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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Apartheid conference goes ahead in Paris despite university ban

The University of Paris 8 is traditionally one of the more left-wing third-level institutions in France. Alas, its current president Pascal Binczak is seeking to negate this legacy. Under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, he recently banned a conference titled “Is Israel an apartheid state?” When students and academics organising the event defied him and vowed to proceed with the event on the university’s premises, he ordered the campus closed for two days this week, citing a risk to public safety.

His “fears” were unfounded. Moved to another venue at the last minute, the event passed off peacefully. The only discernible risk it posed was that attendees would increase their knowledge about Israel’s crimes against humanity, which explains why hawkish groups like CRIF (the self-declared “representative council” for French Jews) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center could not tolerate it.

CRIF was particularly exercised by the intended participation of Omar Barghouti, a coordinator of the Palestinian campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. As it happened, Barghouti had to pre-record his contribution for delivery by video because of a scheduling issue (although he is hoping to be physically present for a public meeting against Zionist bullying in Paris tomorrow).

“Weapon of intellectual terror”

In his message, Barghouti argued that Zionist groups “recklessly and maliciously” accuse the BDS campaign of anti-Semitism. “This is a weapon of intellectual terror deployed by Israel and its lobby groups, especially in France and the US, to silence dissent and muzzle debate,” he said.

In an apparent rebuttal of comments made a few weeks ago by Norman Finkelstein, Barghouti took issue with claims that the BDS movement has a hidden agenda of seeking to destroy Israel. Stressing that the core aims of the movement include both an end to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, he said: “If equality and justice would destroy Israel, then what does that say about Israel? Did equality and justice destroy South Africa? Did they destroy Alabama? Of course, not.”

“Most important right”

Barghouti added that the “most important right” asserted by BDS activists is the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. About 50% of the 11 million Palestinians throughout the world live outside historic Palestine (which includes the present-day state of Israel).

Several hundred Francophone academics signed a letter over the past fortnight urging Binczak to lift the ban he imposed on the conference.

Julien Salingue, a graduate of Paris 8 who now teaches at Auvergne University, told me that while Binczak had the power to cancel the conference on public safety grounds he had acted in a “disputable manner” by trying to gain approval from his academic colleagues. Binczak had called a meeting of the Paris 8 administrative council to discuss the ban. The meeting was held without following the usual procedures such as inviting student representatives to attend.

In my own presentation to the conference, I lamented how the European Union’s Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia had drawn up a “working definition” of anti-Semitism in 2005, with the aid of the Anti-Defamation League (a right-wing Zionist group) in New York. The definition stated that describing Israel as a “racist endeavor” amounted to anti-Semitism.

While this definition has never been formally approved by the EU’s governments, it has been invoked by Zionists in a bid to prevent a robust critique of Israel on campuses in several countries. Visiting Birmingham in England last year, I learned that the student’s union in the city’s university had decided that all speakers invited onto the campus must not say anything that contravenes the EU’s “working definition.” The decision was taken in response to one Palestine solidarity activist who likened Gaza to a concentration camp.

“Blackmail”

Among the many articulate and courageous people I met in Paris was Jean-Guy Greilsamer from the Union of French Jews for Peace (UJFP). He has written a letter to Brinczak, describing the accusations of anti-Semitism made by CRIF and similar groups as “blackmail.”

“In keeping with the Israeli strategy of conflating Zionism and Judaism, it takes hostage all Jewish citizens of every country in the world who oppose the commission of crimes in their name,” he added. “Conflating the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’ facilitates anti-Semitism. Doesn’t caving in to this blackmail amount to accepting the confusion and everything it implies? Is it not the policies of Israel and its defenders that constitute a threat to public order, not the conferences organized by academics who believe in law and justice?”

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 28 February 2012.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Humanitarian intervention" in Syria would make matters worse

“Out of her depth” is a phrase that I have heard applied more than once to Catherine Ashton. Yet I don’t believe the EU foreign policy chief is floundering about in the way her (usually male) detractors would have us believe. On the contrary, she has acquired the one skill that seems indispensable for a modern political leader: a fluent command of hypocrisy.

On her latest trip to Washington, Ashton was “absolutely clear” that Bashar Assad should “step aside” because “you cannot kill your own people”. Ashton conveniently neglected to recall how she had pledged not long ago to fully support “rebels” in Libya who, according to human rights investigators, committed war crimes. Has she told them “you cannot kill your own people”?

