Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Complaint filed over secret donors to "friends of Israel"

Last week I wrote about how Labor Friends of Israel (LFI) – a lobby group within Britain’s largest opposition party – appears to be breaking a law on political donations. I am happy to report that the UK’s Electoral Commission has now received a formal request to investigate the LFI and similar organizations affiliated to the country’s ruling coalition.

Jenny Tonge, a member of the House of Lords, has alerted the Commission to the lack of transparency over how Zionist support groups are funded.

Tonge’s letter draws attention to apparent omissions in the information that the “friends of Israel” groups within Labor and the senior government party, the Conservatives, have submitted to the Commission. Under legislation dating from 2001, all donations exceeding £7,500 ($11,600) to “member’s associations” within political parties have to be disclosed.

The LFI has reported spending nearly £77,000 on trips to the Middle East for members of Parliament between 2003 and 2009 and is known to have at least two full-time members of staff. The Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) have reported expenditure of more than £110,000 on travel since 2011, yet have indicated that they only received donations totalling £29,350 in that period.

Tonge wrote, “The Commission surely has an obligation to examine their finances, together with those of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, to ensure that they have not failed to declare any donations above the threshold, as it does seem remarkable to have this level of expenditure without significant donations from groups or individuals.”

Pounding the drumbeat of war

The LFI’s reticence over its funding is at odds with its determination to prove that it is shaping policy. Its 15 December newsletter gloated at how the first visit to Israel and the West Bank by Douglas Alexander, since his appointment as shadow foreign secretary in January this year, was hosted by the LFI.
During the visit Alexander met Israel’s chief spindoctor Mark Regev, a man who has perfected the art of looking suave while telling lies. Alexander showed just how amenable he was to Israeli propaganda by going to see a high school in southern Israel -- where, in his words “classrooms doubled up as bomb shelters.”

His itinerary did not include an excursion into the nearby Gaza Strip, where he could have inspected schools destroyed by the highly-equipped Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead three years ago. At least 353 Palestinian children were killed by Israel in that three-week offensive.

The same newsletter illustrates that LFI – like its beloved Regev – has a tenuous relationship with the truth. It brands Iran’s nuclear programme “illegal” and notes that the Labor hierarchy has pledged support for sanctions against the Tehran regime. Readers are not provided with any background details about how it was Israel, not Iran, that introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East and how it is Israel, not Iran, that has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The newsletter proceeds to recommend an article by Alan Johnson from the Britain Israel Research Center (BICOM), who praised the British government’s determination “to end the diplomatic merry-go-round, to see Iran plain and to act, now and decisively, to confront it.”

If the “Friends of Israel” are pounding the drumbeat of war against Iran, then it is vital that they be closely monitored.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 28 December 2011.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Bickering" Britain accommodates Israeli settlements

One of the first things any journalist covering the Middle East should learn is that rumors of tension between Israel and the West are very much exaggerated. The latest “row” over the expansion of settlements is no exception.

According to the news agency AFP, Britain, France and Germany have led condemnation of Israel’s newly-announced plans to build more houses in the Jewish-only settlements of East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank. Predictably, the Israeli foreign ministry appears disgruntled by this stance. Avigdor Lieberman’s officials are telling the European Union to focus on Iran and Syria, rather than on “inappropriate bickering with one country,” namely Israel.

With a little bit of background research, AFP could have learned that far from being appalled by Israeli settlements, the EU’s governments are accommodating their construction.

A statement made to Britain’s members of Parliament (MPs) on 5 December illustrates that point. Alistair Burt, a Foreign Office minister in the London government, was asked about the statistics provided by Israel to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Israel joined that club of industrialised countries last year, in a diplomatic triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues.

Compromise of convenience

Burt told his fellow MPs of a compromise reached whereby the OECD has agreed to consider the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as property of Israel for certain purposes. Following a visit by OECD officials to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in the summer this year, it was agreed that Israel would not need to provide “disaggregated data” on macroeconomic issues that distinguish between “pre-1967 Israel and the post-1967 areas.”

Although Burt tried to present the issue as a technical one, his choice of language is revealing. Instead of spelling out that Israel occupies the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights in violation of international law, he simply referred to those territories as “post-1967 areas.” He went on to hint that the compromise was made on practical grounds because the “post-1967 areas” only account for 4 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product.

So there you have it: the West is happy to accommodate the Israeli occupation for the sake of convenience.

If I was to inclined to buy Burt a Christmas present, it would have to be a copy of Shir Hever’s book The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation. It shows how claims that the occupation is of negligible importance to Israel’s economy are made habitually by mainstream analysts. Hever demolishes those claims by highlighting how the territories that Israel occupies comprise its second largest export market and how Israel has built a lucrative military and “homeland security” industry around the occupation. You can be sure that the 4% estimate cited by Burt does not take such critically important factors into account.

“Remarkable success story”

Exactly one week after Burt made those comments, he attended the annual lunch of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a lobby group within the main party of the UK’s ruling coalition.

The keynote address to that gathering of 120 parliamentarians and 400 businesspeople was given by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (in a country less wedded to imperial bombast, he would simply be called the finance minister). Osborne told his audience that “Israel’s a remarkable success story when it comes to the development of hi-tech industry and it’s really a beacon to the world of how you can foster these small companies that grow into world-beating businesses.”

The review of this sumptuous banquet on the CFI’s website doesn’t give the impression that Osborne was intent on “inappropriate bickering” with Israel. Rather, he seemed more interested in nurturing closer commercial ties with this “remarkable success story.”

Nobody with any knowledge of history would be surprised that the elites in Europe’s one-time colonial powers feel an affinity with Israel. Journalists should bear that in mind the next time they hear rumors of tension.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 December 2011.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Is UK "friends of Israel" group breaking law on political funding?

Public anger over how members of parliament (MPs) were abusing their expenses system has helped usher in a little transparency to British politics over the past few years. Yet the Labor Friends of Israel (LFI), a powerful group within the country’s main opposition party, is still behaving like a secret society.

Unlike a similar “friends of Israel” group belonging to the Liberal Democrats – the junior party in the ruling coalition - the LFI does not appear to have supplied any information about the sources of its finances to the UK’s Electoral Commission. This lack of disclosure could be illegal. Legislation applying to “members’ associations” of political parties stipulates that all donations above £7,500 ($11,600) must be notified to the Commission within 30 days.

Today, I asked Ben Garrett, the LFI’s head of policy and research, why his organization seems to be breaking the law. “I am not willing to comment,” he replied.

