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Monday, May 30, 2011

The theft of Western Sahara

When and where did the “Arab Spring” begin? Most observers of the tyrant-toppling uprisings would probably agree they kicked off after the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December last year. Not for the first time, Noam Chomsky has highlighted an omission from the conventional discourse. The wave of protests really started a month earlier in Western Sahara, Chomsky has argued.

On 7 November, Moroccan forces occupying that territory destroyed tents set up by the indigenous Sahrawi people near the town of Laayoune, leading to a series of confrontations. Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International indicate that the tactics used in the operation were extremely aggressive, with elderly women beaten with batons. Amnesty says the tents were erected to highlight the Sahrawis’ “perceived marginalisation and a lack of jobs and adequate housing”. The word “perceived” is unnecessary, I believe. The marginalisation of the Sahrawis is a proven fact; we seldom see anything about Western Sahara – a former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975 - in our newspapers or on our TV screens.

Rather than imposing sanctions against Morocco over its acts of brutality in November, the European Union has effectively tightened its embrace of the Rabat authorities. Although a four-year fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco expired in February this year, both sides have decided to extend it for a further twelve months.

As EU representatives are constantly harping on about how much they cherish democratic values, the least we should be able to expect is that they would have published the information at their disposal about the agreement’s effects. Yet an evaluation of the agreement conducted at the European Commission’s request remains confidential.

Luckily, I have managed to have a peek at this report – drawn up by the French consultancy firm Océanic Developpement and dated December 2010. It concludes that the agreement with Morocco brings “the least favourable returns to the European taxpayers that we can find” in any of the fisheries agreements the EU has signed with countries beyond its borders.

Under the terms of the accord, the EU gives Morocco 36 million euros per annum. For every euro invested by the Union, the turnover generated is only 83 cents, the consultants calculate. In the 2007-2009 period, EU vessels availing of the agreement caught an average of 44,000 tonnes per year. With demand for fish in the Union reaching about 13 million tonnes per year, the agreement was making only a tiny contribution towards satisfying the requirements of Europe’s markets, Oceanic added.

More disturbingly, the consultants found that the agreement is having adverse ecological consequences. Trawlers are capturing demersal species – living near the bottom of the sea – that are already overexploited, while the capture of sharks in European nets runs contrary to the Union’s own policies on conserving endangered species. European vessels have targeted sharks in the same way as the industrial boats in the Moroccan fleet. Three large Portuguese vessels have been responsible for 70% of all sharks captured (more than 450 tonnes), according to the evaluation.

It’s not surprising that powerful figures in the EU bureaucracy want this evaluation kept secret. By extending the agreement, the Union has ignored advice that it spent good money to obtain.

This is part of a wider pattern. The agreement enabled European vessels to fish in the waters surrounding Western Sahara, on the condition that their activities brought tangible benefits to the Sahrawis. In an opinion made public during 2010, lawyers advising the European Parliament found there was no evidence that the Sahrawis had been aided in any way due to the accord’s implementation. Unless an “amicable settlement” could be found, European boats should be forbidden from entering a 200 nautical mile zone off Western Sahara, the lawyers recommended.

When I interviewed Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries commissioner, in the autumn last year, she expressed sympathy with that legal opinion. Damanaki said she was “not persuaded” that the agreement was in the Sahrawis’ interests. Despite the clarity of her views, the European Commission still went ahead and clinched a deal with Morocco to prolong the agreement. Damanaki was clearly overruled by others in the EU executive. Can it be a coincidence that the Commission is headed by José Manuel Barroso of Portugal and that several Portuguese vessels are doing nicely from the arrangements?

Mindful of a looming presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy has lately been promoting himself as an unflagging defender of North Africa’s downtrodden. Yet Francesco Bastagli, a former United Nations envoy to Western Sahara, has hinted there might be more than a whiff of hypocrisy emanating from the French president. “France is so unquestioning in its support of Morocco as to block even a reference to Sahrawi human rights in Security Council resolutions,” Bastagli wrote in a 2010 piece for The New Republic.

A report published in April this year by the New York City Bar Association says that if Morocco is receiving money from the EU for fishing off Western Sahara, without giving any to the Sahrawis, then it is violating international law. The same report highlighted how Irish and British companies are involved in exploration for oil and gas off Western Sahara. If they move from exploration to extraction, then their activities would be “unlawful”, the bar association concluded.

The resources of Western Sahara do not belong to Europe. So why are a few European fishing and energy firms allowed to steal them?

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 29 May – 3 June 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Europe's 'cautious' cant on Hamas

Is the European Union about to give its blessing to the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah? There is a possibility that it will but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was trying to sound reasonable this week, while actually being distinctly unreasonable. She appeared to declare support for the idea of a national unity government, led by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. “I understand President Abbas’s desire to move forward on reconciliation,” Ashton said. “We have all argued there needs to be reconciliation and with caution we are moving to try and support his efforts. I say ‘with caution’ because we understand it needs to be based on principles of non-violence.”

It is telling that Ashton has never called on Israel to observe the principle of non-violence. A statement which she issued after Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel last month exemplified how she applies different rules to different parties to the conflict. While she directed the words “strongly condemn” at the “attacks” by Hamas and said that they “must stop immediately”, she merely called on Israel to “show restraint”. There was no explicit acknowledgment of how Israel had killed three members of Hamas a few days earlier, inevitably provoking a response.