Ashton’s impudence was rivalled earlier this month by Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the UN. When Russia and China vetoed a motion condemning Syria at the UN Security Council, Rice was “disgusted” at how the duo “remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant”. Her sound bites glossed over her nation’s dense history of selling out entire peoples (the Palestinians, Timorese, Nicaraguans) and shielding craven tyrants (the names Hosni Mubarak and Augusto Pinochet spring to mind).

Like many leaders in his region and beyond, Assad is ruthless and authoritarian. Calls by Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights commissioner, for the Assad regime to be brought before the International Criminal Court must be taken seriously. Calls for “humanitarian intervention” by Angelina Jolie and other affluent “do-gooders” should, on the other hand, be vigorously opposed.


Euphemism for war

From Serbia in 1999 to Libya in 2011, humanitarian intervention has been a euphemism for wars of aggression. No matter how much those advocating it may boast about the surgical precision of Western firepower and how “collateral damage” can be minimised, the far more probable scenario is that “humanitarian intervention” would only increase the suffering of Syrian civilians. To get a taste of the problems it would cause, one should look at neighbouring Iraq, where the death toll is still climbing thanks to an invasion backed enthusiastically by Tony Blair, that unerring champion of “humanitarian intervention”, nine years ago. A total of 138 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first three weeks of February alone.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that some of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war have long had Syria in their sights, too. In 1996, the neoconservative intellectual Richard Perle produced a report for Benjamin Netanyahu during his first stint as Israel’s prime minister. Perle recommended that Israel attack Hezbollah and Syrian forces then stationed in Lebanon and – as an optional extra – targets within Syria itself as part of a strategy to weaken Assad.

Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that the US has been considering an assault against Syria for some time. In 2007, the former military general Wesley Clark revealed plans hatched during George W Bush’s first presidential term to “take out” seven countries within five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran (in that order). Apart from Sudan, all of those countries have been hit or threatened by US weapons (some of them fired by its client state, Israel) since then.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, has insisted recently that the alliance has “no intention whatsoever” of bombing Syria. His assurance is about as bankable as a Zimbabwean dollar. Didn’t Rasmussen use almost identical words about Libya in February last year? By the end of the following month, his words had been eaten, digested and forgotten and he was at war.

With the US bogged down in Afghanistan and a war with Iran to all intents and purposes already declared, the Obama administration might balk at attacking Syria for logistical reasons in the short term. Yet it’s entirely conceivable that US cruise missiles will be eventually be aimed at Syria or that it will arm one side in a civil war.


Crocodile tears

No matter how many crocodile tears are shed by Susan Rice, history should teach us that the only reason the West goes to war is to advance or copperfasten its interests. In 1925, France asserted its control over Syria by suppressing an uprising there, with a considerable loss of civilian life. In 2008 and 2009, the French oil firm Total signed contracts for exploiting three Syrian oil fields. Only the naive could view the EU’s decision to impose an oil embargo on Syria as a selfless act; more probably, it’s part of a ploy to ensure control of Syria’s energy reserves once Assad relinquishes power.

For all their invective against Assad now, it’s important to underline that most EU countries were courting him until recently. Over the past few years about 30% of all Syria’s imports came from the Union, making it the country’s largest trading partner. In 2008, the Union sought to boost its business with Syria further when an economic and political “association agreement” was initialled between the two sides. That step was taken despite how Assad had preserved a 45-year state of emergency, giving the security forces enormous powers to muzzle his opponents by throwing them in prison.

Regrettably, I don’t have a clear idea about how the bloodshed in Syria can be stopped. But I do believe that a war waged by Western hypocrites would exacerbate the problem. Humanitarian intervention is the last thing that genuine humanitarians should be demanding.

●First published by New Europe, 26 February – 3 March 2012.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A bold plan to save money: put politicians on the minimum wage

Here’s a proposal for a new law that would undoubtedly save money. Every time a politician or economist moans about the minimum wage being too high, he or she should be required to live on it.

The law, I believe, should be applied retroactively so that it will affect Jean-Claude Trichet. When he was still president of the European Central Bank in 2007, Trichet thundered that “excessive wage regulations” were undermining job creation. “Setting minimum wages at levels which are not in line with productivity reduces the employment chances of less skilled workers and the unemployed,” he added.

