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Monday, April 14, 2014

Shining Big Tobacco's shoes

Two very powerful Americans - let's call them VPAs - have been welcomed to Brussels by the EU's grovelling grandees over the past month.

The first of these visitors was Barack Obama. Displaying his usual charm, the president received a lot of attention when he declared his love for Belgian beer and chocolate.

By contrast, the second visit of a VPA went largely unreported. It was by Tom Donohoe, head of the US Chamber of Commerce. Last week, he met top-level representatives of the European Commission.

The low profile nature of his trip belies Donohoe's influence.

The US Chamber of Commerce boasts of being the world's largest business association. It has spent more than $1 billion on lobbying since 1998.

Donohoe, who commands a $5 million annual salary, was in town to discuss the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreement.

Nothing to hide?

While Donohoe was chatting with Karel de Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner, their meeting took place behind closed doors. De Gucht's spokesman refused to give me any details about what was discussed, replying with a bland comment about how it was a "stakeholder meeting", rather than a formal negotiation. That was despite how de Gucht claimed not long ago that he has "nothing to hide".

As it happens, de Gucht has many things to hide. And he has good reason not to be transparent. Because if de Gucht was really candid about what he and his colleagues are doing, they would probably face mass public resistance.

The truth is that de Gucht is conniving with big business to destroy or dramatically weaken health, environmental and labour standards and democracy itself.

The US Chamber of Commerce was the American pressure group most consulted by officials working for de Gucht in 2012 and 2013. The proposals which the EU side has put on the table for the trans-Atlantic trade talks closely resemble the chamber's wish-list.

Aggressive

Tom Donohoe is an ideological extremist. Under his leadership, the US Chamber of Commerce has vigorously opposed all attempts to make health insurance more affordable. Any regulation that puts the interests of ordinary people before corporate profits will be fought "with every resource at our disposal," he has said.

Even though he has been at odds with Obama on medical care, Donohoe has pledged his support for what he recently described as the "aggressive trade policy" now being pursued by the Obama administration. Both the US and the European Union have the potential to set the "gold standard" for twenty-first century agreements on trade and investment, he said last week.

Karel de Gucht has been saying pretty much the same thing, while trying to give the impression that he is standing up for the interests of ordinary people.

Towards the end of March, de Gucht launched a "public consultation exercise" on one particularly controversial idea. This idea involves setting up a specialised court system that corporations could use to sue governments and demand financial compensation for laws and policies that harm their bottom line. In trade jargon, the idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".

The public consultation exercise is a sham.

De Gucht remains committed to having the specialised court system introduced. He has done nothing more than to promise that the idea will be handled a little differently than it was in the 3,000 other international trade agreements in which it has been included.

Until now, for example, the judges - or arbitrators as they are called - who assess cases brought under such systems have often been corporate lawyers. De Gucht has made a commitment to introducing a code of conduct designed to guarantee the impartiality of these judges.

The questionnaire which de Gucht has invited members of the public to fill in as part of the "consultation" exercise does not grapple with the most problematic aspects of the proposed system.

It does not address how the system would help perpetuate inequality. Only corporations would have access to this system. The rest of us would have none. The system has been designed almost exclusively for the 1%, to use a term made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Earlier this year, de Gucht stated that he understood why there was much concern about how the tobacco industry had availed of the "dispute settlement" provision in previous investment accords to challenge anti-smoking initiatives.

Philip Morris, the cigarette-maker, is exploiting an agreement between Uruguay and Switzerland to seek a $2 billion payment over losses it allegedly incurred after Uruguay became the first Latin American country to ban smoking in public places.

More recently, the same Philip Morris has begun proceedings against Australia over a law requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packages, with graphic images of suffering and disease.

Intimately involved

What de Gucht neglects to mention is that the whole concept of having these specialised investment courts set up through a trans-Atlantic agreement can be traced to the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry has quite literally drafted some of the key proposals for the planned accord.

