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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why should Israeli settlers influence an Irish election?

The Ireland I grew up in was a repressive place. Some of the best friends of my adolescence were gay but they could not tell anyone. It wasn’t until they were in their 20s or 30s that they finally had the confidence to come out.

The country’s ban on homosexual relations was overturned primarily because of one man: David Norris. Throughout the 1980s, he fought a long battle in the Irish courts. He didn’t win, so he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where he did. Eventually, gay relations were decriminalized. That was in 1993, a mere 18 years ago.

Today, David Norris is a candidate for the post of Ireland’s president. As an emigrant, I don’t have a vote in the election scheduled for next month. If I did, I would cast it for him.

Norris has tirelessly championed human rights at home and abroad. Together with a retired bus driver Tom Hyland, he made the situation in East Timor a priority issue for Irish foreign policy in the 1990s. And while the Dublin government accommodated the invasion of Iraq by allowing Shannon Airport become a de facto US military base, Norris called for George W Bush and Dick Cheney to be tried for war crimes.

Palestine solidarity lands him in trouble

Yet it is his support for the Palestinians that has landed Norris in the most trouble.

As I wrote last month, Norris withdrew from the presidential race because of a smear campaign undertaken by Zionist blogger John Connolly. (Happily, Norris has now returned to the contest and has been formally nominated as a candidate).

Connolly drew attention to how Norris had written to an Israeli court in 1997 urging it to be lenient towards his former partner Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of having sex with a minor. By Norris’s own admission, it was an error of judgment for him to make the appeal. But there is a huge difference between requesting leniency for an offender and approving of an offense. In this case, all Norris did was say that his friend was an otherwise decent man, who would be unlikely to ever commit such an offense again.


Well-respected

Although I have met Norris a few times, I don’t know Nawi. But I understand that he is well-respected among Palestine solidarity activists. A plumber by profession, Nawi has spent many years rebuilding Palestinian houses that have been destroyed by the Israeli military. In October 2009, he was sentenced to a month in a jail for obstructing an Israeli bulldozer that was being used to demolish Bedouin homes in the South Hebron area. Norris has been hugely supportive of his ex-partner’s political work by, among other things, raising funds for it.

John Connolly has written that his knowledge of Nawi is mostly based on conversations he had with “the Jewish community of Judah and Shomron, who have fought with Nawi for many years.” Judah and Shomron – or Judea and Samaria – is a name Zionists give to the West Bank. The “community” referred to here is comprised of illegal settlers.

Nawi has been punished for his past misdemeanor. Yet the settlers who keep Connolly “informed” enjoy the full support of the Israeli state, even though their activities contravene international law.

I don’t see why Israeli settlers should have any say in who becomes president of Ireland. And I don’t see why David Norris should be pilloried for doing nothing worse than saying his friend was someone of good character.

Our president is supposed to represent all the Irish people, wherever they live. I would be proud to have David Norris representing me.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 29 September 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hasbara in Helsinki

Here we go again. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is portraying the Israel-Palestine conflict as one between equals.

In a speech today, Ashton congratulated herself for increasing Europe’s involvement in something called the Middle East peace process. “I have worked to achieve a greater EU role as I believe we are ideally placed as a friend of both parties,” she said.

What kind of friend is the EU leadership to the Palestinians? The kind that refuses to heed an appeal made by representatives of a wide cross-section of Palestinian society in 2005 for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

That is illustrated this week in Helsinki, where the European Union Contest for Young Scientists is taking place. Sponsored by the European Commission (a political body to which Ashton belongs), it features two finalists from Israel.

Greenwashing apartheid

Both of the qualifying projects chime with the propaganda of the Israeli state, or hasbara as it is known in Hebrew. The first one is in the social science category and seeks to demonstrate that fascism has roots in left-of-center politics. “Hopefully, this insight would be useful in fighting future fascism,” a blurb for the project says – without adding that Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk are nurturing a quasi-fascist intolerance in Israel.

The second project tries to reinforce the myth that Israel is ecologically responsible. Titled “Antileaks,” it designs a system for detecting leaks in water systems. I would be interested to find out if the system will be installed in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israeli settlers consume an average of 280 liters per day (in a desert environment), whereas Palestinians living in the West Bank have to make do with 73 (less than the 100 liters minimum recommended by the World Health Organization).

The Commission has some nerve supporting Israeli water conservation projects. For – as I have written repeatedly – it is a generous contributor of grants to makers of Israeli weapons like Elbit, Israeli Aerospace Industries and Rafael. Those firms helped destroy 30 kilometers of water networks, 6,000 home water tanks and 11 wells during Israel’s assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

“Avoid” Israel’s arms

On a more positive note, the European Parliament voted today that the EU should “avoid” involving countries that do not respect human rights, UN resolutions or international law in scientific research projects with potential military applications. This call was contained in a position paper approved by the Parliament on the future of EU research policy. Even though Israel was not named, the call was clearly directed at the Zionist state. Israel is the most active non-European participant in the Union’s multi-annual research programme.

Undoubtedly, the BDS activists who have urged members of Parliament (MEPs) to take up the cudgels against Israel deserve a drink to celebrate this vote. But the activists should restrict their imbibing to one glass and get straight back to work. Democracy is routinely ignored in the EU’s corridors of power, so there is little immediate likelihood that Israeli arms companies will be deemed ineligible for further science grants just because that is what a majority of elected representatives advocate. The future, though, is unwritten. With enough public support, the momentum created by the BDS campaign should prove unstoppable.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 27 September 2011.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dublin treated with double standards by Brussels elite

Sometimes it is the softly-spoken who can be the most dangerous. Olli Rehn is a case in point.