Garrett repeated that answer when I asked for basic details of the LFI’s annual budget and who its largest contributors are. When I argued that it is undemocratic for the LFI to be seeking to influence British policies on the Middle East, without providing basic details about how it is financed, he said, “I am not willing to engage with The Electronic Intifada in a discussion on these issues.”

Admittedly, the information provided by the “friends of Israel” groups for the two other large parties is quite scanty. The Conservative Friends of Israel refused to tell me a few months ago if that group is being funded by the arms industry. The answer to this question cannot be found in the information it has given to the commission, which mainly relates to visits to the Middle East by Conservative MPs. For their part, the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel appear to be more open, naming David Alliance, a textiles entrepreneur known to grace The Sunday Times list of Britain’s richest people, as one of its key donors.

Admiring Israel’s weapons

The LFI’s secrecy is all the more disturbing, given how some of its senior figures have recently been preparing a review of Britain’s defense policy and there is strong reason to suspect that their admiration for Israel is coloring their views.

A 96-page paper called “Ideas for Future UK Defense Equipment” was published by the Labor Party in September. Its preface was jointly signed by Michael Dugher, the LFI’s vice-chairman, and Jim Murphy, the shadow defense secretary.

As part of their deliberations, both men visited Israel in June. The bill for that trip was shared by the Britain Israel Research Center (BICOM) and the UK embassy in Tel Aviv. During it, the men held consultations with two of Israel’s leading arms makers, Elbit and Rafael. Their paper lauds the pilotless drones that Elbit has provided to the British Army for the war in Afghanistan, without acknowledging that they have been tested by spying on and murdering civilians in Gaza.

A few months ago, Dugher and Murphy both tried to make political capital out of a controversy in which Liam Fox, then the UK’s defense secretary, was embroiled. Fox had to resign because his close friend Adam Werritty was posing as his adviser, despite how Werritty had never been given any such job by the British government. While Dugher and Murphy were happy to censure Fox and Werritty for their shenanigans, they did not draw attention to how some of Werritty’s trips abroad were financed by BICOM.

Strong bonds to Zionist PR firm

Their reticence on that point is easy to understand. For BICOM is known to have solid bonds with the LFI, even though the center’s chief donor, Las Vegas casino magnate Poju Zabludowicz has helped fund the Conservatives. BICOM is registered as a private company, yet performs many of the functions that an embassy normally would by, for example, arranging for journalists to interview Israeli politicians.

At least three of BICOM’s team either remain involved with the LFI or have been in the recent past. Lorna Fitzsimons, the chief executive, was active in the LFI when she was a Labor member of parliament. Dermot Kehoe, BICOM’s press officer, was the partner of David Cairns, the LFI chairman who died in May. And Luke Akehurst, BICOM’s director of campaigns, is a Labor councillor in London who uses his blog to solicit recruits for the LFI.

Akehurst is also the quasi-official stenographer for the LFI. Last month, he wrote a glowing account of a speech given to the LFI by Ed Miliband, leader of the entire Labor Party.

Proving that he is little different to his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Miliband is more eager to placate the LFI’s hawks than follow the good example shown by his mother Marion Kozak , who has declared her support for the principled organization Jews for Justice for Palestinians. If Akehurst’s transcript is accurate, Miliband used his LFI address to malign the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel by implying that it had an anti-Semitic motive.

Sara Apps from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London noted that the only information that the LFI seems to have provided to the Electoral Commission concerned trips that the LFI has financed, without revealing where the money for those trips originated. “According to the Electoral Commission website, LFI has spent at least £76,822 on overseas visits for Labor MPs since 2003,” she told me. “Add this to their office and employment costs, it is difficult to conceive they could survive without significant donations from funders.”

By refusing to reveal where they get their money, the Labor Friends of Israel prove that they are enemies of democracy.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 19 December 2011.

Hunger will rise if EU inks trade deal with India

Ten years ago, the tobacco industry was formally identified as the enemy. The World Health Assembly approved a resolution stating that cigarette makers have operated with “the express intention of subverting the role of governments” in implementing policies designed to reduce cancer deaths.

An illustration of just how dangerous that industry is came in February 2010, when Philip Morris International sued Uruguay over graphic new health warnings on cigarette packets. Philip Morris was able to take this action under the provisions of an investment treaty between Uruguay and Switzerland. Like many similar agreements, that one allows corporations to take an entire nation to court if they encounter obstacles perceived as damaging to their profitability.

This kind of litigation could become commonplace if Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, has his way.

He appears determined to seize on provisions in the Lisbon treaty that give the European Commission responsibility for negotiating investment deals with foreign countries. India is likely to be a test case. De Gucht is hoping that he will wrap up talks on a free trade agreement with New Delhi this coming February. According to a paper drawn up by EU officials, such an agreement “shall provide for the progressive abolition of restrictions on investment, with the aim to ensure the highest level of market access and provide protection for investors and investments of both parties.”

In other words, de Gucht wants clauses in the agreement that would allow corporations sue India or the EU in the way that Philip Morris is suing Uruguay. The recent history of investment treaties has shown that because they allow for company-state arbitration, health, environmental or labour standards can be challenged on the grounds that they restrict investment. Vattenfall, the Swedish firm, is invoking a 1994 energy treaty to sue Germany over its decision to abandon nuclear power.

Making a killing

Philip Morris, incidentally, views the EU-India trade talks as an opportunity to make a killing (literally).

I have seen a copy of a letter sent to the European Commission in March 2010 signed by Kristof Doms from Philip Morris’ Brussels office and Jack Bowles, who represents British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International. The two men lamented that India is a “virtually closed market” because it applies high taxes on imported cigarettes. “In order to open the Indian market for cigarettes manufactured in the EU,” the despicable duo urged the Commission to insist on a free trade agreement that would remove all import duties they now have to pay in India.

Irrespective of whether these peddlers of disease get their way, there are strong reasons to fear that a free trade agreement will harm India’s poor.

Karel de Gucht and his team should read two important new documents.

The first one is a report published by the UN’s working group on human rights in India earlier this month. It gives an overview of the human rights situation in India, stating that the planned free trade agreements threatens the rights to health, food and work for much of the population. While that comment is directed at India’s trade agreements in general, the report zooms in on the one under negotiation with the EU, predicting it “would cut tariffs to zero for key sectors that support many producers and workers, thus exposing them to highly competitive international markets.”

The second paper de Gucht should study is a “right to food impact assessment” on the likely consequences of a trade agreement between the EU and India. It was prepared by the Third World Network, an Indian veterinary organisation called Anthra and the German anti-poverty group Misereor, among others.