Back in 1995, both the EU and US authorities formally tasked a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue with providing advice on how trade between the two sides could be increased. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have been intimately involved in this lobby group, which has since been renamed the Trans Atlantic Business Council. For much of its history, the group's Brussels office was run by Jeffries Briginshaw, a former representative of British American Tobacco.

Not surprisingly, this group wants the kind of "robust mechanisms" included in the trans-Atlantic deal that have enabled Big Tobacco to challenge health legislation in other parts of the world.

The US Chamber of Commerce has close connections with Big Tobacco, too. It has tried to thwart an American government effort to have a clause inserted in another planned trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would recognise that tobacco is a special product requiring stringent regulation to protect human health.

Given the secret nature of their conversation, we don't know if Karel de Gucht upbraided Donohoe last week for supporting an industry that deliberately aims to get children and adolescents hooked on its lethal products. But I very much doubt that he did.

For all his promises to defend the public interest, de Gucht has been happy to shine Big Tobacco's shoes.

•First published by EUobserver, 14 April 2014.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Arrested for confronting arms-dealers

I spent seven hours today in a police station cell. Why? Because I tried to disrupt a feast of flesh-pressing between weapons dealers and top political figures.

As the annual conference of the European Defence Agency (EDA) was about to begin in Brussels this morning, two peace activists poured buckets of fake blood outside the venue's entrance. Disguised as corporate lobbyists, I and a few others then sat down in the dark red puddle. We were promptly arrested.

The purpose of the action was to make the invitation-only attendees walk through "blood". This was entirely appropriate: the arms industry thrives on wars in which innocent people are killed as a matter of routine.

We may not have caused too big a headache for the event's organisers. But we certainly drew attention to how the EDA, an official European Union institution, is trying to confer respectability on an industry that deserves to be reviled.

Grotesque

Stripped of their jargon, the speeches delivered at the conference had a sinister edge. Bernhard Gerwert, chief executive of Airbus Defence and Space, called for the EU to help finance the killing machines of the future through its scientific research activities. "Research and development is only worthwhile if we have the ambition to build the next generation of products," he said.

It was particularly grotesque that Dimitris Avramopoulo, the Greek defence minister, gave a keynote address. Until recently, Greece spent more on its military than any other EU country as a proportion of national income. One largely-overlooked contributor to the Greek economic crisis is that it had been splurging on weapons from Germany and the US.

The unemployed, patients waiting for vital treatment and the homeless had nothing to do with this profligacy. Perversely, though, they are paying the price for it through reduced access to social services.

Avramopoulo did not confess today that the level of Greek military expenditure has been irresponsible. Rather, he charmed his hosts by urging that the EDA be granted more power.

Foolish?

Considering that the agency has been explicitly tasked by the EU's governments to push for increased spending on warfare, his plea can only be interpreted as a desire to keep repeating the same foolish policies over and over again.

An important caveat is that these policies do not appear foolish to the establishment. If you are an arms dealer, it makes perfect sense to argue for more public support.

More than likely, it's coincidental that the EDA held its yearly get-together one day after Barack Obama visited Brussels. Still, it's fitting that the two events came so close together. The agency is fixated on building a European equivalent -- or rival -- to America's drones programme.

I'm sure that the EDA's guests were too polite to acknowledge that Obama has used this programme to flout the law. Under his presidency, the right to due process has been discarded. If Obama wants someone dead, all he has to do is put their name on a list.

In fact, I'd doubt that the word "drone" was used much, if at all, during today's proceedings. The EDA's newly-published annual report refers to these monstrous warplanes as "remotely piloted aircraft systems" (RPAS).

Readers of this turgid document are told that drones (sorry, I mean, RPAS) have "proven their value in the military sphere in recent operations." Drones have proven so effective in bombing wedding parties in Yemen that the agency now wants them to be flown in civilian airspace.

From previous experience, I know that the food tends to be excellent at the EDA annual conference (once upon I time, I was allowed to attend such events).

Sadly, I wasn't able to sample whatever delicacies were on offer this time around. I had to make do with cheese sandwiches, waffles and water, passed through the bars of a police station cell.