A few months ago, Ireland’s EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn made this observation about Rehn’s initial handling of the financial crisis in her country (and mine): “This was ‘Mr Nasty’ coming in to tell the Irish people and the Irish government what to do. And then suddenly, he gave an interview on television and people said, ‘This guy. Mr Nasty?’ It doesn’t fit with the man at all. He explained everything in a very reasonable way.”

Rehn may be an affable bloke. But as the Union’s economic policy chief, he is implementing measures that have nasty consequences.

I have obtained copies of the briefing notes that Brussels officials prepared for Rehn when he was pondering what should be done about Ireland in 2010 and the beginning of 2011. The stench of arrogance and callousness from these papers is overpowering.

Right now, I am reading a “scene setter” that Rehn perused before a November meeting with Irish opposition leaders and “social partners” (as representatives of bosses and workers are called – misleadingly – in Brussels parlance). It dismisses a call by trade unions to extend the 2014 deadline by which Ireland has been enjoined to bring down its budget deficit to within 3% of gross domestic product (GDP). “Even if this was politically feasible, it would be an arithmetical impossibility,” the document says. “Financial markets will simply not allow Ireland to kick the can further down the road.”

“We know best”

I’m not a huge admirer of Ireland’s trade union leadership, mainly because it has been too eager to curry favour with the powerful. But the EU officials’ attitude of “we know best” is disgusting. The deficit limits they regard as sacrosanct are the result of arbitrary criteria that make sense only to the German government and its slavish followers in the Commission and the European Central Bank.

It is also significant that another internal Commission document contradicts the line from Rehn’s team. This second document is a briefing note prepared for a meeting between José Manuel Barroso, the institution’s president, and Klaus Regling, head of the European Financial Stability Facility (the “bail-out” backstop for eurozone countries), in December. It says that the 3% deadline should be postponed to 2015 as this would be a “more credible target”. Something that was an “arithmetical impossibility” less than a month earlier became feasible with a click of the fingers.

A third paper indicates that a general election held in Ireland during February this year was essentially fought on lies. The centre-right Fine Gael, which emerged as the largest party after that poll, promised voters that it would “burn the bondholders” and that Irish banks would not receive another cent from the state until they imposed losses on creditors. Yet the Commission’s document, dating from January, suggests Brussels had already told senior figures in Fine Gael to rule out that option. “A possible involvement of banks’ senior bondholders (‘haircut’) has been excluded and renegotiating this would run counter to the progamme’s main objective – restoring confidence in the Irish banking sector,” it says.

Callous indifference to suffering

The most disturbing thing about the 11 internal documents I’ve seen is how they call savage cuts to social expenditure “appropriate”, without registering a smidgen of concern for the people affected. The cuts are proving especially cruel to children with learning difficulties. A report shown by the national broadcaster RTE recently illustrated how one school in Wexford – a county in the south-east – has lost five special needs assistants. That story is being replicated across Ireland, hampering children from learning the most basic skills such as the ability to write their own name.

It is a tenet of elementary justice that nobody should be punished for a crime he or she did not commit. Why is Olli Rehn punishing Irish children for a crime of which they are entirely innocent? And why should education be hit at all? Even during its “Celtic Tiger” boom, Ireland was spending proportionately less on schooling than the average for industrialised countries, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

If Rehn’s team had been a little more thorough in its research, it would have realised that despite Ireland’s problems, the country still has a fair amount of wealth. Merrill Lynch (now Bank of America’s wealth management division) has calculated that the country had 19,000 “high net worth individuals” (HNWIs) last year, a rise of 5% from 2009. HNWIs are people with over $1 million in “investable assets”.

It is striking that the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) has been demanding all kinds of measures that hurt ordinary people. It has demanded the scrapping of the minimum wage, downsizing of the public sector and reform of social welfare to “incentivise” work. Yet IBEC and its chums in the Irish government and the Brussels institutions won’t contemplate going after the rich. Why can’t a limit be set on the amount of money people can have, so that they are required to hand over anything above that limit to the exchequer?

Paul Krugman, the economist, last week compared Europe’s austerity agenda to bloodletting. Doctors no longer believe that patients can be healed by draining their blood; they will just get weaker. The same goes for economic management, yet Rehn and the blinkered bureaucrats around him are continuing to prescribe medicine that simply doesn’t work.

●First published by New Europe, 26 September 2011.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why is there a peace center named after that thug Peres?

A rare snapshot of how the Israel lobby tries to manipulate media coverage has been provided by a blogger known as Guido Fawkes.

He has published details of an email sent earlier in September by Lorna Fitzsimons, head of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM). It gives details of contacts she has made with senior journalists and editors to try and cajole them into giving a pro-Zionist line.

Fitzsimons says, for example, that she briefed Jonathan Ford, an editorial writer with The Financial Times as he was preparing a leader for the paper’s 13 September edition. Ford seems to have been amenable to Zionist propaganda. The article in question listed four principles that “must underpin” the creation of a Palestinian state. One of them was that Palestinian refugees would receive a payment “for not exercising the right to return.”