And why does Ashton laud Mahmoud Abbas at every available opportunity? His term as president expired in January 2009; since then he has clung to power without any mandate.

Perhaps Ashton feels a sense of affinity with him as she has been a successful politician, without having to go through the messy business of winning elections. Her $435,000-a-year job was obtained thanks to her close ties with two UK prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Although she had sat in the elitist House of Lords, few of her compatriots had heard of her until 2009, when she was appointed the closest thing that Europe has to a foreign minister by the Union’s heads of state and government. This explains her apparent bemusement at the warm reception she received when she met Libyan “rebels” last weekend. “I am more popular in Benghazi than in Britain,” she quipped.

Interestingly, the same unelected Ashton has been extolling the virtues of “democracy promotion” in the Middle East. In her contacts with Hillary Clinton, she has been exploring how Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites can help spread liberty, she stated on Wednesday. Is she telling Arabs to stop worrying about the West’s indulgence of Israel and concentrate on tweeting their way to freedom?

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 25 May 2011

Smear campaign against Gaza flotilla

A campaign of vilification against the flotilla that will soon try to break Israel’s siege of Gaza appears to be gathering momentum in Europe.

Over the past few weeks newspapers in the Netherlands have published articles alleging that some Dutch organizers of the flotilla are “terror supporters”. The main focus of these smears was Rob Groenhuijzen, chairman of the Netherlands Gaza Foundation, who was imprisoned for radical activities more than thirty years ago.

In the annals of political violence, Groenhuijzen -- convicted of being a threat to the Dutch state -- probably merits no more than a footnote. Red Youth, the left-wing group to which he was linked in the 1970s, carried out several bombings but never killed anyone. The renewed interest in his past, Groenhuijzen argues, is a sign of desperation on the part of Israeli diplomats and the network of lobbyists who wish to prevent the flotilla from setting sail.

“They don’t have the political or legal means [to stop the flotilla] and that’s why they try to criminalize the flotilla’s participants,” he told me.

Unfortunately, the government in The Hague has proven receptive to the anti-flotilla campaign. A Dutch office of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (known by the acronym IHH) was recently placed on a national list of [[banned]] organizations. Uri Rosenthal, the Netherlands’ foreign minister, gave a circuitous explanation for the ban in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. He hinted that the assets of IHH Netherlands were being frozen because it had transferred money to IHH representatives in Germany, who were suspected of funding Hamas.

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) is the most influential Zionist lobby group in the Netherlands. A member of the CIDI’s staff said: “We are not campaigning [against the flotilla] as such. It’s just that we don’t agree with the idea of a flotilla. We don’t think it is in any way conducive to solving the problem. We have pretty much the same stance as the one the [Dutch] government has taken.”

The IHH has announced that it will be sending a ship filled with medicines, construction materials and other essential goods to Gaza on 31 May. That date will be exactly one year after Israeli troops boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship, in international waters, killing nine peace activists.

Although the 2010 attack was condemned by top-level representatives of the European Union, supporters of Israel wasted no time trying to convince the EU that the IHH should be outlawed. On 4 June last year, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) issued a statement calling for the IHH to be placed on the Union’s list of terrorist organizations.

The case made by the EJC rested entirely on the conclusions of a 2006 paper by the Danish Institute for International Studies, which accused the IHH of having contacts with al-Qaeda.

The arguments made to justify labeling the IHH as “terrorist” in that paper included the group’s involvement in “large and raucous protest rallies” ahead of the war against Iraq in 2003. “Even after the initial US invasion of Iraq, the IHH has continued to bitterly oppose the presence of Western troops in Mesopotamia,” that report noted, implying there was something unreasonable about abhorring wars of aggression.

Although the EU has not (yet) bowed to the Israel lobby’s pressure by banning the IHH, it has effectively called for the flotilla not to go ahead. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in May this year “I do not consider a flotilla to be the right response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

Dror Feiler, a spokesman for the Swedish Ship to Gaza, explained: “When Baroness Ashton says the flotilla is not a proper act, I would ask her what is a proper act? The blockade of Gaza is considered collective punishment.”

“Collective punishment is forbidden according to international law,” Feiler added. “When you see such acts go on for four years, you cannot as an international citizen be silent. It is our duty to act. Ashton is trying to continue with passivity, probably because of Israeli pressure. The EU’s politicians seem to be letting themselves be intimidated. They seem to be letting Israel dictate how to act.”

Ashton’s comments followed those of Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador in Brussels, who described the flotilla as “clearly a political provocation since there’s no need for a flotilla to aid Gaza”. Curiel added that “You can pass whatever you want to Gaza through normal channels.”

His assurance was dishonest. The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has documented how a piecemeal easing of the blockade over the past twelve months has not halted the deterioration of health services in Gaza. “The persistent restrictions on the importation of medical supplies and equipment, and on the movement of health staff between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, hinder the provision of quality health services,” UNRWA says in its newly published annual report.

“Supplies of electricity, fuel and other consumables for the maintenance of the basic health infrastructure have not significantly improved since the adjustment of the blockade. Hospital treatment is increasingly curtailed because of the inability of hospitals to run procedures when they have limited access to electricity supplies, spare parts and equipment,” UNRWA adds in the report.

The European Friends of Israel (EFI), another lobby outfit, has similarly been trying to tarnish the reputation of flotilla organizers.