But given that the EDA's activities are so nauseating, it's probably just as well my stomach didn't have to deal with anything more substantial.

•First published by EUObserver, 27 March 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Transporter of Israeli settlement goods benefits from EU science grant

A transporter of food grown in Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank has benefited from the European Union's scientific research grants.

Cargo Air Lines, an Israeli firm, and its subsidiary Liège Air Cargo Holding Services (LACHS) have taken part in a €3 million ($4 million) surveillance technology project, mainly funded by the EU.

Yossi Shoukroun, the head of LACHS, told me that the freight company handles fruit and vegetables "coming from both Israel and Palestine," along with herbs and flowers. Asked if such products originate from Israeli settlements, Shoukroun replied that the company does not have "any ability to find out where the product really grows."

This is tantamount to an admission that a proportion of the goods in question are from Israeli settlements. Israel's main food exporters all trade in produce from settlements in the West Bank. Such produce is routinely labelled "Made in Israel," even though it has not been grown within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Unperturbed

Although the European Commission, the EU's executive, officially regards Israel's settlements in the West Bank as illegal, it has no qualms about providing financial support to a transporter of goods grown on those illegal colonies.

A spokesperson for Commission said its officials were "not aware of the possibility" that Cargo Air Lines and LACHS transported items which "might have been produced on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank."

According to the spokesperson, no official investigation has been conducted into why the firms have benefitted from the EU's project -- known as iDetecT 4ALL -- "nor are there legal grounds" on which a probe could be launched. Israeli participants may only be excluded from the EU's research projects if their contribution to those projects is performed in the West Bank, the spokesperson added.

As it happens, there is prima facie evidence indicating that work relating to the iDetecT 4ALL project, which ran from 2008 to 2011, was carried out on Israeli settlements.

Refusal to probe

The aim of the project was to examine how surveillance equipment can be used to raise the alarm when "intruders" approach sites considered to be of economic importance. Motorola Israel, another participant in the project, has installed a "virtual fence" -- using sensors and thermal cameras -- around Israeli settlements, on the pretext that they needed to be protected from "intruders."

Yet when this matter was brought to the attention of the European Commission in 2011, it also refused to investigate. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU's science commissioner, said then that she was satisfied that Motorola Israel was based within the State of Israel.

So that makes everything OK, apparently.

Last year, the Israeli press alleged that the EU caused an "earthquake" by devising guidelines stipulated that firms and institutions active in Israeli settlements were not eligible to receive EU subsidies. If implemented (and there is no guarantee that it will be), that policy would involve the Union taking a more assertive line towards Israel.

And yet the EU's executive continues to overlook how it is supporting Israel's theft of Palestinian land in other ways.

Mockery

Israel is the most active non-European partner in the EU's scientific research programme, which has been allocated €80 billion ($111 billion) between now and the end of the decade.

The way Cargo Air Lines and LACHS are soaking up research grants makes a mockery of the EU's oft-repeated denunciations of Israeli settlements.

LACHS is based in Liège Airport, which is partly owned by the Belgian state of Wallonia.

A new report by François Dubuisson, professor of law at the French-speaking college Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), emphasizes that the EU and its governments have an obligation to avoid providing any aid or assistance to Israel's illegal settlements by, for example, trading with them. A similar point was made by the 2004 International Court of Justice rulingon Israel's wall in the West Bank.

Neither the Belgian nor the EU authorities have any desire to examine LACHS' involvement in the trade in illicit settlement goods. There are no restrictions in place to stop goods from Israeli settlements being sold in Belgian stores.

On a recent trip to a local supermarket, I noticed that Israel was listed as the country of origin for ten out of 15 fresh herbs on display. There was nothing to inform the customer if these herbs were from within Israel's internationally recognized borders or from illegal settlements in the West Bank.

That is not to say that placing more precise labels on these goods will rectify the situation. As these goods are grown in illegally occupied land, it follows that their export should be banned completely.