That point was similar to one made by Fitzsimons in an opinion piece published by The Guardian last month; she wrote, “there cannot be a mass return of Palestinian refugees to [present-day] Israel.”

Making apartheid respectable

Another principle advocated by the FT was that a future Palestinian state would have to recognize Israel’s “existence and security.” In the absence of clearer guidance, it can only be assumed that the paper’s editorial writer wants Palestinians to accept Israel as a state where Jews have more entitlements than everyone else. And so apartheid is being given a veneer of respectability from the paper most commonly read by top-level businesspeople and politicians.

The FT is not the worst culprit in whitewashing Israel’s crimes. Its readers were reminded this week of a salient fact that is frequently overlooked: “the biggest single enlargement of the settlements took place in 1992-96, at the high-water mark of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, when the number of settlers grew by 50 per cent, or four times the rate of population growth inside Israel.”

One of the great travesties of modern times is that Peres, now Israel’s president, is fêted internationally as a peacemaker, despite how he has always been a grubby arms dealer. His enthusiasm for extreme violence has remained undiminished. After Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, he penned a column celebrating how Israeli scientists were using nanotechnology to develop miniscule weapons of the future.

Free trade fantasy

Peres even has a “center for peace” called after him. And a few days ago, I received a new paper from the Aix Group, which is closely linked to that center. It recommends that a future Palestinian state should sign a free trade agreement with Israel.

Tellingly, the paper was compiled with “generous support” from the World Bank, an institution with a largely unrivalled reputation for increasing the hardship endured by the world’s poor. The idea that a free trade agreement between a future Palestinian state and Israel would bring benefits to most ordinary Palestinians belongs to the realm of fantasy. Recent history has shown repeatedly that a poor country pays a terrible price when it liberalizes its trade with a richer one. Two million farm jobs have been lost in Mexico as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), primarily because its corn farmers haven’t been able to compete with imports from the US.

Peres and his acolytes tend to harp on about how they are fostering cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. This does not lead to peace – at least if you accept Martin Luther King’s definition of peace as not being the absence of war but the presence of justice. Peres is no peacemaker; he is a thug who just happens to fit well into the suits of a statesman.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 September 2011.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Israel pays for junket by British MPs

Could the Israeli government be buying favors from British members of parliament (MPs)?

I spent some time today wading through the register of financial interests for MPs from the Conservatives, the party of prime minister David Cameron. These showed that a number of them took part in a trip to the Middle East in early summer that was funded by Israel’s foreign ministry.

Declarations made by Chloe Smith, Aidan Burley, James Morris and Neil Parish cite estimates that the cost of their visit from 29 May to 3 June amounted to £1,548 ($2,429) each. They report that £574 of that sum came from the Israeli foreign ministry and the remaining £974 from an internal party group called Conservative Friends of Israel.

It is striking that the trip occurred at a time when Britain was in the process of changing its law on universal jurisdiction (the principle that a country may prosecute grave human rights abuses irrespective of where they occur) at the behest of Israel. In 2009, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s ex-foreign minister, chickened out of a trip to London because some political activists had sought a warrant for her arrest over Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza. Under a revised law that entered into force last week, new bureaucratic obstacles have been placed in the way of apprehending war criminals on British soil.

Watering down war crimes law

The Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), which organized the MPs’ trip, has been working diligently to have the universal jurisdiction law watered down to the liking of Israel’s politicians. And it is hard to believe that the fate of the new bill wasn’t discussed during the visit.

While the CFI likes to gloat of how it can attract 150 parliamentarians, 500 businesspeople and Cameron himself to its annual lunch, it is less transparent about the sources of its money.

According to the CFI’s website, both the summer trip and a previous one that it organized for MPs in February featured tours of production facilities run by the arms company Elbit. So I called the CFI to ask if Elbit is one of the group’s donors. “I don’t have to give you those details,” a spokeswoman told me.

I pressed a bit further and enquired why her group does not publish accounts. “According to the law, we don’t have to do that,” the spokeswoman replied, before calling a halt to our conversation.

I have also contacted Elbit, requesting if it provides support to CFI. I am still awaiting the firm’s response.

Elbit, let us never forget, is the maker of the Hermes drones that were used to attack civilians during Operation Cast Lead. The tacit support for that attack from both of Britain’s largest parties, Labor and the Conservatives, can partly be explained by how a consortium involving Elbit has provided the British army with a Hermes 450 drone for use in Afghanistan. Amnesty International has reported that engines used in Elbit’s drones have been fitted by a plant belonging to the company near England’s second largest city, Birmingham.

With economic and neo-imperial interests at stake, it is little wonder that the well-heeled Conservatives are not bothered by the plight of Gaza’s “little people”.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada, 20 September 2011.

War industry hijacks EU science programme

Sandwiched between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Britain had an insipid prime minister called John Major. When compared to his predecessor and successor, Major seems to have been a harmless character. He wasn’t.

Under Major, the experiment in capitalist extremism launched by Thatcher was taken a step further with the establishment of the Private Finance Initiative in 1992. That was the first systematic attempt to give profit-driven corporations large-scale responsibility for public services, including those that are essential to human life such as water and healthcare.

Major may not have been trendy. But he was a trendsetter. Here in Brussels, the “public-private partnership” model that he advocated has been copied faithfully by the European Commission, especially for the scientific research programme that it administers.