Charles Tannock, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP) who sits on the EFI’s steering committee, has called the planned flotilla an “incredibly irresponsible and hostile action.” Tannock, who doubles up as his party’s foreign policy spokesman in the Brussels-based assembly, believes Israel is “well within its rights” to enforce a naval blockade against Gaza, regardless of the humanitarian consequences for the 1.5 million Palestinians living there.

There is, of course, an enormous hypocrisy involved here. This week the Union’s foreign ministers decided to broaden the scope of sanctions imposed on Syria by imposing a travel ban and an asset freeze on President Bashar Assad. The reason for those measure was that Assad’s forces were denying the right to peaceful protest. Yet the same EU elite which – rightly – punishes Syria for cracking down on demonstrations is in effect telling Palestine solidarity activists that they cannot protest against Israel.

It is not the first time that the EU has decided that different rules apply to Israelis than to Arabs. And it is unlikely to be the last.


·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 25 May 2011.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Strauss-Kahn scandals we ignore

The press coverage of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest leaves me ambivalent. Like every other journalist who has written about the matter, I am not qualified to speculate on whether he committed the crime for which he has been charged. Rape is a very serious matter; so is the right to a fair trial.

Instead of rushing to pass judgment before the accused even set foot in court, perhaps the mainstream media should be asking why it generally ignored firm evidence that Strauss-Kahn had done wrong over the past few years. I am referring here to the decisions he took and the work he approved as head of the International Monetary Fund.

Last month, Strauss-Kahn gave a speech in Washington, in which he lamented how “in too many countries, inequality is at record highs”. Arguing that the IMF could not be “indifferent” to issues of wealth distribution, he added: “We are paying more attention to the social dimension in our programmes—protecting social safety nets for the poor and supporting an equitable sharing of the burden.”

Analysed properly, there is something obscene about that comment. The global financial crisis was caused by the feckless behaviour of financial wizards – some of whom have continued to trouser extravagant bonuses. Why should the poor have to bear any burden for a problem that the rich created?

A 2010 paper by Unicef, the United Nations children’s fund, illustrated that the “safety nets” of which Strauss-Kahn was so proud were not sufficient to prevent millions from slipping through them. It highlighted how countries such as Angola, Chad and Congo were planning to introduce cutbacks of up to 13% of gross domestic product over the following year, despite how they all had high levels of malnutrition, childhood mortality or HIV infection. Declining oil revenues were partly responsible for the economic woes of Angola and Chad but the paper suggested that IMF pressure was, too, predicting that the cuts will “likely incur potentially irreversible long-term human costs.”

Beyond some cosmetic changes to policy, Strauss-Kahn has continued to sign the same ruinous prescriptions for many economies that his predecessors have signed since the institution was hijacked by acolytes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. A new study by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in the US concluded that conditions imposed on Jamaica by the IMF in the past few years are almost identical to those imposed in the 1970s and 1980s, including a freeze on public sector wages. One of the most inimical effects of the measures is that Jamaica suffered one of the highest rates of decline in treatment rates for tuberculosis of any country where this disease is prevalent between 1997 and 2006. And while the enrolment rate for Jamaica’s primary schools reached 97% in 1991, it fell to 87% in 2007.

Strauss-Kahn’s professed concern about inequality and “burden sharing” belies the IMF’s stance towards Pakistan. Between 1980 and 2000, the burden of taxes paid by the poorest households in Pakistan rose by 7%. Yet the country’s richest saw their tax levels fall by 15% over the same period. Value-added tax is known to hurt the poor far more than the rich, yet the Fund has been pushing for VAT increases in Pakistan over the past year. The IMF has remained rigid on this point, despite the floods that devastated much of Pakistan in 2010.

Here in Europe, the austerity measures introduced in Latvia and Estonia at the IMF’s behest have pushed their unemployment levels to almost 20%. In Greece, a nominally socialist government has pledged to raise €15 billion from selling off state-owned resources to pay back debts to the IMF; that is twice the level of privatisation the Greeks promised last year. Portugal is about to tighten the belts worn by its citizens as part of the “fiscal consolidation” strictures of the Fund and by the EU. Ordinary Portuguese are footing the bill for a bail-out of private banks. Portugal has a gross external debt of €216 billion but just €43 billion of that sum is owed directly by the Lisbon government.

I don’t imagine that Strauss-Kahn’s prison cell has been inundated with “thank you” cards from IMF staff. But the Fund has flourished under his leadership, which – happily for him – has coincided with a global crisis. In April 2009, it was allocated a whopping $750 billion by the Group of 20 (G20) top economies. By selling gold, it has amassed a further $2.8 billion, while the interest payments on its loans are expected to bring it a cool $500 million profit this year.

Strauss-Kahn’s appointment to the IMF was orchestrated by his nemesis Nicolas Sarkozy, who was keen to send a top rival far away from Paris for a few years. No matter how much his fellow Socialists may deny this, the reality is that Strauss-Kahn has been acting as a puppet of the US Treasury and Wall Street, which ultimately control the IMF, since he moved to Washington in 2007. His successor will also be under the Treasury’s tutelage, regardless of who that person may be or what his or her nationality is.

Strauss-Kahn was able to stay at luxury $3,000-a-night hotels, while implementing ruinous policies that keep millions of poor women, men and children subjugated. It is a shame that the mainstream press was so fixated with his thirst for power that the most scandalous consequences of his work went overlooked.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 22-28 May 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Red carpet treatment for bulldozer of Palestine

Caterpillar, the maker of bulldozers used by Israel in destroying Palestinian homes, tried to project a caring image this week.