So long as the EU rejects calls to do so, it will remain an enabler of Israeli apartheid.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 12 March 2014.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Trade chief misleads on GM foods

Who is really in charge of the European Union's food safety policies?

Over the past few weeks, two EU commissioners have been sounding markedly different notes about genetically modified (GM) crops.

First, the trade chief Karel de Gucht insisted that the Union was not going to "abandon" its biotechnology policy as part of a deal with the US. Eager to put a positive spin on the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), de Gucht said that any "regulatory cooperation" stemming from the accord would be undertaken "without lowering the protection" to food and the environment.

De Gucht's comments implied that the Brussels bureaucracy is either opposed to GM foods or has serious reservations about them. That must be news to his colleague Tonio Borg. As the EU's health commissioner, Borg is busy trying to force these unwanted items onto our supermarket shelves.

Even though 19 of the Union's 28 governments last week registered their opposition to a GM maize manufactured by the American firm DuPont Pioneer, Borg appears determined to approve it. The only "justification" for his patently anti-democratic behaviour is that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed the crop to be safe.

EFSA relies on "studies" undertaken by the biotech industry (hence biased) when assessing new products. Independent research calling into question the safety of GM foods - such as that conducted by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini - has been rejected by the authority.

Wish-list

De Gucht's attempt to assuage public concerns was misleading. He knows very well that Monsanto, Syngenta and other firms determined to play a dangerous game with nature are frustrated with how a majority of EU countries have establish a de facto moratorium on planting GM crops.

EuropaBio, an umbrella group for makers of GM seeds, has a wish-list for the trans-Atlantic trade talks. It wants the EU to adopt the same kind of system for assessing GM foods as the American one.

The US approach is preferable, the association believes, because fewer questions are asked and less data has to be submitted when firms want to have their bids for new products rubber-stamped by officialdom.

De Gucht has been using different terminology depending on who his targeted audience is. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York last year, he claimed that the "level of ambition" for the trans-Atlantic trade talks needed to be high "because the more regulatory convergence we can achieve between us, the more scope there is for this model to influence other countries around the world."

More feminine?

European citizens are far less likely than guests of a corporate-funded "think tank" like the CFR to applaud such blatant pleas to turn this continent into America's copy-cat. So instead of "convergence", de Gucht is now speaking of "cooperation", a softer, more feminine word.

Strip away the semantics and we find that the agenda has not changed.

Both the EU and the US remain committed to establishing a specialised court, in which corporations would be able to sue and demand "compensation" from governments over laws or policies that put public welfare before the interests of capital. In trade jargon, this idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".

De Gucht has announced that he will invite ordinary people to express their opinion on this matter. A three-month "public consultation exercise" on this topic is scheduled to begin in March.

If de Gucht was more honest, he would rename the whole thing a "public relations" exercise. Despite boasting that the trans-Atlantic talks have involved an "unprecedented level of openness", his door has been mainly open to corporate lobbyists. Ninety-three per cent of all preparatory meetings which the European Commission's trade department held before the negotiations were launched last summer involved representatives of big business.

Minor issues?

Restrictions on planting GM foods in Europe are exactly the kind of things that are likely to be challenged in "dispute resolution" courts, run by pro-corporate arbitrators.

A separate - though not unrelated - trade deal which the EU has signed with Canada also provides for the establishment of such courts. CropLife Canada, a biotech alliance, wasted no time in expressing its delight after that deal was clinched in October last.

In April 2013, Karel de Gucht dismissed as "all-in-all minor issues" the demands by Kentucky Fried Chicken that the EU lift its ban on washing poultry meat in chlorine. Less than a year later, he now wants us to believe that he is a valiant defender of food safety.

Who does he think he is fooling?

•First published by EUobserver, 17 February 2014.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How Europe funds the occupation of Palestine

Has the European Union finally confessed that it is footing the bill for the occupation of Palestine?