Legal obligation

This study emphasises that de Gucht is under a legal obligation to respect human rights. Despite its numerous flaws, the Lisbon treaty does at least require that trade policy upholds rights of both a social and economic nature and a civil and political one.

So when trade with India is being discussed, de Gucht is obliged to recall that India is not simply a land with 55 dollar billionaires, it also has an estimated 224 million people living in chronic hunger. One of the enormous paradoxes of India is that food producers are themselves frequently vulnerable to food deprivation. About 70% of Indians depend on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood.

The impact assessment indicates that India’s dairy and poultry farmers would struggle to cope if they had to compete with cheap imports of European meat and milk products. Such farmers typically have to borrow for feed and other essentials and pay back their loans at high interest rates, making them dependent on getting reasonable prices. Women involved in small-scale agriculture would have to cut down on vital sources of nutrition like rice if their incomes were to decline, the assessment stated.

De Gucht is hoping that India’s middle class will flock to supermarkets owned by Carrefour and Tesco as a result of a free trade agreement. Those supermarkets tend to favour better-off farmers when buying food, meaning that they will bring no benefit to India’s poor. And the arrival of giant stores will surely be bad news for the family-run shops and street hawkers that form the backbone of the Indian economy.

Christmas is supposed to be a season for caring. As de Gucht tucks into his Yuletide dinner, I hope he will feel some remorse about the suffering he is trying to inflict on India.

●First published by New Europe, 19 December 2011.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The evils of Europe's overcrowded prisons

Without any audible fanfare, the European Union took a significant leap this month towards a common system of criminal law. By 5 December, its governments were supposed to implement a 2008 decision requiring each of them to recognise judgments delivered in another EU state. In principle, this will make it easier to extradite prisoners. In practice, it could make it easier for human rights to be abused.

This move follows the ill-conceived introduction of a European arrest warrant. Around the time of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the arrest warrant was touted as a necessary weapon in George W Bush’s “war on terror”. There appeared to be an understanding then that warrants would be restricted to serious offences. Yet some EU governments have sought extradition for every conceivable misdemeanour.

Poland is addicted to issuing cross-border arrest warrants and has seen fit to do so in cases where the offence was no more serious than the theft of a dessert (I kid you not). Although the Polish authorities have been rapped on the knuckles by Scotland Yard, the London police headquarters, for issuing a large number of trivial extradition requests, it appears that they are still dishing out warrants in a trigger-happy manner. The latest data collated by the Union’s Council of Ministers indicates that Poland issued 3,753 warrants for the arrest of suspects in other EU countries during 2010. Admittedly, that is a slight decline on 2009, when the corresponding figure was 4,844.

Yet the 2010 numbers still show that Poland retains its lead. Its nearest rival Germany issued 2,096 European arrest warrants last year.

The Polish authorities have nothing to be proud of. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which belongs to the 47-country Council of Europe, recently published the results of its probe into Poland’s detention facilities. It criticised the cells managed by police in the southern city of Rybnik for being “poorly ventilated, dirty, smelly and badly maintained.”

Unacceptable detention of children

The CPT did not mince its words when referring to the conditions in which children were kept in Bedzin and Katowice, where they were forced to remain in their pyjamas throughout the day. No outdoor exercise was allowed in Bedzin, while it Katowice outdoor sport was only allowed in the summer. “Such a state of affairs is not acceptable,” the committee stated.

Reading the graphic description of the Rybnik cells reminded me of a meeting I had last year with a Dutchman who went through a hellish experience after Poland demanded his extradition. Robert Hörchner was held for a number of months in a prison in Bydgoszcz, a northern Polish city where he once worked. I felt queasy as he told me of how there was a constant stench of urine and faeces in the cell he shared with eight or nine others, all of whom had to use the same toilet. Going out to an exercise yard did not give him much respite: it was infested with rats.

Hörchner insisted that he was innocent of the allegations against him: that cannabis was grown on a property he leased. I believe that he told me the truth. But even if I had doubts, I would still query why he was extradited. Have the Polish police not got something more to worry about than the cultivation of weed?

Jailed without a conviction

I was astonished to learn that 21% of the 643,000 people in the EU’s prisons have not actually been convicted of a crime. Instead, they are in pre-trial detention.

The widespread use of pre-trial detention contravenes the European Prison Rules, to which all of the Union’s states are nominally committed. They emphasise that imprisonment should be a last resort.

Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, promised during 2010 to put pressure on all EU governments to live up to their responsibilities on improving prison conditions. Her pledge is commendable, yet I’m not holding my breath. Most, if not all, of the centre-right parties that dominate Europe’s governments have a narrow focus on law and order. While an analysis by the Quaker Council on European Affairs has indicated that many justice ministries are amenable to exploring community service and other alternatives to detention, convincing entire governments to change their ways will not be easy. (I certainly don’t wish to sound despondent; vigorous human rights activism has notched up many triumphs in the past).

Another frightening statistic is that 19 Council of Europe countries have prison capacity rates of more than 90%. According to the Jean-Marie Delarue, the controller-general for detention facilities in France, some French prisons have occupation rates exceeding 200%.

The London-based group Fair Trials International has estimated that pre-trial detention costs the EU’s governments a total of €4.8 billion per year.

Just as building more roads is an environmentally destructive response to traffic congestion, building more jails would be a socially destructive response to prison overcrowding. In 2006, Scotland’s inspector for prisons listed “nine evils” of overcrowding; among them were that prison staff were unable to devote sufficient care to mentally ill detainees; a build-up in tension; a deterioration in food quality and; competition for sources of education and entertainment.
None of those evils could be considered necessary. If the EU wants to have a common system of criminal justice, the major flaws in the detention policies of its governments should be remedied. A good first step would be to make pre-trial detention the exception, not the rule.

●First published by New Europe, 12 December 2011.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My attempt to arrest Israeli weapons chief

This morning I tried to arrest an Israeli military strategist over his development of weapons intended for use in killing Palestinians.

Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a former head of research in both Israel’s army and its defense ministry, was standing outside a meeting room in a luxurious Brussels hotel when I arrived shortly after nine o’clock. Initially, I walked past him and approached the registration desk for the “terrorism technology” conference at which he was speaking.

“Good morning,” I said to a woman behind the desk. “My name is Cronin.”

A man in a dark suit then approached me. “Cronin?” he said. “You are David?” (I hadn’t given my first name).

“That’s right,” I replied. He and the woman flicked through the registration list for the event and told me that my name wasn’t on it. When I explained that I had sent an email message to the organisers last week expressing my wish to attend, they responded that it was a private event. “But it is funded by the European Union. And it was publicly announced on the internet,” I said.

