been willing to court anyone unscrupulous enough to defend its addiction to war. It is instructive that the first senior diplomat received by the European Conservatives and Reformists after the group’s inception last year was Israel’s EU envoy Ran Curiel.

Meanwhile, Tannock’s compassion for the plight of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in Gaza, is at odds with his approval of Israel’s use of white phosphorous and other abominable weapons against Gaza’s civilians.

After 13 years of being cheated on by New Labour, I can’t blame any voter who thinks a change is necessary. If David Cameron becomes prime minister, it will surely be a change for the worse.

First published by The Samosa (www.thesamosa.co.uk)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

EU Boosts Arms Manufacturers

Arms traders are to be given a central role in formulating a new European Union (EU) blueprint for stimulating weapons production, it has been confirmed.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, announced Mar. 31 that it is to draw up an action plan for how small and medium-sized companies that manufacture military goods or their components can be strengthened.

Dagmar Metzger, an EU official overseeing support for the weapons industry, said that contact between civil servants in Brussels and arms traders will be increased. The AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), an umbrella group for arms-makers, is to be intimately involved in deciding the plan’s contents.

Metzger would not comment on the ethical and human rights issues surrounding the arms trade. “We make defence industrial policy,” she said. “We are not talking about core military business. We are not supporting military exports, the production of weapons, arms, whatever. We are only talking about industrial policy, nothing else.”

She nonetheless acknowledged that EU officials are examining the possibility of establishing an internet-based service, through which small-scale arms companies could become aware of new calls for tender to supply armed forces across the Union. “The action plan shouldn’t be just a piece of paper,” she added. “It has to be filled with life.”

Six states account for an estimated 87 percent of all weapons production in the EU: France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain. Traditionally, the governments of these countries have been wary of developing weapons jointly with outsiders, while the military-industrial sector has been exempt from EU rules on competition applying to other economic activities. Last year, though, the Commission proposed two laws requiring that most military contracts published in one EU country should be open to firms in another and that the procedures covering the movement of weapons within the Union should be simplified.

According to observers, most of the EU’s policy decisions on armaments in recent years are almost identical to recommendations made by the arms lobby. In 2004, the arms trade received a considerable boost when the European Defence Agency (EDA) was established with the explicit objective of assisting EU governments to build up their arsenals. At that time, the three largest arms companies this side of the Atlantic – BAE, EADS and Thales – issued a joint statement predicting that the agency would be a “vital tool” in raising military expenditure. Between them, the firms involved had supplied the weapons that fuelled some of the bloodiest conflicts of the past 50 years. BAE’s precursor British Aerospace, for example, made the Hawk jets that Indonesia’s former military dictatorship used in attacks on civilians in East Timor, where one-third of the island’s 600,000-strong population was wiped out between 1975 and its eventual independence in 1999.

The idea of a web-service that would drum up business for smaller weapons-makers – with less than 250 staff - follows on from the ‘electronic bulletin board’ that the EDA runs for major firms. By mid-March this year, this database had published details of almost 480 contract opportunities. Some 290 contracts with a combined value of over 4 billion euros (5.4 billion dollars) have been awarded following their publication by the agency.

Tomas Baum, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, which conducts research on the global arms trade, said that the European Commission is eager to encourage arms production by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), rather than leaving such production to the usual corporate giants. “The Commission is very smart at playing the game,” he said. “There has been a very big resistance by (EU) member states to liberalising the internal market (for military goods). Now the Commission is using SMEs to again attack the hegemony of big industry in this area.”

Another item on the wish-list of arms companies is that they should enjoy greater access to the EU’s scientific research grants, which total 53 billion euros for the 2007-13 period. Since the 11 September 2001 atrocities, the Commission has rewritten the rules covering its multi-annual programmes for research to enable the funding of security projects of a nominally civilian nature such as those covering the emergency response to acts of large-scale violence. The possibility of widening the scope of the programme to include hardcore military research is being considered, EU officials have admitted.

Israel, the main foreign partner of the EU’s research programme, has been a key beneficiary of the decision to extend the remit to “security”. Israeli firms and universities, including those that have developed weapons and other technology used in the occupied Palestinian territories, have taken part in 12 of the 58 “security research” projects financed by the EU to date.

Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade said that it would be logical for the Commission to recommend that purely military research should be financed directly from the EU’s budget. “The Commission and industry says time and again that there is no real boundary between civilian and military,” he added. “The two areas are so mixed.”