In a roundabout way, one of its envoys may have done just that. Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the EU's ambassador in Tel Aviv, recently warned about the consequences of the Union deciding to cut its assistance to the Palestinian Authority should the current "peace" talks prove fruitless.

"I think it is realized in Israel that this money is key to the stability of the West Bank and in Gaza," the Dane said. "If we don't provide the money, I think there is a great likelihood that Israel would have to provide far more."

Faaborg-Andersen's choice of words are instructive. He appears to believe that the EU is doing Israel a favor by providing "stability" in the territories seized in 1967.

As far as I can see, he did not elaborate on his comments. Had he done so, he could have explained that international law obliges an occupying power to meet the basic needs of a people under occupation. By stumping up around €460 million ($622 million) to Palestine each year, the EU is relieving Israel of its legal responsibilities.

Spin

The spin constantly being put on this aid is that it improves the living conditions of the Palestinians. The statements and "fact sheets" cranked out by Brussels bureaucrats don't explain that some of it directly finances the infrastructure of occupation.

In 2012, for example, the Union boasted about how it was giving €13 million ($17.5 million) to upgrade equipment such as X-ray machines and computer technology used at Karem Abu Salem, the crossing for goods between Gaza and present-day Israel.

There was a major omission in the announcement of this "generous" gift. Karem Abu Salem -- known in Hebrew as Kerem Shalom -- is controlled by Israel, which has placed severe restrictions on the flow of goods into the Strip. By lending Israel a hand, the EU was accommodating the illegal siege of Gaza.

It wasn't the first time that the Union had facilitated such illegality. If you understand French, I'd urge you to read Palestine, la trahison européenne (Palestine, the European betrayal). Written by Véronique De Keyser, a member of the European Parliament, and the late human rights champion Stéphane Hessel, this book documents how aid ostensibly earmarked for the Palestinians actually benefits Israel.

After Hamas won a democratic election in 2006, the EU refused to channel aid through an administration headed by that party. In March 2006, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, then the Union's external affairs commissioner, decided that €40 million ($54 million) would be paid directly to Israel so that Israeli firms could deliver fuel to Gaza.

Don't trick us

I have never argued that the EU should cease giving money to Palestine. Doing so would deprive too many people of education, healthcare and energy.

Instead, what I have demanded is honesty and accountability. The taxpayers of Europe should not be tricked into thinking that our money is always being spent in a benign fashion. We should be told straight out that it is aiding an occupation.

If Israel refuses to accept its legal responsibilities, then it behoves the EU to send its aid bills to Israel and insist on reimbursement. And when Israel destroys EU-financed projects -- as it has done on numerous occasions -- the Union must take Israel to court.

To their shame, the Union's representatives have always been too cowardly to sue Israel.

Sinister

Fresh data contained in an official EU report on the arms trade reveals something even more sinister. It indicates that the value of export licenses for weapons issued by the Union's governments jumped by 290 percent between 2011 and 2012: from €157 million ($212 million) to €630 million ($851.5 million).

These statistics probably don't give a full picture of the cooperation involved. Britain (a long-standing EU member) released figures last year indicating that the sale of military items to Israel can be measured in billions, rather than millions.

Still, they indicate that the Union is blithely ignoring its own law on the weapons trade. It forbids arms exports if they are likely to be used for repression or to exacerbate regional tensions.

There is, of course, a pattern forming here. Israel is treated as if it is above the law.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 5 February 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A farcical approach to food safety

Cupid, the god of erotic love, inspired several frescoes adorning the ducal palace in Parma, Italy.

I'm not sure whether the European Food Safety Authority, the building's current occupant, has set out to harness Cupid's energy. Yet it has become synonymous with murky liaisons between scientists and big business.

This year EFSA could take steps to improve the situation. It is scheduled to review a 2011 policy paper on its "independence".

If the authority wants to engage in something other than a whitewash, then the first thing it should do is to acknowledge that the existing policy is farcical.