The conversation continued in that vein for a moment or two, when the man said to me, “You want the police? We have the police.” (I hadn’t asked for the police).

I looked behind me and saw two other men. “Are you from the hotel’s security?” I asked. “No, we are Belgian intelligence,” one of them replied.

“That man over there is Mr Ben-Israel,” I said, pointing to him. “I have come here to make a citizen’s arrest of that man. Mr Ben-Israel, you are charged with crimes against humanity. I invite you to present yourself to these police officers here.”

DIME role

One of the officers asked me to identify myself. “My name is Dave Cronin, I am a freelance journalist,” I said. “I believe that Mr Ben-Israel has developed weapons for the express purpose of killing Palestinians.”

I tried to elaborate but the two policemen were already taking me down the stairs. In the hotel lobby, they asked me for my ID card and wrote down my contact details. I requested that they take a statement from me, explaining why Ben-Israel should be arrested. Although they agreed to listen to my argument, they refused to take a formal statement, telling me instead to visit a police station.

A retired major-general, Ben-Israel has been involved in developing some of the nastiest weapons in Israel’s arsenal. There is prima facie evidence that he provided his expertise to an Israeli team that have adapted the US-made weapon DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) for use in Gaza. In 2006, Ben-Israel indicated he was privy to the testing of DIME, which slices off limbs and causes severe burns. He praised the weapon in an interview with Italian television, stating that “one of the ideas is to allow those targeted to be hit without causing damage to bystanders or other persons.”

Testimonies gathered from hospitals in Gaza when Israel attacked the Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 told of how unusual metals were found in the bodies of bomb victims. These indicate that DIME may have been used during that three-week assault, Operation Cast Lead.

Ben-Israel has won three national defense awards in Israel for helping to invent weapons. In 1972, he was honored for his role in realizing a bombing system for F-4E warplanes supplied to Israel by the US arms firm McDonnell Douglas. Four years later, he won a similar prize for his contribution to a C4 system to help commanders manage a range of operations. And in 2002, he bagged the Israel Defense Award for “a project introducing a new concept of future warfare.”

Rejoicing in murder

A member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) from 2007 and 2009, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Cast Lead. In a 2009 opinion piece for the news website Ynet, he celebrated how Israel had departed from the rules of armed combat it used to play by (according to him). “Previously, it appeared as though the weak side (Hamas, Hezbollah) could attack Israeli citizens uninterruptedly, while Israel hesitates in utilizing its substantial military power (airplanes, tanks, and guided missiles) for fear of hurting civilians on the other side,” he wrote. “Yet the recent operation showed that even mosques used by terror groups are no longer an obstacle in the face of Israel using its military power.”

It is nauseating that someone who exults in the mass murder of civilians can be a guest at an EU-sponsored conference. As I wrote earlier this week, another crime committed by Ben-Israel is that he sits on the board of trustees for Ariel University, which is located in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The EU’s representatives know well that such settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which forbid an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into a territory that it occupies.

Ben-Israel looked slightly puzzled when I confronted him today. He has probably not encountered previous attempts to hold him accountable for his crimes. Well, he will have to get used to those efforts. Wherever he and other members of Israel’s political and military elite go, they can expect to face demands for justice.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 8 December 2011.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Treating the world's poor as Europe's enemy

José Manuel Barroso has little time for his critics, judging by a recent speech he gave in Berlin. The European Commission president used his soapbox to rant against “something I often call the ‘intellectual glamour of pessimism’”. Emphasising the EU’s shortcomings, he argued, overlooks how “we have established on this continent, here in our Europe, the most decent societies known to mankind.”

To his disgrace, Barroso heads an institution that is actively unravelling the decency he tried to celebrate. After forcing merciless cutbacks in the public services on which millions of Europeans rely, the Commission will this week demonstrate its cruelty towards the poor and oppressed of the wider world. It will do so by formally recommending the establishment of a new border surveillance system, designed to keep people with dark and yellow skin out of the Union.

Of course, the proposal for Eurosur, as the system is called, will not be so blunt in its use of language. Yet once you examine the preparatory work for it, the conclusion that foreigners are being treated as Europe’s enemy becomes unavoidable.

Weapons-producers, the very people whose business depends on violence and human rights abuses, have been centrally involved in the system’s planning. It is closely related to a 42 million euro research project – largely funded by the EU – named PERSEUS (Protection of European Seas and Borders through the Intelligent Use of Surveillance). In a conflict of interests, that project is being coordinated by the Spanish arms firm Indra, which stands to benefit directly from the sale of the surveillance equipment to be used by Eurosur.

Thales, the French “defence” firm, is leading a similar EU research project known as OPERAMAR, which is supposed to address the “insufficient interoperability” between the Union’s “maritime security” facilities and those held by the national authorities of its member countries.

More perilous routes

I would not be surprised if Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, predicts this week that the system will help rescue boats that are in danger of sinking. Any such claim will be misleading; the experience of these kind of surveillance systems is that they push asylum-seekers to take increasingly perilous routes in the hope of giving the authorities the slip.

Spain introduced a 300 million euro system called SIVE to monitor the Strait of Gibraltar in 2002. The effect was that boats carrying asylum-seekers tried to enter Spanish territory via the Canary Islands instead. When SIVE was extended to the Canaries, it emerged that saving lives was not a priority for those operating it. In 2004, a number of small boats sank, causing numerous deaths, in areas where surveillance equipment had been installed. During parliamentary discussions the following year, the Spanish Civil Guard admitted that the system was of a “security” nature; search and rescue was not the primary concern.

The European Defence Agency (EDA), that official body set up at the request of Thales and other arms companies, is also taking an active part in the discussions about Eurosur.

A 2010 report written for the agency by a “wise pen” group comprised of five vice-admirals from different navies advocated that warships should be used for patrolling the EU’s external borders. The same report gave a positive assessment of operations in which boats carrying asylum-seekers were boarded by armed personnel, while still at sea.

It is telling that the vice-admirals did not appear to have any problem with measures that would inevitably increase the anxiety of people who are already frightened. In September 2008, the French naval vessel Arrago intercepted two boats with asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean. The boats were then escorted to the Sicilian port of Lampedusa with the asylum-seekers having guns pointed at them the whole time.

That operation was directed by Frontex, the EU’s border management agency which is also set to be involved in Eurosur. Frontex is legally bound to respect fundamental rights; in practice, it does not.

