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Friday, September 28, 2012

Boycotter Israël : un devoir moral

La quête de justice menée par les Palestiniens pour la justice et la liberté pourrait se résumer en un seul et joli mot : sumoud. La traduction communément admise en anglais est ‘‘steadfastness’’ (persévérance, indéfectible, en français) mais je ne suis pas sûr que le terme anglais rende bien l’état d’esprit qui a habité le peuple au cours de ces décennies de dépossession.

Alors que la situation en Palestine continue d’être intolérable, un certain nombre de signes récents attestent que la persévérance porte ses fruits. Cela n’a rien à voir avec les ‘’leaders’’ tels que Mahmoud Abbas ou Salam Fayyad dont l’indulgence à l’égard de l’agression israélienne leur a valu les louanges de l’Occident. Non, les victoires ont été obtenues grâce à la campagne pour le boycott, le désinvestissement et les sanctions (BDS), lancée en 2005 contre Israël.

En mettant à l’index les entreprises qui apportent leur concours au non-respect des Droits de l’Homme, l’initiative lancée par des Palestiniens ordinaires a permis de rendre les plus voraces d’entre elles vulnérables face à l’indignation populaire. Ainsi, Veolia, le géant français du transport et des ‘services environnementaux’, a perdu de nombreux contrats à travers le monde en raison de son rôle dans la construction d’une ligne de tramway reliant entre elles deux colonies juives illégales situées à l’Est de Jérusalem. Agrexco, le principal exportateur de produits alimentaires, a déposé le bilan l’an dernier, en grande partie car des consommateurs européens avisés refusaient d’acheter les fruits et légumes que la firme commercialisait.

La campagne BDS est-elle sur le point d’inciter l’Union Européenne à passer à l’action ?

Eamon Gilmore, le Ministre Irlandais des Affaires Etrangères, a annoncé le souhait que soit considérée la question d’une possible interdiction des produits en provenance des colonies israéliennes de Cisjordanie lorsque l’Irlande prendra la présidence tournante de l’UE en 2013. Sa volonté affichée d’inscrire la question à l’ordre du jour est certes louable. Les produits en provenance de ces colonies –illégales au regard du droit international- auraient dû être interdits depuis longtemps.

Mais en refusant de considérer un boycott plus large d’Israël, Gilmore passe à côté de points importants (délibérément peut-être). Les tomates et autres avocats qui se verraient ainsi interdits si cette suggestion rencontrait un soutien large auprès des gouvernements de l’UE ne sauraient être accusés d’incitation aux crimes de guerre. Il est dès lors essentiel de cibler les entreprises et les hommes politiques responsables de l’oppression des Palestiniens – ou qui réalisent des profits sur le dos de cette oppression.

L’exemple des vins israéliens est très éloquent. Afin de dissimuler la manière dont le raisin qui a poussé sur les terres colonisées est fréquemment utilisé dans la production des différents vins, l’Institut Israélien pour l’Exportation (Israeli Export Institute) a opté pour une approche pour le moins originale de la géographie. La région de Shimson (ou Samson) a été établie entre les Monts de Jérusalem et la côte Méditerranéenne ; une partie se situe sur le territoire israélien reconnu officiellement au niveau international, une autre partie se trouve en Cisjordanie occupée. Comme cette région a été pensée dans le seul but de commercialiser du vin, il n’est pas difficile pour les vignerons de déclarer les fruits récoltés dans les colonies illégales comme provenant des vignes plantées en Israël. La meilleure chose à faire reste donc de refuser de consommer n’importe quel vin israélien. Des recherches menées par la coalition de femmes pour la paix (Coalition of Women for Peace, un groupe de militantes Israéliennes et Palestiniennes) ont démontré que l’industrie vinicole était intimement liée à l’occupation. De nombreux exportateurs Israéliens de vins sont ainsi impliqués dans la colonisation.