Although they have attracted scant media coverage, there are hugely important discussions taking place these days about what type of research the Union should finance. The current EU “framework programme” for research has been allocated 53 billion euros for the 2007 to 2013 period. The next multiannual programme, which will have the snappier name Horizon 2020, could gobble up as much as 100 billion euros, if some of the proposals under consideration are put into effect.

No separation between poacher and gamekeeper


Major corporations are already involved in every stage of the programme. They dominate the 36 or so “platforms” now setting the priorities for EU-financed research on everything from computing to nutrition. In some cases, the recommendations of these coalitions of interest groups have had devastating consequences. EU decisions to support the greater use of biofuels in transport – a policy widely blamed by anti-poverty specialists for increasing global hunger as it involves using food crops to power cars – can be traced back to papers drawn up by the oil and biotechnology firms that set the agenda for the Union’s research in that area.

What happens after the corporations put forward their proposals? They benefit directly from their implementation by taking part in numerous projects bankrolled by the European taxpayer. As a result, there is no separation between the poacher and the gamekeeper.

Unsatisfied by calling the shots, the corporations now want an even greater say in what they can do with your money and mine. Earlier this year, Brussels officials ran a “public consultation” exercise on the future direction of scientific research policy. A submission from EuropaBio, a group that wants us all to munch away merrily on genetically modified (GM) foods, was typical of many received from the private sector. It stated that “industry should be in the driving seat in a greater number of projects”.

Biotechnology firms are known to use emotive tactics to get their way. Syngenta and Pioneer are among the beneficiaries of an existing EU research project for “drought-tolerant yielding crops” (DROPS). While that 10 million euros scheme is portrayed as a contribution to famine prevention efforts, neither of those companies has a good track record of protecting the environment or the world’s poor. In 2006, Syngenta was fined one million reais (500,000 dollars) by the Brazilian institute for the environment and natural resources because it had defied a ban on planting GM crops within 10 kilometres of Iguacu National Park. Peasants who protested at the company’s transgressions suffered violence (including murder) at the hands of armed security guards.

BP masquerades as green champion


The Zero Emissions Platform is similarly bold. It is seeking that the EU directly fund more than 50% of the research and development costs for the carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes its members are working on. CCS is being sold as a planet-saving activity, whereby greenhouse gases from power plants are trapped and stored underground, rather than released into the environment. But the companies taking part in the Platform are anything but green. Among them are BP, which, according to its own data, was the source of 6% of all carbon dioxide emissions throughout the world in 2004. Shell, the despoiler of the Niger Delta, and Total, that trusted supporter of Burma’s totalitarian regime, are in there, too.

If there is one thing worse than tasking polluters with managing the environment, then it is giving the war industry responsibility for job creation. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, weapons manufacturers scented an opportunity to get their blood-stained paws on EU science cash. A whole new theme of “security research” was introduced to the EU’s programme just for their benefit.

Whereas most of the Union’s programme falls within the bailiwick of the Commission’s directorate-general (DG) for research, the security component is handled by its enterprise DG. Using freedom of information rules, I obtained some documents last week giving details of discussions held between Günter Verheugen, then the EU commissioner for enterprise, and the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) in 2009. ASD was adamant that DG Enterprise should remain in charge of security research, claiming that it alone could be the “guardian” of the arms industry’s interests in the Commission. The documents hint that other divisions of the EU bureaucracy might be too squeamish to hand over public money to war profiteers.

The priorities identified by ASD include work on pilotless drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), those killing machines used by America in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by Israel in Gaza. Why is the development of weapons being treated as an enterprise issue in Brussels, and by implication, viewed as something helpful to the European economy? Science should aim to improve lives, not destroy them.

·First published by New Europe, 19 September 2011.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

EU helps Israeli colonel pose as Florence Nightingale

A propaganda event aimed at showing the Israeli military in a positive light is being supported by the European Union this week.

The Society for Medical Innovation and Technology (SMIT) conference in Tel Aviv features Gil Hirschhorn, surgeon-general with the Israeli air force, as a keynote speaker. Running from yesterday until Friday, it is sponsored by the EU’s multi-billion euro scientific research programme.

Why is the EU helping Hirschhorn to masquerade as a Florence Nightingale-type figure when he is a colonel in an army that abuses human rights as a matter of routine? His resumé notes that he was medical officer with the military’s Galilee division from 2004 until the end of Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006. After that, he was put in charge of trauma issues for the military.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of how the army in which he serves has caused widespread trauma for the Palestinian and Lebanese people. There is a strong likelihood he and other speakers are bragging about the state-of-the-art equipment that can be found in Israel’s hospitals. Yet Israel has caused major damage to health facilities on which the civilian populations it has bombed in recent years depend. While Hirschhorn was attending to the military’s medical needs in August 2006, his comrades attacked the Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek, Lebanon, partly destroying it.

Horrific injuries, immoral thinking

As a surgeon, Hirschhorn should be particularly horrified by the injuries received by victims of cluster bombs used by Israel in that war. An article published by the Inter Press Service news agency on Monday reminds us of something that has faded from our memory: how Israel dropped more cluster bombs in Lebanon than any other country had since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Cluster bombs can literally slice the limbs off those who happen upon them. Because these bombs remain lethal for years, they are continuing to kill and maim. There have been more than 400 cluster bomb casualties in Lebanon -- 115 of them children or teenagers -- since the war stopped in 2006.