EU approved child abuse

A few months ago, Human Rights Watch published the results 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 this year. During that time, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a judgment, which found that Greece’s asylum system was dysfunctional. The country’s detention facilities were found to be so shabby that they violated human rights laws prohibiting ill-treatment and torture. Guards deployed by Frontex regularly apprehended migrants and brought them to the detention centres, frequently in buses provided by the agency. In some of these centres, unaccompanied children were held for long periods.

This means that an official EU agency helped flout international law. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, all signatories are supposed to guarantee the protection of minors, in particular children who are not accompanied by a parent or another adult.

The Frontex chief Ilkka Laitinen last month made a distinction between “irregular migration” and “bona fide border crossings”. Reading between the lines, it appears that the only difference between the “irregular” and “bona fide” travellers he referred to is that the second group is lucky enough to have documents that immigration officers will accept.

Laitinen should read a passage from Barroso’s Berlin speech: “we believe that if someone is poor, it is not necessarily because it is his fault.”

Trying to enter Europe in order to flee persecution or poverty is not a crime. How dare the EU treat such people as criminal.

●First published by New Europe, 5 December 2011.

Settler "professor" top attraction at EU-Israel science show

A weapons inventor representing an illegal Israeli settlement will participate in an EU-sponsored conference on scientific research later this week.

Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a retired major-general, is among the speakers listed on the programme for Thursday’s event on “technology terrorism” in Brussels. He is a member of the board of trustees in Ariel University, which is located on occupied land in the West Bank. His resumé also states that he has headed the research divisions of both the Israeli military and its Ministry of Defense.

Although Israel is an active participant in the EU’s science programme, the Union says that firms and universities based in the settlements are not eligible for the programme’s research grants. So I asked the European Commission if it had any difficulties with Ben-Israel’s role in this week’s event, considering his links to Ariel. “To the best of our knowledge, Mr Ben-Israel does not have any direct role in the [‘technology terrorism’] project, apart from being a speaker at the workshop,” Carlo Corazza, a Commission spokesman, replied.

That lame response cannot be allowed conceal how the EU is ingratiating itself with Israel’s military and political elite. Ben-Israel is regarded as an important strategist on “defense” issues and has received several awards for his work. He has been credited with developing a “C4 system” (to help commanders manage a range of operations) for the Israeli military, as well as Nautilus, a laser system designed to counteract the crude rockets that Hamas and other resistance groups have fired from Gaza and that Hezbollah have fired from Lebanon. Furthermore, he has served on the board of directors for Israel Aerospace Industries, a maker of warplanes used to slaughter Gaza civilians during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. And I almost forgot to add that he has been a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for Kadima, the party set up by that mass murderer Ariel Sharon.

Selective focus on violence

Thursday’s event marks the culmination of a €1 million ($1.3 million) project called FESTOS (Foresight of Evolving Security Threats Posed by Emerging Technologies). While most of the money for FESTOS comes from the EU taxpayer, the project is being coordinated by Yair Sharan from Tel Aviv University.

In a newsletter published in February, Sharan said the aim of the project is to assess how “terrorists” are availing of technology and to recommend what policy measures should be taken in response. “New technological horizons are opened to individuals and groups who are ready to abuse technology to accomplish their evil purposes,” he wrote.

It is probably superfluous to add that the project is highly selective. It only examines violence perpetrated in response to oppression and not the routine violence of oppressor states like Israel.

Corazza tried to justify the project by saying that “FESTOS is not about developing weapons.” He added that developing weapons is not allowed by the EU’s scientific research activities as they belong to a “civilian programme.”

Don’t be fooled by that assurance. No matter what EU officials say, the Union is helping to nurture a “security” industry in Israel that is inseparable from that country’s military and its crimes against humanity.

Last week The Financial Times published a feature about Israel’s technology prowess. It was a piece of thinly-veiled propaganda by the paper’s correspondent Tobias Buck, yet it nonetheless underscored how many of the big shots in Israel’s technology sector were trained in Unit 8200, an electronic espionage division of the Israeli military.

Israel is taking part in 800 EU research projects at the moment, with a total value of €4.3 billion. As a European taxpayer, I don’t recall ever being asked for permission to fund a war machine that is an affront to everything I believe in.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 6 December 2011.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time for outrage against academic support for Israel

Persistent campaigning by the Palestine solidarity movement has turned Veolia into something of a toxic brand. From Manchester to Melbourne, local authorities have been quizzed about their dealings with the French corporate giant because of its role in constructing a light rail system for illegal Israeli settlements in Jerusalem.

The controversy has affected Veolia’s bottom line, resulting in the loss of contracts worth €10 billion over the past six years. So it recently turned to the Brussels bureaucracy for moral - or, perhaps more accurately, immoral - support.

On 31 October, Antonio Tajani, vice-president of the European Commission, opened the “Go4 Europe” business conference in Tel Aviv. On promotional material that Tajani and his aides almost certainly read, Veolia was listed as one of the event’s four “platinum sponsors”. As Tajani used the occasion to laud Israel’s “business–friendly environment” (his words), he gave his tacit blessing to companies such as Veolia that have seized the opportunities presented by an apartheid state.

Tajani cannot profess ignorance of how the gathering served a propaganda function. The founder of the annual conference, Edouard Cukierman, is a self-declared “economic Zionist”, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. As well as being active in the technology industry, Cukierman works in the media division of the Israeli military, a force that has a tenuous relationship with the truth (to put it mildly). He is the son of Roger Cukierman, a former head of CRIF (the representative council for Jewish institutions in France), one of the most influential groups in this continent’s Israel lobby.

Nominated to the EU executive by Italy’s then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2008, Tajani is a key ally for Israel in Brussels. For the 14 years before that appointment, he was a standard-bearer of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in the European Parliament. During his time there, he joined the steering committee of the European Friends of Israel, a network of elected representatives who can be relied on to champion Israel, regardless of what it does.

Greenwashing apartheid

Tajani used his Halloween trip to engage in the “greenwashing” of Israeli apartheid. By visiting an electric cars firm, he helped depict Israel as a country that is serious about harnessing its innovative powers to reduce pollution. He failed to acknowledge how Israel is in reality an environmental villain, that steals precious water resources from the West Bank’s Palestinians to fill swimming pools and sustain elaborate floral displays in illegal Jewish-only settlements.

Along with Ireland’s EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Tajani is in charge of administering the Union’s multi-annual programme for scientific research. Israel is the most active non-European participant in this programme; Israeli universities and private firms are currently involved in 800 EU-financed research activities with a total value of €4.3 billion. On his Tel Aviv visit, Tajani indicated that he wished to expand the research cooperation with Israel even further now that a revamped version of the EU programme, titled Horizon 2020, is being planned. As it is likely to have a budget of about €80 billion between 2014 and 2020, it is safe to assume that many Israeli entrepreneurs see it as a cash cow. The amount would be an increase of some €27 billion over what the Union allocated to research between 2007 and 2013.