Ceux qui arguent qu’une interdiction complète des produits israéliens serait trop drastique seraient bien inspirés de lire le rapport publié par Al Haq, une organisation pour les droits de l’homme basée dans la ville de Ramallah en Cisjordanie. Le rapport établit que chaque fois qu’un Etat assiste un autre Etat ayant commis un acte illégal, il ‘adopte’ cet acte et devra à son tour en répondre. L’analyse d’Al Haq a été confirmée par d’éminents spécialistes de la question, dont John Dugard, ancien rapporteur spécial des Nations Unies pour les Droits de l’Homme en Palestine.

En 2004, la Cour Internationale de Justice a jugé illégal le mur de séparation érigé par Israël en Cisjordanie. L’arrêt a également mis l’accent sur le fait que d’autres gouvernements ne devaient pas apporter assistance à l’édification de ce mur.

La Commission Européenne a honteusement ignoré l’arrêt. Des entreprises qui ont fourni du matériel de surveillance –Elbit notamment- ont également bénéficié de substantiels crédits de recherche approuvés par la Commission. Certains gouvernements sont allés plus loin dans la reconnaissance : la firme d’armement conduit un programme de 1 milliard de Dollars afin de développer de nouveaux avions de guerre sans pilote pour le compte de l’armée britannique.

La lecture des rapports officiels émis par l’UE sur Israël a de quoi rendre perplexe. D’un côté les agissements d’Israël en Cisjordanie et à Gaza sont qualifiés d’aberration. De l’autre Israël est présenté comme un modèle de démocratie.

En réalité, il n’y a qu’un seul Etat d’Israël. Cet Etat discrimine aussi bien les Palestiniens qui composent un cinquième de la population israélienne que les Palestiniens vivant sous occupation. En Juillet, l’UE a offert de renforcer ses relations avec Israël dans environ 60 domaines. L’offre a été faite directement à Avigdor Liberman, le Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, dont le parti Yisrael Beitenu a participé à une série de mesures racistes adoptées par la Knesset (parlement Israélien).

Deux semaines auparavant, José Manuel Barroso recevait un diplôme honorifique de la part de l’Université d’Haifa. Un des fondateurs de cette institution, Arnon Sofer, a participé à la conception du mur en Cisjordanie et a soutenu que les Israéliens devaient tuer les Palestiniens ‘’toute la journée et tous les jours’’.

Au lieu de saisir l’occasion de condamner une incitation à la haine aussi flagrante, Barroso a mentionné la citation suivante de Nelson Mandela : ‘’ce n’est qu’après avoir franchi une haute colline, que l’on se rend compte qu’il reste de nombreuses collines à franchir’’.

Si les personnes chargées de la rédaction des discours de Barroso s’étaient donné la peine de chercher un peu plus, ils auraient pu inclure le commentaire plus pertinent du même Mandela ‘’notre liberté sera incomplète sans la liberté des Palestiniens’’.

L’université de Haifa a interdit à des étudiants palestiniens le droit de manifester. Est-ce que Barroso a dénoncé cette liberté incomplète ? Non. Il était trop occupé à flatter ici et là.

●Traduction: www.michelcollon.info

Monday, September 24, 2012

The demolition of Spain's welfare state

My little brain always had trouble with riddles. “Is it better to be nearly drowned or nearly saved?” An age seemed to pass before I had figured out the answer to that question.

Some day soon – assuming that newspaper predictions come true – Spain will apply for a “rescue package”. The inevitability that any such “package” or “bail-out” will have onerous conditions attached has got me thinking afresh about the riddle that blighted my boyhood. If a man is drowning, is it right to stamp your foot on his head?

Spain’s working and jobless people find themselves in the position of the metaphorical drowning man. Heartless ideologues – some based in Madrid; others outside the country – have exploited their plight to introduce “reforms” that would have not been contemplated a few years ago.

The journal Clinical Medicine has just published the results of a new study into the health effects of austerity measures in a sample of European countries. It argues that the centre-right government in Spain has “fundamentally reworked the healthcare system” within less than a year. Whereas all residents had previously been entitled to free medical attention, access to care is now being linked to employment. The upshot, then, is that Spain is becoming more like the US, where medical entitlements are also connected to holding a job. In the measured words of Martin McKee, a public health professor, and the other academics behind the study, “this creates a potentially serious situation in Spain, where over half of all youth are unemployed.”