Paolo Fellin, a Caterpillar (CAT) vice-president, was the main corporate speaker at a session of the European Business Summit devoted to the global trade agenda. In his presentation, Fellin posited the highly disputed theory that unfettered free trade could lift millions out of poverty. He also sought to display his tree-hugging credentials by bragging of how he supports the recycling of spare parts from old machinery.

When I asked Fellin how his championing of the poor could be squared with CAT’s role in the dispossession of Palestinians, he said: “I am proud of what our products have done in building the world’s infrastructure: agricultural development, dams, roads, freeways in these countries. If our products end up in certain parts of the world, then I have no control over that.”

Fellin’s hand-washing should not be taken at face value. For a start, his job title gives him responsibility for distribution in Europe and the Middle East, so he can’t plead ignorance about Palestine. And more to the point, Caterpillar’s exports to Israel are covered by the US foreign military sales programme. That means they have been tailored to meet Israel’s “requirements” and are effectively categorised as weapons.

Last year, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that CAT had decided to stop deliveries to Israel. The decision was taken because of the adverse publicity the company received as a result of the legal proceedings initiated by the parents of Rachel Corrie, the courageous activist who died in 2003 after an Israeli soldier ran over her in a D9 bulldozer (one of CAT’s best-known vehicles). However, the suspension of deliveries was temporary. It does not alter the fact that CAT’s logo has been displayed prominently during thousands of house demolitions in the occupied territories since 1967.

In a December 2010 blog post, Amnesty International’s Edith Garwood wrote: “CAT equipment has been used to uproot olive trees and destroy other agricultural products and land. During Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip two years ago, Israel used armored D9 bulldozers to demolish wide swathes of homes, factories, agricultural land and civilian infrastructure, including water pipes and networks needed for basic survival.”

CAT’s record of profiting from war crimes does not trouble BusinessEurope, the employers’ federation that organised this week’s “summit”. In 2008, another senior CAT figure Michael Baunton addressed a similar BusinessEurope event and argued that his company’s vehicles shouldn’t be subject to robust pollution controls.

Paolo Fellin had good reason to be satisfied with his trip to Brussels. The European Union’s trade commissioner Karel de Gucht was heard asking Fellin for ideas about how American entrepreneurs can be convinced to be a little more enthusiastic about the Doha round of world trade talks launched in Qatar almost a decade ago. Official Europe appears so desperate to see these protracted negotiations bear fruit that it is turning to merchants of death for advice.

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 20 May 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

Divide and rule in Palestine

Brussels is a city of whispers. More accurately, those who work in its European quarter love to gossip about people regarded as important within their cosy bubble.

Catherine Ashton has been singled out for a relentless whispering campaign ever since she took up her post as EU foreign policy chief. For the first time, a Belgian government minister recently said publicly what many other diplomatic and political figures have been saying about Ashton behind her back: that she is forever spouting platitudes.

Ashton’s response to the “reconciliation” between the rival Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas appeared platitudinous but was actually something more sinister. She claimed that the “EU has consistently called for peace and reconciliation, under the authority of President [Mahmoud] Abbas, leading to an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza and in support of greater security and stability across the region.”

There are two problems with this statement. First, it is misleading. Far from urging unity, the EU has connived in Israel’s “divide and rule” strategy against the Palestinians.

Alastair Crooke, who advised Javier Solana (Ashton’s predecessor as foreign policy chief), has exposed how Britain orchestrated a dangerous shift in the EU stance on the Middle East when Tony Blair was prime minister. In an article published by the London Review of Books in March, Crooke recalls the glee of Jack Straw, then the UK’s foreign secretary, when he convinced Germany that Hamas should be placed on the Union’s list of terrorist groups in 2003. This led to a situation where the EU was showing preference for one Palestinian party (Fatah) over another (Hamas). The argument about Hamas being “terrorists” was bogus; Fatah, too, accepts the principle that Palestinians have the right to resist their occupation, including by arms.

The Palestine Papers, those internal documents made public by Al Jazeera earlier this year, show that Blair contemplated exporting some of the most pernicious aspects of Britain’s own imperial legacy to the occupied territories. In 2003, Britain and the US agreed on a secret “counter-insurgency” operation that would target members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Internment without trial of Hamas members was even considered, despite how Britain’s use of that policy in the North of Ireland during the 1970s exacerbated the conflict there.

Many aspects of the “counter-insurgency” strategy were taken on board by the European Union collectively. In 2006, the EU launched an initiative called COPPS (Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support). Two of the police officers who have headed this initiative, Colin Smith and Paul Kernaghan, had formerly served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force that was synonymous with harassment of the Catholic community in the North of Ireland. For most of its history, COPPS has mentored police loyal to Fatah in the West Bank and has declined to deal with Hamas representatives in Gaza. How does that advance the quest for “peace and reconciliation”, trumpeted by Ashton?

The second problem with Ashton’s aforementioned statement is her demand that “reconciliation” must be led by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Contrary to what she implies, Abbas no longer has a democratic mandate. His term as elected president of the Palestinian Authority expired in January 2009. The legality of his term’s extension is questionable, to say the least.

More broadly, there is something condescending – racist, even – about how Israel and the West vets who should be the Palestinians’ political representatives. After Hamas won a parliamentary election in 2006, the EU – under pressure from the US – froze its aid to the Palestinian Authority and helped trigger the collapse of the resulting coalition between Fatah and Hamas. That was despite how the Union’s own supervisors of that poll, led by British MEP Edward McMillan Scott, confirmed that it was conducted in a free and fair manner.