Under a clause introduced especially for him, my law would forcibly return Trichet to his adopted hometown of Frankfurt, where he would spend eight years on a building site at the lowest level of pay for a migrant worker in that industry. He would not receive his ECB pension or any ancillary benefits during that time; no cost-of-living adjustments would be made to his income because, as he would surely agree, that would involve “excessive wage regulation”.

As some of the intended victims of my proposal appear unburdened by a sense of humour, I feel obliged to admit it is not serious. On second thoughts, perhaps the politicians and economists in question do have a sense of humour, albeit a very twisted one.

Sick joke

Data published at the beginning of February by that number-crunching agency Eurostat show that monthly minimum wages in the EU range from 138 euros in Bulgaria to 1,800 euros in Luxembourg. In all three of the Baltic states, the minimum wage is less than 300 euros per month; in Romania it is 161 euros. Greece stands at 877 euros; Spain at 748 euros. Even when you realise that these statistics don’t take account of differing price levels, any attempts to portray these salaries as extravagant amount to a sick joke.

By seeking to cut pay, the main EU institutions are exceeding the limits of their power. The Maastricht treaty, which came into effect in 1993, stipulates that the Union will leave questions of remuneration up to its national governments. This provision has been maintained by the Lisbon treaty.

Some unsavoury characters in the Brussels bureaucracy have nonetheless invaded this policy domain by resorting to underhand tactics. Writing for New Europe last week, I noted that Charlie McCreevy, the former European commissioner for the single market, is an acolyte of Margaret Thatcher. In 2005, he was even more extreme than the Iron Lady when he visited Sweden and publicly supported the Latvian construction company Laval over its demands that its operations in Sweden shouldn’t have to respect that country’s pay and working conditions. The following year McCreevy whinged about how a minimum wage in Germany’s postal sector of 9.80 euros an hour hampered competition.

He was not acting in isolation. A series of rulings by the European Court of Justice – including one in a case involving Laval - have provided some kind of legal cover for attempts to weaken social protections across the Union.

Broken promises

Still, the assault on wage levels illustrates why political promises must always be treated with suspicion. When Ireland was pressurised into holding a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009 (having rejected it in 2008), the “Yes” brigade swore that the country’s minimum wage was not at risk. The pledge was quietly forgotten about in 2010. As Dublin froze in a harsh winter its government slashed pay for the least well-off. Who told it to do so? Ireland’s puppetmasters in the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

True, the new Irish government that came into office a few months later subsequently restored the minimum wage (one of the few election pledges it actually honoured). Yet the EU and IMF have succeeded in driving down basic salaries elsewhere, most recently in Greece.

It is fiendishly clever for right-wing ideologues to exploit whatever opportunity arises to decrease wage levels for average workers. By doing so, they distract attention away from the real excesses in the economy: how a relatively small elite possess more than any human being could ever need. The result of this distraction is that policy makers reduce the minimum wages on which cleaners, restaurant staff and people in other low-paid categories depend, instead of setting maximum wages for the wealthy parasites in the boardrooms of hedge funds and corporations.

Surveys by the investment bank Merrill Lynch (itself a parasite) repeatedly show that the rich are getting richer. According to its latest findings, the number of “high net worth individuals” (a HNWI is essentially a fancy term for millionaire) in Europe rose by 6.3% in 2010. In total, there are 3.1 million HNWIs on this continent (including Russia). Their total net wealth comes to an astronomical 10.2 trillion dollars.

Among the wealthiest people in the EU are Amancio Ortega from Spain (he of Zara fashion fame) with assets worth a cool 31 billion dollars, Frenchman Bernard Arnault (head of luxury goods firm Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy; value: 41 billion dollars), the German chief of Aldi supermarkets Karl Albrecht (value: 26 billion dollars), the Swede behind the trendy threads of H&M Stefan Persson (value: 25 billion dollars) and Frenchwoman Liliane Bettencourt of L’Oreal (value: 24 billion dollars).

Between them, this quintet sell handbags, cardigans, perfume and biscuits for a living. How does that make them entitled to such fortunes?