The EU’s scientific research activities seldom grace the pages of our newspapers. Yet if journalists bothered following the money trail, they would realise that the programme’s beneficiaries include Israeli companies that supply the weapons and surveillance equipment used to systematically violate an entire people’s rights.

David Cameron’s apparent antipathy to Brussels notwithstanding, Britain is also an enthusiastic participant in the EU’s research activities, many of which link up UK-based academics and businesspeople with their Israeli counterparts.

BAE, a company known to arm such repressive regimes as the Saudi royal family and Indonesia under Suharto, is taking part in an EU-financed project exploring how pilotless drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – can monitor Europe’s borders. Israel Aerospace Industries, one of two manufactuers of the pilotless drones with which Gaza’s 1.6 million civilians were attacked in late 2008 and early 2009, is also involved in OPARUS (Open Architecture for UAV-based Surveillance Systems), as that project is named. What this means is that the Union is taking advice from companies that facilitate war crimes on how to pursue a racist agenda of keeping foreigners out of Europe.

The Israeli Institute for Technology in Haifa – generally known as the Technion – believes that innovation should aid Zionism. It has boasted of developing a remote-controlled bulldozer, explicitly intended for use in destroying Palestinian homes so that the land on which they are situated can be handed over to Israeli settlers. The Technion is a significant player in the EU’s research programme. Considering its determination to wreck Palestinian houses, it is perverse that the Technion is involved in a €4.4 million scheme called Responsible Infrastructure and Building Security (RIBS). This project is being coordinated by University College London; its stated objective is to help defend important sites “against hostile reconnaissance, intruders and hazardous attack”.

The Technion is involved, too, in an EU-funded project with the Police Service of Northern Ireland called CommonSense, which is focused on the detection of bombs with special sensors.

Dishonesty at the heart of Europe

Since I began writing about how Israel milks the EU’s science funds two years ago, I have been told repeatedly by Brussels officials that the research in question is strictly civilian. Frankly, those assurances are dishonest. Following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the EU’s main institutions agreed to finance research of a “security” nature. The objectives of this research were decided in consultation with the arms industry. In theory, this research is not supposed to lead to the development of actual weapons systems. In reality, there is nothing to stop the fruits of it from having military applications. To contend that the EU is helping Israel invent tools of repression that will be used against Palestinians in the future is not in the least bit fanciful.

A glance at the aforementioned Israel Aerospace Industries’ website is sufficient to learn that its core business is the production of weapons, although it dabbles in “green” technology. Anyone who believes that its real interest in UAV research projects is benign must be naive in the extreme.

By embracing Israeli arms companies so tightly, the EU is flouting the spirit and more than likely the letter of the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling on Israel’s wall in the West Bank. The ruling stipulated that governments and public bodies must not render any aid or assistance to the wall as it violates international law. IAI’s subsidiary Tamam provided a surveillance system, based on technology installed in helicopters, for that wall. Continuing to allocate research subsidies to IAI is tantamount to approval of its role in equipping an illegal structure.

The high level of cooperation between European universities and Israel is something that should be challenged by every teacher and student who believes in basic principles of justice. An exemplary decision was taken in November by the King’s College London Student Council, when it voted to condemn the participation of that university in an EU nanotechnology project that also includes Ahava, an Israeli company producing cosmetics in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem. The previous month, the University of London Union also condemned the collaboration of British universities with Ahava; as the ULU is the largest student’s union in Europe, the significance of the move should not be underestimated.

Hopefully, these are the first steps in a major battle aimed at expelling Israel from the EU’s research programme.

Palestinian organisations fighting a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel issued a call in October for all European universities to cease cooperating with Israeli partners. The organisations contended that the involvement of Israeli arms companies in the EU’s research programme contravened the association agreement that underpins the Union’s relations with Israel. Now in force for more than a decade, that accord says unambiguously that all cooperation with Israel is conditional on respect for human rights.

Inserting human rights clauses in the trade and political contracts it signs with foreign governments is standard EU practice; indeed, Brussels officials tend to describe such clauses as non-negotiable. Words, of course, are meaningless if they are not acted on. The EU is not only refusing to take action against Israel, it is busily conniving in Israel’s crimes.

Heaping research subsidies on Israel’s war industry is an affront to the notion that science should serve the public good. If there was more knowledge among Europe’s taxpayers about how our money is going to companies that profit from the suffering of Palestinians, I am convinced that most decent people would be outraged. The only barrier to that outrage is a lack of awareness. With enough consciousness-raising, the barrier can surely be removed.

●First published by Middle East Monitor, 1 December 2011.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why won't Europe heed the doctor's advice on climate change

When you feel unwell, who do you consult? Your doctor, who has been trained to treat you? Or your boss, who hasn’t?

In a letter published by the British Medical Journal last month, numerous health professionals called for robust EU action against climate change. A 30% reduction in the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (when compared to 1990 levels) would save more than 80 billion euros per year, the professionals said. These savings would result from both a fall in the numbers of people suffering from cardiac and respiratory diseases and from the increased productivity rate of a healthier workforce.

While this would appear to be a far more sensible way to slash medical bills than through austerity, policy-makers are refusing to follow the advice. Rather than going to the doctor, they take their prescriptions from corporate interest groups.

BusinessEurope, one of the most influential organisations in Brussels, has prepared a concise two-page briefing ahead of this week’s climate change negotiations in Durban. Its core messages are firstly that the Union should not go beyond its existing target of cutting emissions by 20% over the 1990 to 2020 period. And secondly, it warns that many companies will quit the EU if it unilaterally sets more ambitious reduction goals than the rest of the world.

Privileged access

Nick Campbell, the chairman of BusinessEurope’s committee on climate change, enjoys privileged access to the European Commission. A report by Carbon Trade Watch and the Corporate Europe Observatory has documented how he held discussions with EU officials preparing a “roadmap” for moving to a low-carbon economy in March this year. Campbell was exercised by proposals contained in a draft of that plan relating to the EU’s emissions trading system, under which firms buy and sell permits to pollute. Because many energy-intensive industries had been granted a surfeit of emission allowances in the past, the Commission’s draft recommended that 500 to 800 million should be set aside from phase three of the system (running from 2013 to 2020). After Campbell objected to that figure, it was deleted and the final version of the “roadmap” contained only a woolly commitment to “consider” the notion of setting allowances aside.