Although Ashton’s statement did not refer to Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian “prime minister”, the West has also been eager to shore up his position. Fayyad was appointed premier by Abbas in 2007, without the decision being approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (the closest thing that the Palestinians have to a parliament). The legitimacy of his appointment is, therefore, dubious.

Fayyad has made quite a few enemies among his fellow Palestinians, yet Western “experts” have ran a public relations campaign on his behalf. In his capacity as an international envoy for the Middle East, Blair regularly extols Fayyad’s virtues. Robert Danin, head of Blair’s Jerusalem office from 2008 to 2010, has gone further by portraying Fayyad as an intellectual trailblazer. Writing in the January-February issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Danin told Fayyad’s critics that they should “stop resenting his successes”.

What are these successes? Near the top of Danin’s list was that Fayyad had kept public spending within his targets. This is in keeping with the neo-liberal doctrines inculcated in Fayyad when he previously worked for the World Bank and IMF.

Never mind how setting up a viable Palestinian state has become virtually impossible now that Israel has built a massive annexation wall in West Bank. Never mind how malnutrition among young Palestinians has reached “crisis point”, according to Save the Children. Never mind how Israel controls most of the water resources in the occupied territories. Never mind how elementary principles of democracy have been traduced. Of far greater importance to the EU’s representatives is that they can deal with Palestinian “leaders” cut from the same ideological cloth as themselves.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 15-21 May 2011

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Palestine dominates Dexia AGM

The arcane world of finance is not something I normally turn to for hope or inspiration. Yet to my surprise, I was filled with both at the annual general meeting of Dexia, a Belgian-French bank.

No fewer than 45 shareholders took the floor at the Brussels event on Wednesday to denounce how its subsidiary Dexia Israel loans to illegal settlements in the West Bank. The speakers included politicians, doctors, academics and trade unionists, all of whom pressurised the bank’s board – chaired by former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene - to address a topic they would prefer to evade. Searching through the mind-numbing 263 pages of Dexia’s latest annual report, I could only find one paragraph specifically related to Dexia Israel.

In a brief statement, Dehaene confirmed that Dexia is in negotiations aimed at selling its Israeli division and that he expects a deal to be concluded in the next few months. He also reiterated an assurance he first gave in 2009 that Dexia is no longer making fresh investments in the settlements.

That assurance proved false. The Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP), a Tel Aviv-based group, has documented how seventeen new loans worth a total of $6.5 million were given by Dexia Israel to councils in the settlements in the second half of 2008 and during 2009.

“Selling Dexia Israel is not the end of the story,” the CWP’s Inna Michaeli told me. “By selling it, Dexia will be making an additional profit. The question is how Dexia takes responsibility for what it has already done and what it continues to do.”

Dexia Israel was formed in 2001 after Dexia bought the bank Otzar Hashilton Hamekomi, as part of a strategy to become a global leader in lending to public authorities. Ten years later, Dexia claims that its Israeli subsidiary no longer belongs to its “core business” and that its planned sale is part of a wider restructuring process necessitated by the crisis in the international economy.

Undoubtedly, Dexia Israel’s future status will be determined by hard-headed business decisions. But there is also no doubt that Palestine solidarity activists have caused severe embarrassment for Dexia over the past few years, particularly by convincing members of Belgian regional and provincial authorities, which hold many of the bank’s shares, to ask awkward questions.

Besides, it was heartening to observe Dehaene’s unease at the AGM. One of the few moments of levity came when one shareholder suggested that as a former boy scout he was obliged to support the dispossessed. “Scouts must do one good deed every day,” the speaker added, to which Dehaene replied: “I am doing my good deed.”

·First published by Mondoweiss (www.mondoweiss.net), 12 May 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

The moral bankruptcy of Germany's Greens

We can judge if a nation is civilised by how seriously it takes cycling as a mode of transport. Germany scores well. As recompense for the indignity of turning 40, I have been treated to a two-wheel tour of Bavaria. Apart from being able to marvel at the Alps and the pride grown men take in donning lederhosen, the sojourn has filled with admiration for the state’s superb network of bike paths.

Bavaria is in many respects a role model for sane environmental policies. Two of the world’s largest solar energy plants can be found here; at street level, bins have separate compartments for different types of waste and ordinary people appear to be careful not to put their used bottles and papers into the wrong sections.

Ecological awareness does not happen by accident; it results from decades of campaigning, often by people who were ridiculed as fantasists when they started out. I first learned about the necessity of protecting nature from the work of Germany’s Green Party a few years after they were formed in the 1980s. The Greens were different to mainstream politicians, I was led to believe, because they were more interested in principles than power. While that may have been true once, it is certainly not now.

After elections in Baden-Württemberg in March, the Greens are now the largest party in a state legislature for the first time in their history. Becoming part of the next federal government is the overriding objective of their leader, Cem Ozdemir, whose public relations handlers like to depict him as Germany’s equivalent to Barack Obama (Ozdemir is of Turkish ethnicity and the party has even used the inane slogan “Yes We Cem” to promote him).

Given that Angela Merkel has declared multiculturalism “dead”, progressives can derive some satisfaction from Ozdemir’s popularity. Yet in other respects the Greens have become a deeply reactionary force. It is particularly galling that a party formerly wedded to pacifism has morphed into a bunch of war-mongers.