●First published by New Europe, 19-25 February 2012.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Memo to New York Times: the spirit of Gandhi is alive in Palestine

Myar first experienced tear gas when she was one month old. Now she is seven. She has witnessed so much brutality in her short life that she has trouble sleeping at night.

Myar is the daughter of Iyad Burnat, a prominent campaigner against Israel’s wall in the West Bank village of Bilin. How does he explain to Myar the situation in which she is growing up? “Sometimes it’s difficult,” he told me. “She has a lot of questions, especially if she sees Israeli activists in our home, sitting and drinking tea. And at night Israeli soldiers with the same names are shooting at us.”

The story of Myar refutes the frankly racist notion propagated by some Western journalists that Palestinian children are conditioned to hate Jews. Israelis are welcome in her house, not as part of a “normalization” programme designed to sugar-coat the occupation with European or American money but as comrades in the struggle against injustice and apartheid.

Breaking the fear

Burnat was in Brussels yesterday, where he gave a brilliant presentation on unarmed resistance. He showed numerous photographs and video images of young Palestinians chaining themselves to fences and trees, knowing that they faced arrest. “These acts break the fear of the children and the people,” he said.

Ever since 2004, large numbers of local and international protesters have turned out every Friday in Bilin to protest at Israel’s attempts to suffocate the village. Bilin is hemmed in one side by the wall; on another by the settlement of Modi’in Illit, both of which are illegal under international law. The protests have continued despite Israel’s murder of Bassem and Jawaher Abu Rahmah in April 2009 and January 2011 respectively. Bassem was shot at close range with a tear gas canister; his sister Jawaher died from exposure to tear gas.

Laboratory for new weapons

Circumstantial evidence indicates that Bilin is being used as a laboratory to test new “crowd control” weapons in Israel’s arsenal. For the past few years, the village has been regularly sprayed by skunk water. Nobody is quite sure what this foul-smelling weapon contains; although samples have been brought to Birzeit University in the West Bank, scientists say that they would need to analyse it within an hour of its use to identify the chemicals involved. What is certain, though, is that it causes a severe itch when it comes in contact with human skin.

Burnat is part of a network of popular committees of struggle across the West Bank. He is encouraged by how 16 villages are now following Bilin’s example by holding frequent protests, the latest being Kfar Qaddoum near Nablus and Kafr ad-Dik near Qalqiya.

In April, a conference on undertaking a “global intifada” will be held in Bilin. Burnat believes that the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has illustrated how “we can all take actions against Israel; the occupation is everywhere not just in Palestine.”

NYT’s flimsy knowledge of Gandhi

Surfing the internet after my conversation with Burnat, I learned that the latest demonstration in Bilin saluted the bravery of hunger striker Khader Adnan. And I was reminded of a 2010 opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, who contended that the tactics used in Bilin are a “far cry from the heroism of Gandhi’s followers.” Kristof argued that occasional stone throwing against one of the world’s most lethal armies means that Bilin’s protests do not constitute “non-violent resistance.”

Kristof seems to have a flimsy knowledge of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. If he had bothered to do a bit of background research, he would know that Gandhi argued that injustice must be opposed and that it is better to fight an aggressor with arms than to run away. As Linah Alsaafin has written, the throwing of a rock cannot seriously be viewed as an act of violence if its target is firing bullets at a civilian population.

Make no mistake, the spirit of Gandhi is alive in Palestine, especially on Friday afternoons in Bilin.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 19 February 2012.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Paris university pulls plug on "Israeli apartheid" talk

A Paris university has withdrawn permission for a Palestine solidarity conference at the behest of the Zionist lobby.

In a statement issued today, the authorities at the University of Paris 8 said that the title of the conference – “Israel: an apartheid state?” – was “of a strongly polemical character.” Because there had been strong reactions to its theme, the university predicted there could be a “serious risk posed to public order” if the event scheduled for 27 and 28 February went ahead.

The complaint against the conference was made by the representative council for Jewish organizations in France, or CRIF as it’s better known. It had objected to the participation of Omar Barghouti, coordinator of the Palestinian campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Boycott Israel “shock”

Barghouti’s presence in Paris would be “shocking”, according to CRIF, because the ideas that he espouses have “been found on several occasions to constitute an offence of incitement to discrimination.”