Slijper lamented that the growing EU support for the arms industry is not being subject to proper democratic scrutiny. “Brussels in general is very unreceptive to people who are critical of their views,” he said. “They want to bolster their projects and they don’t like people who start asking difficult questions about the ethical aspects of these projects. This is an area of the EU’s work that is happening outside the public view. People in Brussels prefer to keep it that way.”


First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

EU Playing Politics With Aid Policy

The world’s poor appear to have become pawns in a political battle over the European Union’s (EU) new diplomatic corps.

Catherine Ashton, foreign policy chief for the 27-country bloc, is urging that responsibility for development aid should fall within the scope of the European External Action Service (EEAS) that she is in the process of establishing.

In recent statements, Ashton has argued that if the EU is to have a successful development policy it must be compatible with its broader strategies on issues such as security.

Yet many observers of European politics suspect that the British baroness is more concerned with seizing control of a sizeable budget than in ensuring that development aid brings tangible benefits to the poor. At 15 billion dollars per year, development aid represents one of the top five areas of spending administered by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

Plans for how the service should operate have been drafted in secretive meetings between some of the most powerful behind-the-scenes men and women in Brussels. They include Robert Cooper, a British diplomat whose 2004 book The Breaking of Nations advocates that a new form of imperialism should be devised for the twenty-first century, veteran French official Pierre de Boissieu and Ireland’s Catherine Day, the Commission’s secretary-general.

According to anti-poverty campaigners, there has been no substantial consultation with outside analysts. Some campaigners allege, too, that Ashton’s proposals constitute an effort to give her greater powers than those provided for the foreign policy chief in the EU’s core rulebooks. The Lisbon treaty, which came into effect last year and created the post awarded to Ashton, says nothing about giving the foreign policy chief responsibility for development aid, the campaigners say.

Although the EU has a separate commissioner for development policy – now Latvia’s Andris Piebalgs – fears are being expressed that he will be something of a vassal to Ashton and her advisers. This could have profound implications for the effectiveness of development aid. Under its treaties, the Union is legally obliged to ensure that such aid contributes to the reduction and ultimately the eradication of poverty. Yet the top figures mapping out the structure of the new diplomatic service generally lack expertise on poverty-related issues; instead, they have spent most of their careers working on more hard-headed economic and military strategies. Cooper, for example, has written numerous pamphlets for think-tanks close to the political and defence establishment in Washington.

Simon Stocker, director of the anti-poverty organisation Eurostep, noted that the principal objective of the new diplomatic service is “safeguarding the interests of European citizens.”

“Where does the eradication of poverty fit into that?” he asked. “Ultimately if you mix development – which after all is about promoting the interests of people in developing countries – with political objectives designed to safeguard the interests of European citizens, then you basically undermine both policies. The end result is that instead of the European Union having a stronger voice in the world, it will have the opposite. It will lose the ability to work potentially as a partner with the developing world.”

Tensions have surfaced between the EU’s main political bodies on several development aid dossiers since the Union decided to pay greater attention to security issues following the 11 September 2001 atrocities in the U.S. In 2005, the European Parliament decided to initiate court proceedings against a 5 million euro (6.7 million dollar) aid scheme designed to help the Philippines participate in the “war on terror” declared by former American president George W. Bush. Members of the parliament (MEPs) argued that there was no legal justification for using development aid for projects with a security dimension.

MEPs are now seeking assurances from Ashton that the fight against poverty will not be subservient to narrower strategic or economic considerations. Hannes Swoboda, a long-standing MEP from Austria, said that “clarification is necessary” to ensure that Piebalgs, the development commissioner, rather than Ashton, will be in charge of formulating policies on how aid should be allocated.

Swoboda added, however, that there is “no basic contradiction” between the fight against poverty and other policy goals. “The different aims (of foreign and development policies) can be brought together only if the development commissioner is strong enough,” he said. “We want to work together with Cathy Aston to find a solution where all these concerns are met.”

A source close to Piebalgs said that he is satisfied with the broad thrust of Ashton’s proposals. As both Ashton and Piebalgs will be given joint responsibility for presenting plans relating to development aid before their fellow commissioners “there cannot be a conflict” between them once the outlines of those plans have been decided, according to the source.

But Nuria Molina, spokeswoman for the European Network on Debt and Development, was less positive. She said that the development aid policies of individual EU governments tended to be more successful in alleviating poverty in cases – such as in Britain – where the development ministry enjoys considerable autonomy from the foreign ministry. “There is no magic bullet in how you set up the governance,” she added. “But it can be safely said that this (the Ashton proposal) is not the right move.”


First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)