Campbell is a busy chap. He is also a lobbyist for the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). As chemicals account for one-third of all industrial energy use in the Union, CEFIC should theoretically benefit from a shift towards electricity generation from renewable sources as they are less hazardous than coal, oil and nuclear power. Yet because the council’s members include fossil fuel addicts such as Shell, BP and Total, it is resisting saner energy policies. Giorgio Squinzi, the council’s president, recently contended that the EU’s 20% target was adequate. “Targeting greater C02 [carbon dioxide] reductions when other markets outside of the European Union are dragging their feet would be a lonely and bold move,” he said. “But it would not necessarily be the right one, and might achieve perverse effects.”


Squinzi went on to predict that chemical companies will have to move out of Europe if its policy-makers hug too many trees (not his exact words, I hasten to add). This is an old trick and it has worked wonders. Indeed, the trick has been played so many times that a concept called “carbon leakage” has emerged to describe industrial sectors considered at risk of financial loss from tougher climate change regulations. Those sectors are deemed eligible for higher numbers of free permits to pollute under the emissions trading scheme than other sectors.

This concept has turned into a joke. I was astonished to hear an EU official state last week that the list now covers 169 sectors, including wine and bicycle production.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s “climate action” commissioner, appears to be using Twitter as a negotiating tool. In a tweet earlier this month, she vented her frustration with India and the US for opposing legally-binding emission reduction targets ahead of the Durban conference. While Barack Obama should certainly be reproached for reneging on pre-election pledges to take climate change seriously, Hedegaard might contemplate sharing the blame around a bit more evenly. The truth is that the EU’s own actions on climate change are not worthy of celebration.

Speaking in Oslo last week, Hedegaard said that the EU’s emissions have gone down by 17% since 1990. By 2020, according to forecasts that the Union’s officials appear fond of citing, the EU is expected to account for 11% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. By focusing so selectively on those apparent achievements, however, Hedegaard has glossed over Europe’s historical role as an environmental villain. The Third World Network, an anti-poverty group, has pointed out that industrialised countries have belched out over 70% of the world’s emissions since 1850, even though they host just 20% of the world’s inhabitants.

Hedegaard continues to promote the emission trading system as the lynchpin of the Union’s climate policy, despite how it has been plagued by fraud. Plans to bring aviation within that system will do no more than add two euros to the price of a trans-Atlantic air ticket, the Commission estimates. When emissions from aviation are projected to jump by 70% between 2005 and 2020, that step will clearly not bring the necessary reductions in air travel.

Humanity will be let down in Durban. But I guess that’s what happens when polluters are taken more seriously than doctors.

●First published by New Europe, 28 November 2011.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bono must ditch Belgian maker of warplane parts for Israel

Belgium’s links to Israel’s war industry appear to be getting stronger.

At least, that is what I learned from a recent briefing by arms trade monitor Thierry de Lannoy.

He cited data indicating that Belgium is the fourth largest provider of weapons to Israel in the European Union. As the top three -- France, Germany and Britain -- are much larger countries hosting some of the world’s leading “defense” companies, that ranking alone appears significant for a relative minnow like Belgium. At €14 million ($18.5 million), the volume of arms contracts approved by the Belgian authorities to Israel was particularly high in 2005, the year before Israel killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in Lebanon.

“Made in Belgium” components are essential to some of the most sophisticated and lethal instruments in Israel’s arsenal, as de Lannoy explained.

U2 hire military firm

Barco, a firm registered in the Dutch-speaking city of Kortrijk, is a provider of screens to the pilotless drones -- or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- that Israel used to attack Gaza in late 2008 and 2009. The same firm’s brochures, incidentally, brag of how it provided screen and lighting technology to the Irish rock band U2 for its latest world tour. Considering how Bono, the band’s singer, used that technology to declare support for human rights, pressure should be put on him and other musicians to cease doing business with Barco.

De Lannoy also drew attention to how Israel’s top weapons producer, Elbit, is now in charge of a few Belgian companies. In 2003, an Elbit subsidiary El-Op Industries bought Optronics Instruments and Products (OIP) in Oudenaarde, a town in Flanders. OIP, which makes sensors and detection equipment for military clients, went on to buy Sabiex, a tank distributor headquartered in Braine l’Alleud, a French-speaking part of Belgium, last year.

The campaign group Intal yesterday held a “die-in” protest at the central train station in Brussels to raise awareness about Belgian cooperation with Israel’s war industry. As I was one of those who lay on the ground as part of the action, it was difficult for me to gauge how it was received among the public. Fellow protesters who handed out flyers, however, reported that the response was generally positive, with many passersby expressing an interesting in learning more about the topic.

Arms cooperation with Israel is almost certainly illegal. Since 2008, all of the EU’s countries have been bound by a code of conduct on arms exports, which says that weapons should not be sold to countries where they are likely to be used for repression or where they are likely to contribute to aggravating tensions among neighbors. If the EU showed any respect for its own laws, then it wouldn’t be trading a single bullet with Israel.

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mario Monti: an ideologue dressed as a technocrat

I’ve always been a little baffled by that word “technocrat”. There is something both chilling and comforting about it. It can bring forth an image of someone aloof, yet better educated and less vain than a politician fixated on image and poll ratings.

Mario Monti is, if headlines are to be taken literally, the quintessential technocrat. It is beyond dispute that he is not tainted by the corruption with which Silvio Berlusconi, his predecessor as Italy’s prime minister, became synonymous. But does that make Monti less political? An analysis of his track record indicates he has an ideologically-driven desire to transform Europe and not necessarily for the better. To argue that he is not a compromised figure would not appear accurate, either.

Monti is admired among some federalists for his work as Europe’s competition commissioner between 1999 and 2004. He is best known for blocking a merger between General Electric (GE) and Honeywell, much to the chagrin of that wealthy marauder Jack Welch.

With all the publicity that Monti’s decision received, you would assume that he would be wary of taking a job with GE when his stint at the European Commission was over. Yet while Monti didn’t go to work with GE directly, he became chairman of a “think tank” that was funded by it in 2005. The 2006 annual report for Bruegel, the economic policy outfit in question, lists GE as one of its “corporate members”.

In that role, Monti pursued an agenda designed to make Europe dismantle its welfare states and morph into a “purer” capitalist economy like the United States. True, he was subtle in his pronouncements and he hinted at understanding the importance of social policy. But it is hard to see how he had any other real objective in mind.