CRIF’s claim is misleading. While a number of BDS activists have been accused (ridiculously) of flouting French laws on racism, there have also been important rulings that uphold the right to urge a boycott of Israel. In December last, a court in the eastern city of Mulhouse acquitted 12 campaigners who had urged customers of the supermarket Carrefour not to buy Israeli goods.

I was also one of the invited speakers for the conference, which was part of Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of debates and actions on university campuses throughout the world. The group behind the event, Collectif Palestine Paris 8, wasn’t consulted ahead of the university’s decision to ban it.

This isn’t the first time that CRIF has attempted to muzzle criticism of Israel on French campuses. Last year it strong-armed the authorities at the École normale supérieure (ENS), another Paris college, into forbidding a Palestine solidarity discussion. The big cheese at the ENS succumbed to the pressure.

The “miracle” of Israel

Earlier this month, CRIF underscored its political clout, when Nicolas Sarkozy addressed its annual dinner. The president used the platform to call Israel a “miracle,” marvelling at how “from the debris [of the Holocaust], a democracy has been born.”

On his best behavior now that he is seeking re-election, Sarkozy saluted the “courage” of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who he has called a “liar” in private conversations with Barack Obama (that were overhead by journalists).

Anyone who has been following events in that “miracle” called Israel will know that Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman are waging a war of attrition against civil liberties. Aspects of that war have been exported to France, where calling out Israel as an apartheid state is considered a threat to public order or, worse, a crime.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 17 February 2012.

A few weasel words from EU as Adnan nears death

As Khader Adnan begins the 62nd day of his hunger strike, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton might finally say something about his suffering.

Two days after I contacted Ashton’s office requesting an urgent comment, I was told this morning that “there is actually a statement in the making.”

I wasn’t told when the statement will be issued but Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Ashton, did make the following remarks: “The EU requests the government of Israel to do all it can to preserve the health of Mr Adnan and handle this case while abiding by all legal obligations under international law.

“The EU reiterates its longstanding concern about the extensive use by Israel of administrative detention without formal charge. Such a procedure should be used only in exceptional circumstances, and without prejudice to the rights of detainees under international and national laws, in particular their right to be informed about the charges underlying any detention and their right to a fair trial.”

Well, isn’t that a pathetic response? Unlike the Carter Center (founded by former US president Jimmy Carter) and Amnesty International, Ashton’s team is not calling for Adnan to be immediately released or charged, merely asking Israel to “do all it can” to preserve his health. And Ashton accepts that administrative detention may be used under certain unspecified circumstances, even though it abuses the right of prisoners to know why they are in custody and to a fair and prompt trial.

Resembling Blair

Ashton’s stance resembles that of her mentor Tony Blair. As Britain’s prime minister in 2003, Blair secretly recommended that members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad should be interned without trial. Blair’s advice originally came from MI6, the UK intelligence service.

This indicates that Britain’s political elite continues to have an imperial mindset. Internment without trial was not only a monstrous injustice when it was imposedin the North of Ireland during the 1970s, it needlessly stoked the flames of conflict there.

Internment without trial is a synonym for administrative detention.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 17 February 2012.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The EU's shameful silence on Khader Adnan

What does the European Union have to say about the plight of Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan? Not one word.

I have just entered Adnan’s name into the search facility on the website for the EU’s diplomatic service. The result: zero hits. A moment later, I searched under the words “Gilad Shalit” and received 230 hits.

Catherine Ashton, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, publicly sympathised with the family of Shalit at every conceivable opportunity, never acknowledging that the Israeli soldier belonged to an army of occupation and was taking part in acts of aggression against the Palestinian people when he was captured. Does she regard his life as more important than that of Adnan, a man in detention without being charged or convicted of an offence?

Is she more worried about the oppressor, than the oppressed? It would appear so.

Almost 12 hours ago, I contacted Ashton’s office, requesting an urgent explanation for her silence on Adnan’s hunger strike. I have still not received a response.

Too busy?

Perhaps her advisors too busy with matters they consider more pressing than the imminent death of a prisoner. Yet on Monday, her team was able to drop whatever other work it was doing and hastily respond to the attacks on Israeli embassies in India and Georgia.
That same day, she (or her aides) found time to express concern about how Iranian opposition leaders Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi have now been under house arrest for an entire year. Her statement noted (properly) that these men – and Moussavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard – have been detained “without any legal process.”

