Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cuddling up to apartheid Israel

Every time I hear the phrase “honest broker” I am reminded of a joke about my native Ireland in the 1980s. It was said at the time that no country could be more honest. And no country could be broker.

For many years senior representatives of the European Union have been presenting themselves as an honest broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in fact they have been extremely dishonest.

They have been dishonest because they have tried to give an impression of impartiality, while displaying favouritism towards the principal aggressor in the Middle East: the state of Israel.

It is no exaggeration to say that Israel has been mollycoddled by the European Union like no other state outside the EU’s borders. This is not just my observation. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief for most of the past decade, stated last year that Israel is a member of the European Union, without being a member of its institutions.

Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the EU has been aiding the occupation of Palestine.

Evidence of this aid can be seen every time you step into a supermarket.

Under a recent agreement on agricultural trade, almost all of Israel’s food exports – both fresh and processed – can enter the EU without paying customs duties. In theory, these trade preferences only apply to food grown inside Israel’s internationally recognised borders and not on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In practice, we know that Israel’s main food exporter Agrexco mixes up goods from the settlements with goods grown in Israel “proper” and labels the whole lot as “made in Israel”.

Business publications in Israel have helpfully given advice to agri-business firms based in the settlements about how they can masquerade as bona fide Israeli firms. The EU’s officials are perfectly aware that these abuses occur and that a significant proportion of the groceries on our supermarket shelves was grown on Israeli settlements. And yet these officials have willingly extended the scope of the trade preferences to Israel.

It should never be forgotten that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention from 1949 expressly forbids an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the territory that it occupies. By opening the door to higher quantities of exports from these settlements, the European Union is – regardless of its official rhetoric – conniving in the expansion of Israeli settlements and the suffocation of Palestine.

Most of my book was completed nearly a year ago. And anyone who writes a book on current affairs knows that you run the risk of being overtaken by events.

It gives me no pleasure to see that my basic thesis has been reinforced throughout 2010.

In January, Mossad, the Israeli secret service used counterfeit passports so that its agents could pose as European citizens when assassinating a leading Hamas figure in Dubai. In response, we saw some tokenistic protests from Britain and Ireland, yet no EU country was prepared to actually sanction Israel. Instead, all of them gave their blessing to Israel’s membership of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in May, a step that was seen as a diplomatic and political victory by the Israeli government.

Later that month, Israel attacked a ship run by a humanitarian organisation from Turkey, a country hoping to join the EU. Nine peace activists were brutally murdered in international waters. Millions of decent people were outraged by this act of piracy. Yet the best Catherine Ashton, the EU’s relatively new foreign policy chief, could do was to say she regretted the incident.

Ashton has made some strong statements about Israel’s ongoing theft of East Jerusalem and over the imprisonment of Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, one of the courageous leaders of the weekly protests against Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank. Though welcome in themselves, these statements do not negate the fact that Ashton is beavering away to bring Israel even closer to the Union than it already is. During the autumn, she recommended that Israel should be designated a “strategic partner” for the Union. That would place Israel on a similar ranking to major global economies like the US and China in terms of how it is prioritised by EU officialdom.

During November, the European Commission announced it was giving 7 million euros to a new Holocaust research project, with which Israel will be intimately involved. Now in principle, I have no problem with the concept of Holocaust research. My book makes it clear that I consider the Holocaust to have left an indelible stain on Europe’s history. Educating present and future generations about the evils of the Holocaust is essential to ensure that nothing comparable ever happens again.

I do have a problem, though, with how Israel and its most zealous supporters deliberately misuse the Holocaust in their propaganda war. During the attacks on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, some pro-Israel lobbyists argued that Israel’s military prowess showed how it had learned lessons from the Holocaust.

I ask those lobbyists tonight: when did two wrongs start making a right? When did the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis give Israel permission to drop bombs on schools and ambulances in Gaza?

What I also object to is that precisely the same funds that are being used to finance Holocaust research are being drawn down by Israeli arms companies that have manufactured the pilotless drones and other cutting-edge killing machines that inflicted terror on the people of Gaza in 2008 and 2009. The EU is now the second largest provider of scientific research grants to Israel and we know that Israeli weapons manufacturers are among the beneficiaries of this funding. As a taxpayer, I object to how my hard-earned euros are subsidising the Israeli war industry.

The very first political demonstration I attended as an idealistic adolescent was against apartheid in South Africa. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians may not be identical to the treatment of the black majority in South Africa during the apartheid era but it bears many similarities. Indeed, some ANC activists have argued that what Palestinians have to endure is worse than what blacks had to endure in South Africa. Nelson Mandela himself has described Palestine as the moral issue of our age.

Israel’s apartheid system is becoming more draconian all the time. In recent months, a whole series of laws have been placed before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, aimed at depriving Palestinians living within Israel of their rights. Racist discourse is commonplace among Israeli politicians.

The European Union is nominally a strong supporter of the Rome Statute, under which the International Criminal Court was established. That statute lists apartheid as one of several crimes against humanity. Signatories of the Rome Statute, therefore, have an obligation to take action against this crime. Yet the European Union will not take any decisive action against Israeli apartheid.

For many years a bizarre debate has been taking place about whether or not Israel has the right to exist. Israel clearly does exist and nobody can deny that.

But Israel does not have the right to exist as an apartheid state. And Israel does not have the right to exist as a state which is occupying the land of another people. If Israel wants to assert its right to exist, then it is about time it started taking some responsibilities. It is about time that it ceased treating the Palestinians as subhuman.

If our politicians and civil servants will not take action against Israel, then it falls to ordinary people to do so. We must treat Israel as a pariah state until it starts respecting the elementary rights of the Palestinian people. This should be done by using the tactics that proved effective during the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, namely boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The occupation of Palestine is brutal and inhuman. But there is no reason why it has to continue like that indefinitely. If enough people of conscience speak out, a fair solution will eventually be found.

I want this evening to be relaxed and informal. But I also hope that you will leave this room angry. Angry because no people on earth should have to go through what the Palestinians have been experiencing for more than 60 years.

My appeal is that you channel this anger constructively, that you get involved in the Palestine solidarity movement and that you keep taking action until justice triumphs over apartheid.

·This is the text of a presentation given during a tour of Belgium, Britain and Ireland in November and December 2010. The tour, to promote my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation, was hosted by the Quaker Council for European Affairs (Brussels), War on Want (London) and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (Limerick, Cork and Dublin).

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