When I was researching my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation, several Brussels officials told me they believed the EU was right to allocate research grants to Israel because that country was developing innovative treatments for cancer and other diseases. The inference was that the Union should have no qualms about including in its scientific research activities a state that has prevented seriously ill patients in Gaza from travelling to Egypt to receive specialist care.

The SMIT conference is another example of this immoral thinking, which holds that Israel, a high-tech human rights abuser, should be mollycoddled on the basis that it might come up with a cure for cancer.

“Aware” of Ahava’s illegal acts

Last month, I wrote about how Ahava, the firm manufacturing cosmetics in the illegal Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Shalem, is one of the beneficiaries of the EU’s multi-annual research programme.

Keith Taylor, a British member of the European Parliament (MEP), has just received a response to a formal query he made on this subject. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU’s research commissioner, told him that she was “aware” there was an issue here. The Union’s civil servants are “scrutinizing options” in order to be “evaluate and potentially address” this situation when future grant applications are being assessed, she said.

The acknowledgement of the problem can be considered a small victory for those Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigners who have complained to the EU bureaucracy about Ahava. But the choice of words used in the reply shows that Geoghegan-Quinn and her aides don’t regard this dossier as an urgent one. Keeping them under pressure is vital.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 14 September 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Homeless suffer most from demolition of Europe's welfare states

The world is a nastier place than it was this day 10 years ago.

But I am not writing about the legacy of the monstrous crimes committed on 11 September 2001. Instead, I wish to concentrate on how Europe is treating its most vulnerable inhabitants more callously.

To illustrate this point, I would refer you to the draft agenda awaiting MEPs in Strasbourg this week. Amid debates on agriculture, aviation and “excessive deficits”, the European Parliament has reserved a little time to talk about homelessness. The slot for this discussion is between 9pm and midnight on Tuesday, when the chamber will be almost empty.

Does that mean that the EU institutions are ignoring the marginalised? Not quite. Some 438 MEPs signed a “written declaration” in 2008 exhorting the Union to set an objective of ensuring that nobody has to sleep rough by 2015. It is an aspiration worthy of support. Yet it will inevitably be missed if the deliberate, ideologically-driven, demolition of Europe’s welfare states continues.

Small steps in the right direction are being followed by blatant U-turns. Also in 2008, Hungary became the first central or eastern European country to introduce a national strategy for overcoming homelessness. At the end of last month the top official in charge of issues relating to homelessness in Budapest City Council resigned because its mayor refused to rescind a new law threatening those who sleep outdoors with a €190 fine.

Criminalising the poor

This tendency to regard the extremely poor as criminal can be found in other countries with right-leaning governments. In March, Westminster Council in London, which is run by David Cameron’s Conservative Party, banned rough sleeping. Kind individuals who feed people shivering under cardboard could also be penalised as a result of the measure approved by the well-heeled politicians.

Far from providing the desperate with an alternative to the pavements, the Tories are slashing away mercilessly at the services that provide the homeless with a shred of dignity. About 60% of organisations working with the homeless in Britain have reported cuts to their budgets this year.

Feantsa, the coalition of homelessness groups in Europe, has documented how the problems facing the global economy have been used as a pretext to wield a machete against social expenditure. Half of all homelessness services in Greece have been shut down at a time when there has been a 20% rise in demand for such services. Portugal has a particularly high level of “hidden homelessness”, where the impoverished have to squeeze themselves into overcrowded accommodation. State funding for an Irish scheme for housing people who are progressing out of homelessness was reduced from €145 million in 2010 to €75 million this year.

Please don’t accept assurances that these reductions are caused by technical adjustments needed to ensure a long-term recovery of the economy. In all of these countries, corporate federations and their chums in government buildings have been pushing for savage cutbacks to public expenditure because they have sniffed an opportunity to widen inequality. In Portugal, Pedro Ferraz da Costa from the business-financed think tank Forum for Competitiveness, has rejoiced at how a programme for remodelling the country’s economy that “no party would ever have put forward” in recent decades is being ushered through. The politician-turned-businessman Peter Sutherland has warned that Ireland’s credibility is in jeopardy unless “hard decisions” are taken. In a darkly comical twist, Sutherland is unperturbed about his own credibility after chairing both Goldman Sachs International and BP, two outfits that have played Russian roulette with the global economy and the environment.

Capitalist buccaneers like Sutherland have been egged on by Olli Rehn and his kindred spirits in the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund: men in expensive suits who camouflage their true intentions with a calm demeanour and impenetrable jargon.

TB makes a comeback

One especially depressing aspect of these cuts is that it they are facilitating a rise in the incidence of diseases most of us associate more with historical memoirs like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt than with present-day Europe. London has the highest rate of tuberculosis among western European capitals. Detected TB cases there increased from 2,300 in 1999 to over 3,400 a decade later. The homeless, chronic drug users and people who had been in prison are most at risk.