Khader Adnan is in jail without any legal process. Why has Ashton not protested at his treatment?

Dignity and freedom

Marking Human Rights Day in December 2011, Ashton recalled that “human rights are universal and that people everywhere aspire to live in dignity and freedom.”

Khader Adnan is undertaking a courageous and awe-inspiring protest to defend the rights of Palestinians to live in dignity and freedom.

And what does Catherine Ashton have to say? Not one miserable word.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 15 February 2012.

Monday, February 13, 2012

EU border agency shops around for Israeli warplanes

Israel’s war machine may be recruited to stop impoverished foreigners from reaching the European Union.

A pilotless drone manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) recently took part in a demonstration exercise organized by Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, in Greece. A statement issued by IAI indicates that the drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV) in question belonged to the Heron range, which was used extensively during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Frontex has put out a call for tenders on drones that can help it identify boats carrying migrants en route to Europe.

Nonchalant attitude to war crimes

This morning I contacted Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, to ask why it is considering the purchase of warplanes from a company known to have profited from crimes against humanity. “[EU] member states are interested in surveillance technology,” Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure replied. “So we are looking at what is out there. The fact that it has been used for other purposes cannot prevent us from looking at this technology.”

Her nonchalant attitude says much about the relationship between the EU and Israel. Human rights monitors have documented how Israeli soldiers killed 87 civilians with drones during Cast Lead, illustrating how they were one of the main weapons in an offensive that left around 1,300 Palestinians dead. When Herons are the tools of oppression and occupation, it is not acceptable for an official EU body to claim that they have been used merely for “other purposes.”

Business as usual for EU-Israel relations

A few weeks ago, there was a minor ripple of excitement when a paper drawn up by EU diplomats based in East Jerusalem and Ramallah was leaked. It argued that the Union should take steps to prevent the money of European taxpayers from helping the expansion of Israeli settlements.

IAI’s subsidiary Tamam provided equipment installed in Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank. As one of the objectives of that monstrosity is to ringfence settlements regarded as strategically important by Israel, the IAI would appear to be the kind of company that the EU diplomats had in mind when they implicitly complained about how the Union is greasing the palms of the occupation’s profiteers. It is significant, though, that other branches of the EU’s labyrinthine bureaucracy -- such as Frontex -- are perfectly happy to consider supporting such companies by buying their wares.

Under the EU’s treaties all of its activities are legally obliged to respect fundamental human rights. Sadly, the memo explaining that fact does not appear to have been sent to Frontex. Last year, Human Rights Watch published the findings of its investigation into the detention of almost 12,000 migrants who entered Greece at its land border with Turkey between November 2010 and March 2011. Guards working for Frontex regularly apprehended those migrants and brought them to detention facilities that were so shabby that they were condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, the report found.

Frontex assists human rights abuses

Attempting to migrate to another country is not a crime. So by taking part in such operations, Frontex assisted in the jailing of people who had not been accused of a recognizable offence. In other words, it abetted human rights abuses by criminalizing the innocent. Yet that didn’t stop the European Parliament from giving Frontex a present of €44 million in September. That sum is additional to the agency’s annual budget, which rose from €6 million in 2005 to €86 million in 2011.

IAI calls human rights workers “stupid”

I also called IAI earlier today to check if the type of Heron being assessed by Frontex was deployed in Gaza. “The Heron is used only for gathering information,” said the company’s representative Hadal Paz. When I pointed out that human rights monitors have amassed credible evidence indicating that civilians were killed with Herons in Cast Lead, Paz responded. “That fact that somebody wrote something in a stupid article doesn’t mean it is correct. I read your website [The Electronic Intifada] very carefully and a lot of the information you have there is incorrect.”

Paz did not, however, provide one specific example of any inaccurate detail in EI’s reporting.

When speaking to Moncure from Frontex, I asked her if she was aware of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. She didn’t appear to know what I was talking about. It is vital that this knowledge gap be plugged. You can contact Frontex at this email address: frontex@frontex.europa.eu. Please let its management and staff know that shopping around for Israeli weapons is an affront to humanity, regardless of what they want to do with those weapons.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 13 February 2012.