Common sense?

Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, insists that the measures being implemented reflect “common sense”. The rules of democracy have not deterred him. He has resorted to both the standard practice of reneging on election pledges and the more extraordinary step of having decisions enforced by royal decree. Why let pesky legislative procedures stand in the way of “common sense”?

Of course, the next question should be: who benefits from this “common sense”? Could it be the kind of individuals who are applauding the measures most enthusiastically?

Francisco González, chief executive of the bank BBVA, belongs in that category. In April, he travelled to Berlin, where he addressed the Spanish-German Forum. He availed of the occasion to advocate “a labour law reform that eliminates the problems of collective bargaining”.

What this really means is that he was urging the kind of war against trade unions that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher waged in the 1980s. According to his mindset, the hard-won right of workers to bargain for decent wages is a problem that must be eliminated.

Like a tabloid journalist, González does not allow the truth get in the way of his story. The truth is that Spain’s economic woes were not caused by collective bargaining. They were caused by financial speculation. As part of a property bubble, more houses were built in Spain over the past decade than in Britain, France and Germany combined. Who profited from this speculation? Could it have been some of those bankers that González regaled in Berlin?

A careful reading of González’s comments might leave one wondering what he has to whinge about. He bragged of how BBVA “had earnings of 4.6 billion euros in 2010, the worst of the crisis”. It is known that German banks were heavily involved in property speculation in Spain and Ireland, where a similar construction boom took place. And yet DeutscheBank made a cool 8 billion euros in profits last year.

Who will stand to gain from any new “rescue package” for Spain? Could it be a banking elite?

Concealing the truth

The sycophants who surround Olli Rehn like to give the impression he has an unrivalled knowledge of Europe’s economic history. Yet the EU’s monetary affairs commissioner is not above concealing important details when it suits him.

Rehn recently said that “Europe is undergoing a difficult but necessary adjustments of imbalances” in the 10 years preceding 2008. “Countries that have been running current account deficits for a long time need to achieve surpluses in order to begin to reduce their debt,” he added.

A little bit of fact-checking reveals that Spain was not running a budget deficit before the crisis erupted. On the contrary, it ran a surplus.

In his bid to refashion the European economy, Rehn has decided to mislead. The crisis we are living through now is not the result of profligacy in the public sector. It is the result of lax regulation in the financial sector.

Asbjorn Wahl’s book The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State shows how strong social protection can’t be done on the cheap. To pursue the kind of social policies found in Scandinavia, it’s necessary for half the economy to be “under direct political control”, Wahl wrote.

In 2007 - before the crisis - Spain introduced a subsidy for new-born babies, the kind of benefit associated with Sweden. It has now been scrapped.

These kind of advances are not being reversed because Spain can no longer afford them. They are being reversed because they clash with the pervading philosophy among the EU’s powerful. According to that philosophy, “competitiveness” and profit maximisation must be prioritised over everything else.

With full connivance from the EU hierarchy, Spain is destroying the welfare state. When Rajoy speaks of “common sense”, he means that his demolition derby makes sense if you want capitalism to triumph and Europe to become a carbon copy of the US.

●First published by New Europe, 23-29 September 2012.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Boycotting Israel: a moral imperative

The Palestinian quest for justice and freedom can be summarised in one beautiful word: sumoud. Usually, it is translated as “steadfastness” but I’m not sure the English term properly evokes the spirit that has sustained a people through many decades of dispossession.

While the situation in Palestine remains intolerable, there have been a number of signs recently that the perseverance is producing results. This has nothing to do with “leaders” like Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, whose pandering to Israeli aggression has won them much praise in the West. Instead, the gains have been made through the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that was launched in 2005.

By shaming corporations who assist human rights abuses, this initiative by ordinary Palestinians has made even the greediest look vulnerable in the face of popular outrage. Veolia, the French transport and “environmental services” giant, has lost numerous municipal contracts throughout the world over its role in building a tramway linking together illegal Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem. Agrexco, Israel’s main food exporter, went bankrupt last year, largely because conscientious European shoppers were refusing to buy the fruit and vegetables it traded.