When Merkel abstained from supporting the bombardment of Libya recently, her most strident critics were prominent Greens. Renate Künast, a Green parliamentary leader who covets the post of Berlin mayor, accused Merkel of political failure. Her erstwhile boss, Joschka Fischer, was even more scathing.


In a syndicated opinion column, Fischer intimated that Germany could be isolated unless it followed the example he set as foreign minister, when it agreed to participate in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. He wrote: “Germany and other European countries went to Afghanistan in solidarity with a NATO partner – our most important security guarantor, the United States – after it had been attacked from there on 11 September 2001. And solidarity within NATO – a term all but shunned these days in official German circles – is mutual: left to its own devices, Germany could one day wake up in a very precarious situation.”

Hold on a second. The best evidence we have tells us that the 11 September atrocities were planned in Hamburg, not in Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora hideaway. There would have been no justification for the US to bomb German cities in retaliation; there was even less justification for how America and its stooges invaded Afghanistan. As part of a sordid sucking-up exercise to the Bush administration, Fischer gave his imprimatur to a war that widened inequality. Each week, the United States – a country that denies millions of its own people the right to health insurance - spends $2 billion on waging war on Afghanistan. Germany has helped “our most important security guarantor” to increase hardship in Afghanistan. According to World Bank data, 36% of the Afghan population lived below the national poverty line in 2008; in 2005, the corresponding figure stood at 33%.

Just as the German Greens showed a callous indifference to the plight of Afghanistan’s poor, they acted as cheerleaders for austerity measures at home from 1998 to 2005, when they last belonged to the federal government. Gerhard Schröder, the country’s chancellor at the time, encountered stiff resistance within his own Social Democrat party to the welfare reforms he introduced – some of his colleagues even quit the party in protest. The Greens, on the other hand, defended him vigorously, supporting extreme cuts in public expenditure in the full knowledge that they would hurt the disadvantaged most.

The U-turns of the German Greens have been copied by their sister parties elsewhere. With his slightly dishevelled appearance, Daniel Cohn Bendit still poses as a radical. It is a long time, though, since he was a student rebel in the Paris of 1968. As leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, he has been a hawkish advocate of US-led military operations. Disgustingly, he has cited humanitarian reasons to defend wars designed primarily to ensure America’s control of oil and other prized resources.

In the early 1990s, I was an active member of the Irish Greens. Although I knew several Green members of the Dublin parliament personally, I was delighted to see all of them losing their seats in the recent general election. Their willingness to accept public service cutbacks demanded by the IMF and EU amounted to treason.

Because climate change imperils our survival as a species, I am convinced that we need a genuine green movement, separate from any political party. Having a few politicians who claim to be green answering to the title “minister” is no substitute for people power.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 8-14 May 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Emigration haunts Ireland once again

One perk of being married is that I have acquired a new grandmother. She is a sharp-witted woman in her early nineties and lives beside a “fairy fort” in rural Ireland; to this day, local farmers will not tamper with that site, lest they upset ancient spirits. Visiting Granny over the Easter break, I was reminded of a bleak past. Her own father came from a family with nine children but never knew some of his siblings. Five brothers and a sister all took the boat to America, never to return.

Emigration is back at epidemic levels in the Ireland of 2011. Each week an estimated 1,000 people leave a country that has raised and educated them but offers no work.

Are those young emigrants supposed to be comforted by a recent assurance from Jean-Claude Trichet that the European Central Bank acts as an “anchor of stability”? According to the official narrative, the ECB has selflessly come to Ireland’s rescue. Where, I wonder, is the stability for families rent asunder by the ECB’s prescriptions of austerity? Skype might make it easier to keep in touch with loved ones; it doesn’t cure homesickness.

Trichet, the ECB’s president, did not cause all of Ireland’s woes but he is exacerbating them. Brian Lenihan, Irish finance minister before a recent change of government, is more directly culpable for the country’s economic collapse. Though he is not trustworthy, I am inclined to believe Lenihan’s “revelation” – published in The Irish Times earlier this month – that the ECB put him under enormous pressure to accept an €85 billion “bail-out”, with excruciating conditions attached, in November 2010.

Also according to the official narrative, Trichet is a master of technical details who does not trifle with the base concerns of elected politicians. His mind is perennially focused on inflation and interest rates, not the interests of his chums in the top layers of the financial system, the spindoctors want us to believe. But who really stands to benefit from the “anchor of stability” he has thrown into our stormy waters? French and German banks have lent €900 billion to countries on the periphery of the euro-zone, including Ireland. The ECB cannot contemplate hurting these bondholders; so the innocent have to suffer instead.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist, has called the terms flanking the loan provided to Ireland by the ECB, European Commission and International Monetary Fund a “noose” around the country’s neck. “In effect, the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank are asking ordinary Irish workers and citizens to bear the burden of mistakes that were made by international financial markets,” Stiglitz wrote recently. “But it is important to recognise that these mistakes are at least partly attributable to following deregulation and liberalisation policies that were advocated by the IMF and ECB and that these policies provided significant benefits to the financial sector.”

Economists of a more conservative hue than Stiglitz have arrived at similar conclusions. Colm McCarthy, a lecturer in University College Dublin, tried to deliver a metaphorical uppercut on the smug face of Nicolas Sarkozy in January. “From an Irish perspective, what looks to him [Sarkozy] like financial assistance from Europe could as readily be characterised as a bail-out of European investors foolish enough to lend to Anglo Irish Bank and other insolvent banks, courtesy of the Irish taxpayers,” McCarthy wrote in The Sunday Independent.