Brussels, meanwhile, has the same rate of TB as it did 20 years ago (30 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants). About half of all TB victims here are so poor they lack adequate shelter or only eat one meal a day. A recent study published in the magazine Homeless in Europe blamed the persistence of the problem on underfunding. One of the two health centres that provided treatment for TB in this city was closed down last year.
Migrants across the EU frequently encounter problems in securing accommodation. An estimated 30% of the 100,000 undocumented migrants in the Netherlands are people whose applications for asylum have been rejected. They are neither allowed to work nor to live in social housing.
Rather than examining how to help these people, our MEPs will this week approve a plan to strengthen Frontex, the EU’s agency for kicking foreigners out of Europe. In so doing, they will perpetuate the myth that building a bigger fortress makes us safer and wealthier. The truth is that the only purpose served by following an agenda dictated by the far-right is to let nastiness and bigotry prevail.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 12 September 2011.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Sacred" 9/11 and the shock doctrine in Palestine

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. And predictably, there has already been an excess of analysis in the mainstream media about the significance of the monstrous crimes committed a decade ago. Equally predictably, most of the analysis is repetitive and superficial.

Nonetheless, when I flicked through some newspapers, I came across a comment that came close to echoing my own thoughts. It was from a writer called Amy Waldman, whose debut novel The Submission was published recently. Waldman argues that the date of 11 September 2001 is now considered sacred in the United States. Indeed, it has been imbued with so much sacredness that there is “no limit to the profanity justified to preserve it.”

In an insult to the innocent people killed 10 years ago, the US establishment has used their deaths as an excuse to launch all-out-attacks against the defenceless populations of Afghanistan and Iraq and to bomb Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Israel, meanwhile, was quick to jump on George Bush’s bandwagon and to claim that its ceaseless oppression of the Palestinian people made it an indispensable ally in the so-called war on terror.

Israel has chalked up a long list of profanities over the past decade. I will now zoom in on one of them: a 2002 offensive named Operation Defensive Shield.

That operation began at the end of March 2002 with the bombing of the compound where Yasser Arafat was based in Ramallah. Altogether it lasted four months, involved the Israeli military reinvading parts of the West Bank they were supposed to have vacated under the Oslo accords and killing almost 500 Palestinians, over 70 of whom were children. Perhaps its most infamous episode was the sustained shelling of Jenin refugee camp, where more than 4,000 people were left homeless because of the systematic demolition of buildings. Medical relief teams were blocked from entering the camp for 10 days during a two-week period, when 54 Palestinians in the camp were killed. Amnesty International and other human rights groups who investigated the events stated plainly that Israel had perpetrated war crimes.

Shock doctrine in Palestine

At a time when people in the West Bank were still traumatized by Israel’s latest acts of brutality, Palestine fell victim to what the Naomi Klein has subsequently called the shock doctrine. In June 2002, Salam Fayyad took over as finance minister of the Palestinian Authority after Yasser Arafat was strongarmed into appointing him by the United States and the European Union.

According to the official narrative, Fayyad was appointed to root out corruption in the PA. Undoubtedly, such corruption was a major problem, yet I do not believe that tackling it was a high priority for the West. Instead, there is ample evidence to indicate that Fayyad was imposed on the PA because he was regarded as somebody that would do more or less exactly what the US and Europe told him to do.

As he has become the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister since then, it is important to ask the question: who exactly is Salam Fayyad?

For almost 15 years before he joined the PA, Fayyad worked for the International Monetary Fund, which is largely controlled by the US Treasury. He was clearly inculcated with the neoliberal dogma laid down by that institution, judging by the economic blueprints that he has signed. These have placed the interests of a corporate elite ahead of those of ordinary Palestinians. He has recommended, for example, that more than one-fifth of all public sector jobs should be cut by the PA.

Fayyad has had his ego inflated enormously over the past few years. He has received lavish praise from that vile war criminal Tony Blair and from Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. And his old pals in the IMF and the World Bank have fed his delusions of grandeur by stating that the PA is sufficiently prepared to assume the responsibilities of statehood. According to Fayyad, these assurances amount to the “birth certificate” of a Palestinian state.

Neoliberal birth cert

What kind of a “birth certificate”, then, is being drawn up for the state which Fayyad wants to have recognised at the UN later this month? This certificate will say, implicitly if not explicitly, that Palestine must pursue economic policies that have been shown time and time again to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Institutions like the IMF are determined to keep the Palestinian economy on a tight leash, just as they have with many other economies around the world.

The Netherlands is one of several EU governments that has signalled it will oppose the vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN. This proves once again that Uri Rosenthal and Mark Rutte, the Dutch foreign minister and premier, will do almost anything that Israel requests them to do. But that doesn’t mean the PA’s statehood initiative should be supported, simply because some of the most reactionary political leaders in Europe are against it.

The truth is that even those European governments, like that of Spain, who have indicated they will back the statehood initiative cannot be considered real friends of the Palestinian people. And I emphasize that I mean the Palestinian people as a whole, not the quislings in the Palestinian Authority. For all 27 states in the EU and all of the major EU institutions have increased their cooperation with Israel so considerably in recent years that all of them must be considered complicit in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.

Europe sides with the aggressor

I will cite one example of EU-Israel cooperation, with which I have become slightly obsessed. This cooperation is in the field of scientific research. Israel is the most active non-European participant in the EU’s multi-annual research programme. That programme has been allocated €53 billion between 2007 and 2013, with Israel taking part in some 800 coordinated activities under it.

A few days ago, I checked Cordis, the EU’s online information service on scientific research, to see if there are many cases where Dutch universities or private firms are linked up with Israel in projects funded by the European taxpayer. The result of my search indicated that the number of such projects involving both the Netherlands and Israel could be as high as 200.