Is the BDS campaign about to prod the European Union into action?

Eamon Gilmore, the Irish foreign minister, has stated that he wishes to have a possible ban on goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank considered when Ireland holds the EU’s rotating presidency in 2013. His willingness to put this issue on the agenda is certainly commendable. Goods from these settlements – illegal under international law – should have been prohibited long ago.

Yet by refusing to contemplate a wider boycott of Israel, Gilmore is missing (perhaps deliberately) some key points. The tomatoes and avocadoes that would be banned if his suggestion wins enough support from other EU governments cannot be deemed guilty of abetting war crimes. It is, therefore, essential to target the companies and politicians responsible for the oppression of Palestinians – or making money from that oppression.

The example of Israeli wines is illustrative. In order to conceal how grapes grown on settlements are often used in wines, the Israeli Export Institute has taken a creative approach to geography. The region of Shimson (or Samson) has been established between the mountains of Jerusalem and the Mediterranean coast; part of it is in the internationally recognised state of Israel, part of it in the occupied West Bank. As this region has been imagined for the sole purpose of marketing wine, it’s not difficult for wineries to pass off fruit from illegal settlements as that grown inside Israel. The best thing to do, then, is to refuse to drink any Israeli wine. Research by Who Profits?, a project run by the Coalition of Women for Peace (a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists), has shown that the Israeli wine industry cannot be viewed separately from the occupation. Most Israeli wine exporters have some involvement with the settlements.

Those who argue that an outright ban on Israeli goods would be too drastic should study a new legal paper from Al Haq, a human rights organisation based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The paper says that when one state assists another state that has committed an unlawful act, the first state “adopts” that act and is fully answerable for it. Al Haq’s analysis has been endorsed by John Dugard, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, among other legal scholars.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the massive wall being built by Israel in the West Bank to be illegal. The ruling emphasised that other governments must not render assistance to the wall.

To its shame, the European Commission has ignored the ruling. Companies that have provided surveillance equipment to the wall – notably Elbit – have benefited considerably from scientific research grants subsequently approved by the Commission. Individual governments have hugged Elbit even tighter: the weapons-maker is leading a $1 billion programme to develop new pilotless warplanes for the British Army.

Reading official EU statements on Israel can be perplexing. Taken at face value, they infer that what Israel does in the West Bank and Gaza is some kind of aberration and that Israel is otherwise a model democracy.

In truth, there is only one state of Israel. This state discriminates against both those Palestinians who comprise about one-fifth of Israel’s population and those Palestinians who live under occupation. In July, the EU offered to strengthen its relations with Israel in about 60 different policy areas. The offer was made directly to Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, whose partly Yisrael Beitenu has sponsored a series of racist measures in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Two weeks earlier, José Manuel Barroso picked up an honorary degree from Haifa University. A founder that institution, Arnon Sofer, helped design Israel’s wall in the West Bank and has argued that Israelis should kill Palestinians “all day and every day”.

Rather than using the opportunity to condemn such blatant incitement to hatred, Barroso quoted Nelson Mandela’s observation: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

If Barroso’s speechwriters had searched a little harder they might have included a more apposite comment by Mandela: “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

Haifa University has banned protests by Palestinian students. Did Barroso decry this incomplete freedom? No, he was too busy fawning.

●First published by New Europe, 16-22 September 2012.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slaying the myths of NATO's Balkan Odyssey

Bare-chested on a hot afternoon, a young man tiptoes along the edge of the Mostar bridge. Tourists are asked to give him cash; once he has collected 25 euros, he will leap into the Neretva river beneath. By taking this frightening plunge, he will – according to local custom – prove his masculinity.

Not patient enough to wait until the magic sum has been amassed, I toddle towards a shop selling books and DVDs. A flat screen reminds us of how the milky limestone bridge – an architectural gem dating from the sixteenth century – was blown up on 9 November 1993. Croat forces were almost certainly to blame.