The signature at the end of the document is sufficient to strip it of any credibility. It bears the name of Diána Bánáti, who resigned from the authority in 2012 after other European Union bodies started raising questions about her activities. She was serving both as chairwoman of EFSA's management board and as a director of the International Life Sciences Institute, a lobbying group for the food industry.

Relaxed

Taking such a relaxed attitude to conflict of interest issues, the paper reads as if it was written during a siesta. It says that "interests are a natural and inevitable consequence of attaining scientific recognition at international level in a given field".

This indicates that EFSA thinks it is generally acceptable for scientists to work simultaneously for the private sector and for public agencies.

Having examined EFSA's activities carefully over the past few years, I'm worried that its staff spend too much time in a majestic palace to understand how things work in the real world. Or maybe they do understand but refuse to recognise the nature of the problem, lest they upset their corporate chums.

I've seen quite a few letters that the authority receives from agri-food giants. These show that major corporations will try to exert pressure on regulators when they encounter any difficulties. In March 2011, for example, Syngenta complained about the length of time that EFSA was taking to complete "risk assessments" of genetically-modified maize. Such delays, the Swiss firm warned, "may have a serious impact" on the international food trade.

It shouldn't really be necessary to spell out what is going on here. The reason why corporations want to get their products on the market swiftly is that all they care about is increasing their profits.

Scientists, however, are supposed to be motivated by loftier concerns such as the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It follows that science can only be truly independent if it is not reliant on big business for funding.

Controversial

Syngenta's links with EFSA have proven controversial. In 2008, the firm hired Suzy Renckens to work for it on biotechnology regulation; she had previously coordinated EFSA's panel for genetically modified foods.

A row during 2013 suggested that the relationship might have soured since that revolving door case. Syngenta threatened to sue the agency after taking umbrage at a press statement about the effects of certain pesticides on bees.

Despite that squabble, EFSA continues to be highly accommodating to Syngenta.

I was disturbed recently to come across a dossier which raises concerns about how chemicals get rubber-stamped on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 2012, EFSA issued a report on sedaxane, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta for use on cereals. Later that year, the European Commission (in theory, a separate institution to EFSA) noticed that sedaxane had been categorised as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans" in the US. As EFSA hadn't recommended that the product be classified as a carcinogen, the Commission asked the authority to "update its conclusions".

EFSA's revised report was published in January last year. It reached exactly the same findings as the earlier one. While it expressed some concern about the long-term effects of the product on birds and mammals who feed on grain and seeds, it didn't explicitly state that it could cause cancer to humans.

These reports were based on studies supplied to EFSA and to the French government. Guess who supplied those studies: Syngenta, the very company that has a vested interest in selling sedaxane, irrespective of what damage it may do to health or the environment.

Low standards

For a short while, I thought this might be a rare instance of America taking a more robust stance on food safety than Europe. Then I learned that the US had granted federal clearance to sedaxane in 2012.

Along with many other campaigners, I have become quite obsessed with the efforts to clinch a trade and investment pact between the EU and the US. One of the major objectives of the corporations that have shaped the agenda for the trade talks is to achieve "regulatory convergence": a fancy term for removing any differences between the EU and the US. Their chief target is the EU's "precautionary principle", which allows it to place restrictions on substances if there are sound reasons to believe they are dangerous.

The sedaxane saga illustrates that the standards applying on both sides of the Atlantic are already too low. Any attempt to lower them further must, therefore, be resisted.

•First published by EUobserver, 20 January 2014.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The immense cruelty of Ariel Sharon

If it wasn't for a brief encounter with Ariel Sharon, I may never have become a Palestine solidarity activist.

It was towards the end of 2001. I was among a number of reporters accompanying a European Union "peace mission" to the Middle East. On a Sunday afternoon, we waited for Sharon, then Israel's prime minister, to give a press conference in Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

When Sharon eventually appeared, I was struck by how venomous he was. My memory has -- naturally enough -- faded a little in the interim. But I'm fairly sure that there was a smirk on his face as he spoke of how Palestinians sometimes blew themselves up.