To give you a flavour of these projects, there is one called Maaximus, which is designed to make aeroplanes that are lighter and can be more quickly assembled than the ones you will find landing today at Schiphol. This 70 million euro project brings together several Dutch partners, including the University of Eindhoven and the National Aerospace Laboratory here in Amsterdam, with Israel Aerospace Industries. Israel Aerospace Industries is one of the main suppliers of the pilotless drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that were used to bomb civilians during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

Towards the end of this year, the European Commission is scheduled to publish a formal blueprint for the future of EU scientific research policy. From all of the discussions I and others have had with EU officials about the surrounding themes, it appears that the Commission is determined to keep on subsidising Israeli weapons manufacturers and by extension providing support to Israeli war crimes.

The EU’s decision to embrace the Israeli arms industry more tightly than before is partly a result of lobbying by international weapons manufacturers. They have convinced policy-makers that it is necessary to allocate them more resources to ensure that Europe doesn’t have to deal with its own 11 September.

Well, I remain unconvinced that subsidising an industry that relies on war to generate profits makes us or future generations safer. And even if it did, I do not want even one cent of my tax euros to be given to Israeli arms companies. This support for companies who profit from oppressing Palestinians is the most grotesque aspect of the EU’s relationship with Israel. And that is why it must be stopped.

·This talk was delivered at an event hosted by the Netherlands Palestine Committee in Amsterdam this weekend. First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada), 11 September 2011.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Without a government, Belgium buddies up to Israel

Belgium has not had a properly functioning government for more than 450 days yet that hasn’t stopped its caretaker administration from seeking to increase trade with Israel.

Earlier this week, Yves Leterme, the acting Belgian prime minister, opened a new embassy for his country in Tel Aviv and held talks with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Leterme used his trip to argue “there is room for improvement of our economic relations in fields like pharmaceuticals, information technology, biotechnology.”

Leterme lacks any democratic mandate; he is only supposed to be handling essential affairs of state until leaders of the parties that fared best in a 2010 election stop bickering for long enough to form a ruling coalition. Discussing how to bolster commercial bonds with Israel amounts to an abuse of his position.

Diamonds are a war criminal’s best friend

It is especially troubling that Leterme celebrated the importance of the diamond trade between the two countries, citing estimates that it is worth more than €2 billion per year. Shir Hever, the Israeli economist and political activist, has stated that revenue from processing diamonds provides annual funding of about $1 billion (€730 million) for the Israeli military. Diamonds account for 70% of trade between Belgium and Israel, with numerous Israeli traders working in Antwerp, one of the two main centres of the diamond trade in Europe (the other one is in London). By encouraging this trade, Belgium is helping to finance the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Leterme’s visit took place the same week that a design exhibition sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry opened in Brussels. I am pleased to say that the gallery where this “Brand Israel” event is taking place has been the site of several protests by Palestine solidarity activists. The exhibition has also received support from the city administration in Brussels and representatives of the Francophone community and the French embassy in Belgium. All of them stand accused of helping Israel to use art and culture as a means of diverting attention from its crimes.

Jazz guitarist heedless to boycott plea

Another Belgian embracing Israel is the jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. He is scheduled to play Tel Aviv next week. Going ahead with that gig would mean he is putting his own selfish interests before a call made by representatives of a wide cross-section of Palestinian society in 2005 for people of conscience (and that includes musicians) to boycott Israel. In an interview with the Dutch-language newspaper De Morgen, Catherine said: “I play for people, not for politics. And not all Israeli people support the decisions of their government.”

Catherine should be alerted to a statement made by an Israeli government spokesman Nissim Ben-Sheetrit in 2005: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank and do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.”

Claims that music is apolitical cannot go unchallenged. Many of the finest practitioners of Catherine’s genre were African-Americans, who knew all about racial discrimination. Martin Luther King stressed the potency of jazz, when he said: “Much of the power of the freedom movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

The best thing that Catherine could do to lift the spirits of the oppressed is to cancel his show in Tel Aviv.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 9 September 2011.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Projection of US power: the real reason for war in Libya

The reasons why NATO’s official narrative about its war in Libya should not be accepted can be summed up in one word: WikiLeaks.

According to the propaganda from this US-led alliance, Libya was bombed to keep its civilians out of harm’s way. Anyone inclined to believe that blather is advised to read a February 2009 note sent to Hillary Clinton from Ronald Spogli, then about to leave his post as America’s ambassador in Rome.

Spogli’s cable – as made public by Julian Assange’s courageous combo – attaches much importance to the US Africa Command (Africom), which was established under George W Bush’s presidency in 2007. While Africom’s headquarters are in Stuttgart, two of its key offices are in Italy.

“Italy provides a unique geostrategic platform within Europe for US forces, allowing us to reach easily into troubled areas throughout the Middle East, Africa and Europe,” Spogli wrote. “And because of that advantage, Italy is home to the most comprehensive set of military capabilities - from the 173rd Airborne to cutting edge Global Hawks - that we have anywhere outside the United States.” Later on, he adds: “With the establishment of Africom, Italy has become an even more significant partner in our power projection calculations.”

True, Spogli expressed some reservations about Silvio Berlusconi, saying “he is not as attuned to our political rhythms as he is wont to believe”. Yet the ambassador was even more effusive in an earlier cable, dating from August 2008. “Italy remains our most important European ally for projecting military power into the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa,” he told Dick Cheney, then America’s vice-president. “We have 14,000 US military and DOD [Department of Defence] civilian personnel and 16,000 of their family members on five Italian bases.”