Respect our elders: stop this blather about pension time bombs

Pension time bomb. We have been warned about one so often that I often lie awake terrified by the prospect of a mass combustion of people with white hair. I can no longer walk past the communal gardens beside my house because the senior citizens tending to them look far too menacing.

Let’s get a grip here. Medical advances and maybe some other factors have caused life expectancy to increase. Shouldn’t that be a cause for celebration? Yet instead of respecting our elders, as I was taught to do as a child, we are treating them as a burden that society cannot bear.

In the coming days, the European Commission is scheduled to publish a paper recommending that retirement ages should be raised and that the possibility of retiring early should be restricted. The paper will stress that the EU executive is not trying to muscle into an area of policy-making traditionally undertaken by national governments. Nobody should be fooled by those assurances; the EU executive is determined to acquire new powers for itself by whatever means it can.

Using the new role as inspector of the budgets of individual EU countries that it has performed over the past two years, the Commission has advocated wielding a machete towards pension schemes across the Union. The “technocrats” who have effectively mounted coups in Italy and Greece appear happy to oblige.

Drive to dismantle welfare states

This is not simply a matter of requiring workers to stay in jobs an extra few years for the greater good. It is part of a drive to dismantle welfare states and to make Europe almost indistinguishable from the United States. The real intention of our political masters is to let selfishness triumph over solidarity.

Increased life expectancy, as I have already stated, is a marvellous thing. Yet income remains a key determinant of how long you live. About one out of every five older people in the EU is at risk of poverty. The poor are statistically more likely to die earlier than the wealthy. How disgusting, then, that the comfort offered to the disadvantaged in their final years is being reduced as a result of extreme economic prescriptions written in Brussels.

Women will be the worst affected by the demolition derby. In France, women’s pensions are on average 38% lower than those of men. Women teachers across Europe are paid between 14% and 19% less than their male colleagues, according to a 2009 study by the organisation Education International. As pensions are usually based on a proportion of end-of-career wages, female teachers receive far smaller pensions than men when they retire.

Thatcher-inspired extremism

A strong hint about the real agenda being pursued was dropped by Charlie McCreevy when he was the EU’s commissioner for the single market in 2005. “One of my main tasks over the coming years will be to ensure that the European regulatory framework for financial services supports the emergence of secure market-driven responses to retirement financing,” he said.

Though his words sound technical, his ploy was intensely political. McCreevy was intent on enabling the private sector to take over responsibility for public affairs. Under his Thatcher-inspired vision, good pensions were not something to which everyone should be entitled. They were to be determined by market forces.

The game he played proved ruinous. McCreevy stubbornly refused to introduce proper oversight of hedge fund managers and the other out-of-control gamblers whose reckless behaviour contributed massively to the current financial crisis.

The financial alchemists that he accommodated continue to lord it over the rest of us. In November last year, the European Central Bank stated that “insurers and pension funds with 1.1 trillion euros invested, hold almost 20% of the debt securities issued by euro area governments, which make them an important provider of governments’ funding”. There is only one way I can interpret this message: it is markets, not elected governments, which call the shots.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this drive is the way politicians behind it claim they are acting in the best interests of older people. “Active ageing seeks to promote better opportunities for older people on the labour market through accessible workplaces and age friendly working conditions and allow them to achieve an adequate income in old age,” László Andor, the EU’s social policy commissioner, said recently, while maintaining that the welfare systems now in place are unsustainable.

Many of us have friends or acquaintances over 50 who have been rejected for jobs solely because the employers wanted to hire someone younger. This indicates that there is a bias against hiring people in the 50 to 65 year age bracket. If Andor thinks that raising the retirement age will get rid of prejudice in recruitment, then he is not living in the real world.

Despite their rampant ageism, employers are using blackmail to demand an assault on pensions. Jorgen Ronnest from the pressure group BusinessEurope warned in November that if the “demographic challenge” isn’t faced “companies will be forced to relocate their business to other continents due to serious shortages on our labour markets”. The threat of quitting Europe is one of corporate bullies’ favourite tactics.

In recent months and years, we have seen strikes in France and Belgium over moves to slash pensions. Right-wing pundits have slandered the strikers, by portraying them as layabouts. Far from being lazy, the strikers are fighting valiantly to preserve the few remaining decencies in Europe.