Thumbing his nose at the French president is unlikely to have repercussions for McCarthy’s career, unless perhaps he fancies a secondment in the Sorbonne. It is telling that he has been much more acquiescent towards the Dublin establishment. In a new report for the Irish government, McCarthy recommends that large chunks of the state-owned electricity, broadcasting and public transport services should be privatised. Under the terms of an “agreement” reached with the EU institutions and the IMF, the proceeds from the sale of these assets would be used to pay back the bail-out debts.

McCarthy’s recommendations for a jumble sale of essential services were delivered a few days before the 95th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, that most hallowed event in Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain. I read the Dublin newspapers carefully on the day the anniversary fell, yet did not see one commentator expressing disgust at how Margaret Thatcher’s poisonous philosophy is now guiding Ireland’s economic policies. The closest I saw was a mildly-worded analysis in The Sunday Business Post noting that the “trailblazing initiatives” of the Thatcher administration had ushered in a worldwide phenomenon whereby $2 trillion worth of assets were transferred from public to private hands between 1977 and 2008.

This is not a problem unique to Ireland; the EU and IMF want numerous countries to swallow the same medicine, with the same toxic side-effects. This week anti-poverty activists will gather in Athens for a conference against the austerity agenda that Europe’s elites are forcing on the masses. Its participants will include representatives of the Jubilee campaign that has mobilised millions to demand that debts crippling African economies be dropped.

The popular rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year were in part driven by contempt at the inequality-widening agenda of institutions like the IMF. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be similar mass protests in Europe. As Jim Larkin, a pioneer of the Irish trade union movement, once said: “The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 1-7 May 2011

Spain a bastion of support for Palestine?

While preparing to give a lecture in Bilbao recently, I was surprised to see headlines declaring Spain to be one of Europe’s most anti-Semitic countries.

The headlines were based on the findings of a report, published in late March, by the Observatory on Anti-Semitism in Madrid, an office run by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities. Reading the report, it became apparent that the observatory had deliberately conflated criticism of the state of Israel with a general hostility to Jews.

The observatory stated that it was notified of 28 incidents of anti-Semitic behaviour during 2010. Nine of these incidents were taken out of consideration as they either did not occur on Spanish soil or because they were found not to be anti-Semitic in nature. Some of the remaining 19 incidents were certainly deplorable. They involved verbal or written threats to Jews, the smearing of graffiti – including a swastika – near synagogues and Jewish cultural centres, and the posting of neo-Nazi blogs on the internet.

But the observatory also gave some spurious examples. These included a decision by organisers of the Gay Pride parade in Madrid that a float from Tel Aviv shouldn’t be allowed to participate following Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May last year. Other examples given were a column for El Mundo newspaper by the writer António Gala and a cartoon by the artist El Roto. Both the column and the cartoon sought to compare how Israel treats the Palestinians and how the Nazis treated Jews during the Second World War.

The observatory uses a “3 D” test when assessing if incidents qualify as anti-Semitic. The brainchild of Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli government minister, this test identifies people as anti-Semitic if they resort to (1) demonization; (2) double standards or (3) deligitimization. According to Sharansky, demonization can involve likening the state of Israel to Nazi Germany, double standards can involve criticising Israel in a way that one does not criticise other countries and deligitimization can involve questioning the rights of Jews to have their own state.

Sharansky’s definition has little to do with defending ordinary Jews from racist attack and everything to do with shielding the state of Israel from scrutiny. The “double standards” criterion exposes his test to be particularly weak as Israel is treated far more lightly by governments in North America and Europe, as well as the mainstream media, than other serial abusers of human rights. At the behest of Western powers, the United Nations Security Council recently imposed a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet no Western government has advocated a no-fly zone over Gaza.

This was not the first time that threadbare evidence was used to accuse the Spanish public of hating Jews. In September 2009, the Anti-Defamation League, a Zionist lobby group in New York, published a “study” on Spain. It had a section titled “anti-Semitism at anti-Israel rallies”. Ludicrously, this alleged that protesters holding banners saying “Gaza = Auschwitz” and “Stop the Genocide” were guilty of anti-Semitism.

It is telling that the ADL paper did not quote the definition of genocide endorsed by the UN in 1948. Largely the work of the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled to the United States during the Holocaust, the definition refers to crimes designed to destroy a national or ethnic group in whole or in part by inflicting serious physical or psychological harm on that group. Given the suffering inflicted on Palestinians by Israel, the conclusion that Palestinians are victims of genocide appears inescapable. Research by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, for example, indicates that more than two-thirds of Gazans have displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder over the past few years.

There is a perception among some Israelis that Spain even has an anti-Semitic government. When Trinidad Jiménez, the Spanish foreign minister, visited Hebron in the West Bank during February, a group of Israeli settlers followed her through the streets shouting “go home anti-Semite”. Speculation that Spain will soon recognise a Palestinian state, coupled with occasional gestures of solidarity towards Palestinians from official Madrid – Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been photographed sporting a keffiyeh – have created an impression that its ruling elite has a deep-rooted loathing of Israel. Historic anti-Semitism – Jews were expelled from Spain 500 years ago – is undoubtedly another factor behind that impression.