Calling the shots

So that is what the war in Libya is really about: a projection of power. Even though France started the bombing in March, the US has emphasised that it calls the shots. Robert Gates, its defence secretary until recently, stated in June that the bombardment required the stationing of extra targeting specialists, primarily from the US, in NATO’s air operations centre in Italy. Europe is supposed to be grateful for this helping hand, Gates implied.

Ruffle through the WikiLeaks treasure trove a bit further and you’ll see that power is being projected in at least three directions: towards Tripoli, Beijing and Moscow.

Several cables can be found where America indicates its frustration with efforts by Muammar Gaddafi to let Libya get a bigger share of revenue from the exploitation of the country’s oil resources than Western multinationals were prepared to give it. A 2007 document says that the US should explain to Gaddafi that there are “downsides” to the renegotiation of contracts with energy giants. After such firms as ExxonMobil, Total (France), Eni (Italy) and Petro-Canada, had to cough up over $5 billion as a result of rejigged contracts, another cable warned in 2008 that Tripoli’s approach was establishing an international precedent. Using diplomatic language, this was described as a “new paradigm for Libya that is playing out worldwide in a growing number of oil producing countries.”

WikiLeaks has also shown that Gaddafi was wary of the $300 million-a-year Africom project. When he had a meeting with William “Kip” Ward, the general then in charge of Africom in 2009, Gaddafi reportedly predicted that China would “prevail in Africa” because it did not meddle in the internal affairs of African countries. Other cables hint at US unease with how Russia had secured energy and construction work in Libya. More generally, the aforementioned Spogli said: “We must recognize that Italy's buy-in will be crucial to any common US-EU energy security policy to counter [Vladimir] Putin's increasingly blatant and aggressive use of energy as a tool for increasing Russia's influence.”

Are we to deduce from his remarks that the US would never dream of using energy in that way? OK, that was a silly question.

Even though he was perturbed by the cordial ties between Berlusconi and Putin, Spogli appears to have been prescient. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister (who Spogli rates highly), stated over the past few weeks that Eni will have a “number one role in the future” of Libya.

Keen to flex muscles

Africom will undoubtedly now be keen to flex its muscles in other parts of Africa. A November 2010 report by the Atlantic Council, a “think-tank” partly financed by the arms industry, observed that 14% of natural gas and 18% of oil imported by the US comes from West Africa, principally Nigeria. Forecasting that the figure for oil will rise to 25% by 2015, the paper argued that America’s economic strength relies on a ready supply of oil at a stable price.

At the moment, the US has just one military base on the African continent: in Djibouti. WikiLeaks has revealed plans for the American private security firm Blackwater (now Xe) to work from Djibouti and use “lethal force” against pirates operating off Somalia. The same Blackwater, as we know, did not flinch at using force in Iraq.

A 2009 cable, meanwhile, alerted Africom to how China had 10 times more diplomats in the Central African Republic than the US. China was “ramping up its military cooperation” with the CAR, “a country rich in untapped natural resources”, the cable added.

Let us be clear: there is a new race to colonise Africa. America and its European cronies are determined to win it.

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 5 September 2011.

Cuddly image of Israel projected at Brussels design fair

“Brand Israel” is on its way to Brussels.

On Thursday (8 September), an exhibition showcasing Israeli designers will open in the Belgian capital. The colorful “happy material” chairs and funky vases on display will try to present a cuddly image of Israel, concealing how the state is wedded to apartheid and colonial expansion.

A catalogue for PromiseDesign, as the touring exhibition is called, emphasizes this point. “Happily, it [Israeli design] does not mirror aspects of the political drama in Israel and the Middle East,” design historian Mel Bryars writes in its preface. “Domestic daily design, such as products for daily life, remains rather light-hearted. Unlike macabre Israeli fine art, you will find no bullet holes in chairs, blood dripping from draperies, or a cynical vocabulary.”

Part of a bigger international design festival, the Brussels exhibition is sponsored by the Israeli embassy in Belgium.

Distracting attention from Israel’s crimes

PromiseDesign has previously visited Milan and Paris and clearly fits in with the concept of “Brand Israel.” That project was the result of several years of discussions between the Israeli foreign ministry and public relations firms (including the global giant Burson-Marsteller) to improve Israel’s image abroad.

“Brand Israel” had its first major international outing in Toronto in 2008, when a multi-million dollar promotional blitz began. The blitz culminated with a section devoted to Israeli cinema at the Toronto Film Festival the following year. This deliberate attempt to distract attention from Israel’s crimes -- most particularly, its assault on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 -- was denounced in a declaration signed by the writer Alice Walker, the singer David Byrne (formerly of Talking Heads), the film-maker Ken Loach, journalists John Pilger and Naomi Klein, the theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was murdered in Jenin earlier this year), and the subsequently deceased historian Howard Zinn.

Contrary to what Mel Bryars claims, art is not made in a vacuum. Allowing an exhibition to be sponsored by the Israeli state makes it political by definition.

And there is something obscene about celebrating “happy material” chairs from Israel, when schools in Gaza are so broke they struggle to provide seats for their teachers (as I heard John Ging, then head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), complain last year). The “light-hearted” design that Israel is promoting is intended to distract us from the suffocation of Palestine. For that reason, “Brand Israel” must be boycotted.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), 4 September 2011.