●First published by New Europe, 12-18 February 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Duelling with China - the subtext of Obama's wars

Around this time last year, Anders Fogh Rasmussen posed as a man of peace. “There can be no justification for anyone, political movement or state, to perpetrate violence deliberately targeting civilians,” the NATO secretary-general said in an interview with the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.

If Rasmussen was true to his words, he would be handing himself into the police. A new report by several organisations has presented evidence indicating that NATO categorised civilian areas of Libya as military targets. Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, who helped prepare the report following a visit to Libya, concluded “we have reason to think that there were some war crimes perpetrated”, identifying NATO’s killing of 47 non-combatants in Sirte during September 2011 as an incident of particular concern.

The truth is that Rasmussen is too busy with high politics to fret about the little people of Libya. Near the top of his “to do” list is the preparation of a summit in Chicago slated for May.

Hosting the event in his adopted hometown, Barack Obama will more than likely use the occasion to boost his prospects of re-election by illustrating how the US controls the alliance and is adamant that it continues doing so. The only caveat I wish to add to this prediction is that Obama may be slightly more nuanced in his choice of words.

“Smart defence”

My forecast is based on two documents published in January (as well as America’s general belligerence).

NATO’s annual report says that “smart defence” will be the hot topic in the Windy City. In his preface, Rasmussen implies that “smart defence” involves making the kind of planes and weapons supplied by the US to attack Libya more available to other members of the alliance. In keeping with these straitened times, it is a question of “doing better with less by working more together,” he wrote.

It would be naive to think that “smart defence” will mean any loosening of America’s iron grip over NATO.

The second document aiding me as an amateur clairvoyant comes from the Pentagon and is called “Sustaining US Global Leadership”. Despite containing some mollifying language about finding “partners” throughout the world, this tract effectively threatens both China and Iran with military action. “Sophisticated adversaries”, it warns, will “complicate our operational calculus” by means ranging from cyber warfare to ballistic missiles.

A wet dream for prospectors

The provocative talk is not confined to the Pentagon. In 2010, Hilary Clinton declared that the US had a “national interest” in the South China Sea. “National interest” is a synonym for “economic interest”; with its vast amounts of unexploited gas and oil, the South China Sea is one big wet dream for prospectors.

Duelling with China should be seen as either a key factor behind or the subtext to the wars Obama has inherited, as well as the fresh ones he has initiated or appears intent on declaring (under pressure from his clients in Israel and the Zionist lobby at home).

Trade magazines for the energy industry have been commenting lately about China’s increasing involvement in Central Asia. A gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and China opened in 2009 and has been extended to carry gas from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

All of those countries are in the same neighbourhood as Afghanistan. The official narrative holds that America and NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan is purely a response to how the Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden. More quietly, the West’s marauders have been plotting to get their paws on Central Asia’s resources.

Shortly before his death in 2010, the diplomat and businessman Richard Holbrooke was examining ways of increasing energy cooperation between Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Considering Holbrooke’s track record, it’s impossible to believe he undertook that work for benevolent reasons; in the 1970s, the same Holbrooke helped keep up the flow of arms to Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. Holbrooke was unperturbed by the likelihood those weapons would assist the genocide being undertaken in East Timor; rather, his assessment was that the US needed to have cordial relations with Indonesia because it was an “important oil producer”.

Attacking any “enemy”, any time

After the Pentagon issued its aforementioned paper, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta bragged about a “bunker-buster” bomb assembled for the US military by Boeing. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Panetta said the purpose of this Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) is to “be able to get at any enemy, anywhere”.

His words are indicative of how there has been no change in mindset between the Bush and Obama administrations on foreign policy. As Tariq Ali wrote in his book The Obama Syndrome, the only differences have been in “diplomatic mood music”.

Later this month George W Bush will be decorated with the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana, Estonia’s highest civil award. Why? Because he helped the country join NATO in 2004.

Estonia is one of 13 former Soviet republics so far used by NATO as transit routes to bring troops and equipment to Afghanistan. Obama wants to go a step further; in the past few weeks, he has promised to support Georgia’s bid for full NATO membership.

The consequence of NATO expansion is that Russia is encircled by its Cold War foe. Just as Russia is feeling the heat, the US is stoking the fires of animosity towards China.

Many of us wept the night Obama was elected. There’s no point in shedding new tears of disappointment. Rage is a better response.

●First published by New Europe, 5-11 February 2012.