Yet the notion that Spain’s government is more favourably disposed to the Palestinians, than to the state of Israel, falls apart under scrutiny.

Spain was under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship when Israel was founded in 1948 and it wasn’t until 1986 – more than a decade after Franco’s death – that the two countries established diplomatic relations. To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of that relationship, the Israeli President Shimon Peres recently hosted a visit from Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Princess Letizia. The Jerusalem Post marked the occasion by noting that the volume of trade between Israel and Spain was worth about €1.7 billion last year. Much emphasis was placed on the potential for growth in scientific and technological cooperation between Spain and Israel during the visit.

The Spanish authorities have attempted to put a positive spin on such cooperation, hinting that most of it is of a civilian nature. Around the time of Operation Cast Lead – Israel’s all-out attack on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 – Zapatero insisted that Spanish arms sales to Israel were “absolutely insignificant”.

A November 2009 study by Nova, a Barcelona group promoting non-violence, exposed Zapatero’s assurance as duplicitous. Official data stating that Spain sold more than €32 million worth of weapons to Israel between 1995 and 2008 did not tell the whole story, according to the study. Those figures do not taken into account how Indra, a leading Spanish arms manufacturer, supplies components to the F-16 fighter jets produced by Lockheed Martin. Once completed, those warplanes – used extensively in Operation Cast Lead and Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon – are exported from the US to Israel.

Indra brags on its website of how it has been acclaimed as one of the world’s most ethical companies by a “think tank” called the Ethisphere Institute. Among the other firms viewed as highly ethical by Ethisphere were Caterpillar and CRH, which have supplied bulldozers for the destruction of Palestinian homes (and the murder of American Palestine solidarity activist Rachel Corrie) and cement used to build Israel’s annexation wall in the West Bank respectively.

When a pregnant Carme Chacón became Spain’s first-ever female defence minister in 2008, Time magazine mused that by appointing her Zapatero may be “making a kinder, gentler statement about the armed forces”. Time was wide of the mark. Chacón has enjoyed a cordial relationship with her Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak, untroubled by his long track record of oppressing Palestinians (as both a military and political leader). Within less than two years of Chacón’s appointment, Spain had signed an agreement paving the way for far-reaching military cooperation with Israel, with a particular focus on the development of weapons for future wars. The accord followed several years, in which the Spanish army has been an important customer for Israel’s burgeoning arms industry. Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, is scheduled to deliver a consignment of pilotless drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – to Spain in 2012. Known as Herons, these remote-controlled killing machines were “battle-tested” by Israel during Operation Cast Lead. At least 87 civilians died from Israeli drone attacks in that three-week offensive, investigations by human rights monitors found. The Spanish forces taking part in NATO’s war in Afghanistan have Israeli drones in their arsenal, too.

Although there was widespread public opposition in Spain to Cast Lead, the elite has not had any qualms about bolstering its ties with Israel. Alejandro Pozo, author of the Nova report, said “it is a scandal” that in 2009, Spain authorised arms sales €2.8 million to Spain, most of them in the categories of bombs, torpedoes, missiles and rockets. This was in addition to the almost €1.2 million worth of “dual-use” exports (which have both civilian and military applications) approved by Spain to Israel that year. Moreover, it was separate from the €3.7 million in weapons actually delivered from Spanish firms to Israel in 2009 (the relevant licenses for those sales had been approved before Cast Lead).

Spain has proven so accommodating to Israel lately that it has even allowed Israel shape its human rights legislation. Since 1985, Spain had an important law on its statute books relating to universal jurisdiction, the principle under which crimes against humanity could be tried in Spanish courts irrespective of where they were committed. The law had been invoked to issue an arrest warrant against the Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet and to prosecute an ex-navy officer involved in Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet when it was used by Palestinian human rights campaigners in an effort to hold Israel to account for a 2002 operation in which 14 civilians were killed, Spain’s then foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos promised his Israeli equivalent Tzipi Livni in early 2009 that the law would be watered down. Moratinos kept his word: later in 2009, a bill restricting universal jurisdiction to cases with a clear Spanish link was approved by both houses in the Spanish parliament.

With the ruling Socialists faring badly in opinion polls, there is a high probability they will cede power to the centre-right Popular Party after parliamentary elections slated for next year. The Popular Party is likely to be even more hawkish in its support for Israel, judging by the antics of its former leader José María Aznar, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2004. On the day Israel attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May last year, Aznar presided over the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Israel, a grouping of other retired politicians and diplomats, including the one-time Czech president Václav Havel and the American neoconservative John Bolton.

In a speech he gave in New England earlier this month, Aznar argued that even though Israel is located in the Middle East, it is a Western country. It is strategically and morally imperative that the West, therefore, stands up for Israel, he added. “When people are deligitimizing Israel, our roots and the values of pluralism, tolerance, innovation, liberty and human dignity are deligitimized as well,” he said.

It is no coincidence that Aznar is also a director of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. For the kind of baseless propaganda he has been peddling about Israel is worthy of Fox News and other outlets in Murdoch’s media empire. The tragedy is that Aznar’s curriculum vitae allows him to be taken seriously. And even though he is no longer in office, the views he espouses still resonate in Madrid’s corridors of power.

Regardless of what the Zionist lobby may claim, Israel can count Spain as a loyal customer of its arms industry. The Madrid government’s occasional gestures of sympathy towards the Palestinians amount to little more than posturing and are worthy only of contempt.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 28 April 2011