The gist of his lengthy monologue was that all resistance to the Israeli occupation amounted to "terrorism." He seemed to be rejoicing in Palestinian suffering.

Mollycoddled

At the time, I wasn't properly informed about how the West mollycoddled Israel. In my naivety, I was impressed that EU leaders did not appear intimidated by Sharon.

There was some tension between Israel and Belgium, which held the Union's rotating presidency. Sharon was being sued in Brussels for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that took place in Lebanon in 1982 (when he was Israel's defense minister).

Quizzed by Israeli journalists, Belgium's then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt insisted that his country was a democracy, where the justice system was free from political interference. The following day -- during a turbulent flight on the Belgian government jet -- Verhofstadt briefed us about how Sharon had called him to a meeting that Sunday evening. To break the ice, Verhofstadt had joked with Sharon about how prison conditions in Belgium were improving.

It was only later that I realized that Verhofstadt was a really a pushover. Although a public prosecutor had accepted that the case against Sharon could go ahead, Verhofstadt's government intervened in 2003 to scuttle the proceedings.

The "universal jurisdiction" law under which the case was taken was watered down at Israel's behest. So much for Belgian "democracy."

Travesty

Of course, I can't claim to understand how Sharon's mind worked from having once been in the same room as him. But I have studied his record in reasonable depth more recently. And I feel that I have learned enough to know that the articles now proliferating in the media about Sharon coveting peace are a travesty.

In a blog post for The Jerusalem Post, Eric Yoffie argued that Sharon was "the ultimate realist" as prime minister. "In order to assure Israel’s future as a Jewish state, he dismantled Jewish settlements and ended the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," Yoffie added.

Only the first part of that sentence reflects the truth. Sharon did indeed strive to preserve Israel as a state where Jews have more rights than everyone else living there; the correct term for that system is "apartheid."

Yet withdrawing Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was not tantamount to ending the occupation there. Israel still controls Gaza's air and sea borders. The "disengagement" paved the way for a siege and attacks on Gaza that have been enthusiastically supported by Sharon's protégés such as Tzipi Livni.

Similar lies are being repeated elsewhere. Associated Press has reported that Sharon "directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of military control of the territory."

In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that Sharon was "acknowledging the truth that lay buried beneath the soil" through his "intriguing habit" of referring to places in present-day Israel with their original Arab names. According to Freedland, Sharon's "final mission" could have been to close the wounds left by the Nakba, the forced displacement of Palestinians ahead of Israel's foundation in 1948.

Pointless

Speculating about what Sharon might have done had a stroke not ended his political career in 2006 is, in my view, pointless. And besides, nobody has yet produced credible evidence that he was on the cusp of delivering justice to the Palestinians.

What can be said with certainty is that he displayed immense cruelty both as a soldier and as a politician.

For a guide to just how cruel he was, I'd recommend Baruch Kimmerling's book Politicide. It recalls that when Sharon was a military general, he launched a brutal operation in Gaza in August 1970. Thousands of homes were demolished and swathes of citrus groves were destroyed; orders were given to kill -- without trial -- any Palestinian suspected of involvement in resistance.

Sharon's penchant for war crimes continued during his stint as prime minister. Operation Defensive Shield involved the destruction of schools, universities, clinics, mosques and churches in the occupied West Bank during 2002. An estimated 4,000 people were left homeless because of the sustained shelling of Jenin refugee camp.

Sharon kept on exulting in the loss of life. Eight Palestinian children and nine other adults were killed in a bomb attack on the leading Hamas member Salah Shehadeh in 2002. Sharon praised the operation as "one of our greatest successes."

To those who still think that Sharon really was readying himself for a historic compromise, I say two words: "the wall." It was he who approved the construction of that monstrosity which was explicitly designed to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank.

I don't believe in taking pleasure from anyone's pain or ill-health, even when the person in question is a mass-murder like Ariel Sharon. So I have no plans to celebrate his death, whenever it comes. Like many others, I'll be too busy working to destroy the wretched system of apartheid that he helped to build.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 January 2014.