I haven’t been in Bosnia (strictly speaking, this is Herzegovina) since 1997. Younger and more idealistic then, I acted as an election monitor for the UN. I came away hypnotised by Bosnia’s beauty and by the myths of recent history. The salient myth went like this: Europe dithered pathetically as Yugoslavia disintegrated but good old Bill Clinton eventually came to the rescue.

Having learnt a little about international politics in the meantime, I now realise that saving lives in the Balkans was not high on America’s list of priorities. Rather, the US was determined to bring this region into its ambit. Under Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia made plain its distrust of NATO by setting up the Non-Aligned Movement. By bombing Bosnia’s Serbs and – in 1999 – Serbia, Clinton set in train a process whereby most, if not all, of the former Yugoslav federation would be integrated into a US-directed military alliance.

The praise often heaped on Clinton for his conduct of the war over Kosovo ignores how the worst acts of violence committed by Serbian forces happened after – not before - NATO intervened. Wesley Clark, NATO’s commander at the time, conceded that the Serbians were acting in response to the bombing and that their atrocities were “fully anticipated”. NATO, incidentally, perpetrated war crimes of its own – especially by spraying parts of Serbia with cluster bombs and by acting without a UN mandate – yet we are seldom reminded of these facts.

Despite the painstaking restoration of its bridge, the legacy of the 1990s war remains visible in Mostar. Buildings shelled elsewhere in the city have often gone unrepaired; many are empty and abandoned.

Across the border with Croatia, Dubrovnik was also the sight of much cultural vandalism. An exhibition of photographs opposite one of those Irish pubs I have grown to loathe depicts a fourteenth century Dominican church, its roof riddled with holes. It was one of 563 buildings within the old city’s walls hit by Serb and Montenegrin forces 20 years ago. Yet the million people who have visited Dubrovnik so far this year did not notice any destruction; everything has been fixed.

There are unsavoury sides to the tourist boom in Dubrovnik – which has just 45,000 all-year-round inhabitants. A boat trip around its port features a skipper pointing out the prices charged by hotels. Rooms in the favourite hotel of Russian billionaires cost 7,000 euro a night. “Mafia,” the captain says, lest we haven’t understood.

Marcus Tanner’s book Croatia: A Nation Forged in War kicks off by emphasising that Croatians usually see themselves as part of the West and object when their country is described as Balkan. In 2009, Croatia entered that Western – though expanding eastwards – club called NATO. When Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general, visited Dubrovnik in July this year he lauded Croatia for its commitment to “smart defence”. The main illustration of this commitment was how Croatians were leading a training exercise for police in Afghanistan.

In Rasmussen’s view, helping the US-led occupation of Afghanistan is the “smart” thing to do. If sucking up to the Pentagon is “smart”, he might be right. Yet Rasmussen should not be allowed think that he reflects public opinion; polls in America indicate that only 30% of its citizens now regard the war in Afghanistan as one that was worth fighting.

Once again, we have WikiLeaks to thank for shedding light on America’s meddling in Europe’s affairs. A 2009 diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Zagreb – published by Julian Assange’s crew – showed that America was adamant that Croatia be admitted into the European Union without delay. The American officials voiced frustration with Britain and The Netherlands over their insistence that Croatia cooperate fully with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Having been led by Tony Blair for a decade, Britain is not in a strong position to lecture others on war crimes. Yet is it America’s business to dictate who should and shouldn’t be in the EU? Clearly it is. This cable refers to worries that the British and Dutch stance could “undermine the US stake” both in Croatia’s reforms and “the region’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions”.

Note that wording: Euro-Atlantic institutions. This is a definite indication that Washington sees the EU as its vassal.

As things stand, Croatia expects to enter the Union next year. I was curious to see if ordinary Croatians were enthusiastic about joining, so I consulted that universally recognised barometer of the prevailing mood: a taxi-driver. Membership would be a good thing, my cabbie said, as it would make it easier for his daughter to emigrate.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the policies pursued by Washington and Brussels but it’s realistic. The Balkans’ problems won’t disappear by replacing one federation with another.

●First published by New Europe, 9-15 September 2012.

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