Assault on public services

In one of the earliest articles he wrote wearing his Bruegel cap, Monti praised a 2005 blueprint for “reform” signed by André Sapir, one of his colleagues at the think-tank. In it, Sapir upbraided most EU governments for “relying on strict employment protection laws at a time when old jobs and practices are no longer warranted.” He then bemoaned the “lack of progress” with introducing the EU’s services directive, contending that “continued rigidities in services tend to discourage foreign direct investment as the effectiveness of business services is a key factor in the location of multinational enterprises.”

Monti, it should be recalled, was a member of the Commission team which formally proposed the services directive (though it is usually associated with his Dutch colleague Frits Bolkestein). That legal measure was designed to open up the services sector generally to competition; its original draft contained no real guarantees that the essential purpose of healthcare would be to cure the sick, not to line the pockets of pharmaceutical or insurance executives. It also contained clauses aimed at making sure that firms are subject to the laws of their country of origin. As a result, an employee hired by a firm in an EU state with inadequate worker protection law would still be subject to that law if he or she was transferred to work in another EU state with higher protection standards.

Just as the term “technocrat” baffled me, I have to confess that I used to be under false illusions about “think tanks”. Like many journalists, I have often phoned think tank representatives for quotes when writing news stories or features. Because they tend to have titles like “research fellow”, I was led to believe that they were akin to academics, who could be relied on to think independently.

Now, I realise that think tanks are corporate cheerleaders in disguise. They are engaged in what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman called “manufacturing consent”. The papers they pump out diligently are presented as contributions to public debates. In reality, those pithy pamphlets are furthering an agenda that will only benefit the affluent.

Big tobacco and think tanks

The European Policy Centre, for example, hosts discussions on the future of healthcare every so often. Yet the very notion that the EPC has altruistic motives falls asunder when you learn of its strong links to the tobacco industry. A 2010 report by the organisation Action on Smoking and Health detailed how the EPC’s founder, the recently deceased Stanley Crossick, was a lobbyist for British American Tobacco (BAT). That firm was one of the main players in the EPC’s “risk forum”. In 2003, the Commission bowed to pressure from the forum to agree that it would consult cigarette makers about any measures affecting their industry.

Firms that sell cancer in a box merit contempt, not consultation. Indeed, the only industry that rivals tobacco in causing human misery is the arms trade, which also has think tank “experts” championing its bloody cause.

A few weeks ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations published a paper lamenting how military budgets are shrinking. The paper was written by Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency, an institution set up at the behest of weapons manufacturers. Unless steps are taken rapidly to improve Europe’s military capabilities, the EU’s defence policy will “by the end of 2012 be ready for its final obsequies,” Witney warned.

We should take Witney’s warning seriously, albeit not for the reason he advocates. The militarisation of Europe is obscene and it must stop. Our political “masters” must be pressurised into combating poverty, instead, and to stop pretending that technocrats have the solutions.

●First published by New Europe, 21 November 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An unholy alliance between MEPs and banks

A 260-page declaration of class war was issued in Cannes earlier this month.

The final report of the B20 summit, a gathering of business chiefs coinciding with the Group of 20 meeting for political leaders, contains this explicit demand: “Restore fiscal stability by reducing public spending rather than by increasing corporate taxation.” If a software package is ever developed to translate executive speak into plain English, it might just transform that sentence into: “Indulge the wealthy; make life miserable for everyone else.”

It would be comforting if this paper was destined to gather dust. Tragically, that core demand is already being put into effect in many countries, without the governments and institutions overseeing its implementation having any democratic mandate to do so. We saw how George Papandreou was browbeaten into retreating when he dared to suggest that the Greek people should be allowed to vote in a referendum on austerity. Less widely-reported, the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan has lately described as “sacrosanct” the deficit reduction targets set for his country by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. When standing for election in February this year, the same Noonan pledged to renegotiate the diktats he now regards as “sacrosanct”.

Can the European Parliament strike a blow for the disadvantaged? In theory, the EU’s only directly-elected institution can. In practice, it seldom does.

This week, the Parliament’s economics and monetary affairs committee will probably approve its official position paper on the innocuous-sounding but highly dangerous “European semester” arrangement.

Even though that arrangement usurps democracy by requiring the national governments of EU states to have their annual budgets vetted by the unelected European Commission, most MEPs sitting on that committee appear untroubled. The draft version of the paper they are considering merely recommends a few tweaks to the Commission’s proposals such as keeping MEPs abreast of what other EU bodies get up to.

It is telling that Pervenche Berès has drawn up the Parliament’s paper. As chairwoman of the economic and monetary affairs committee, she made it to number eight on the “Top 50 Power List” compiled by the Accountancy Age in 2008. According to the magazine, she has been prepared to “ruffle the feathers” of the International Accounting Standards Board by querying moves by that (ironically unaccountable) private sector body to converge US business reporting standards with those used in the rest of the world.

Affront to democracy

Rather than making a habit of ruffling feathers among the titans of finance, Berès is generally accommodating towards them. She has combined holding one of the more coveted positions within the Parliament’s structures with membership of the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum (EPFSF).

That forum is another affront to democracy. In return for an annual fee of 8,000 euros, banks and other providers of financial services enjoy privileged access to the MEPs who are supposed to be regulating their sector. Companies who are not fully signed up to the forum can still take part in the “briefing sessions” it organises, provided they pay 200 euros each time. If political parties were holding fund-raisers, where businesspeople coughed up comparable sums to have chinwags with ministers, the press would rightly be curious.

While Berés told Spinwatch, a group monitoring relations between business and politics, in 2008 that she was not an active member of the EPFSF, the forum’s own website indicates that she chaired at least five of its meetings between 2003 and 2008. In 2005, she was in the hot seat for a discussion on mortgages, where the two “guest speakers” came from BVBA and BNP Paribas. There is no suggestion that Berès benefitted personally from the discussion. But the fact she was also chairwoman of the economic and monetary affairs committee surely meant there was a conflict of interests involved. She cannot seriously claim that a corporate-funded body is a neutral or objective forum for debate.

Among the corporate participants in the forum are Barclays, DeutscheBank, Goldman Sachs, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) and the crediting ratings agency Standard and Poor’s.

Hedge funds write the script

The ISDA has been lobbying to ensure that EU rules on hedge funds end up being to its liking. Its work has inevitably brought it in close contact with another French MEP, Jean-Paul Gauzés, who has been tasked with preparing the Parliament’s official positions on hedge funds and credit ratings agencies. Guess what? Gauzés is also a member of the financial services forum.

The influence of hedge fund lobbying on the Parliament was apparent from the outset. During the first debate on proposed new rules that the economic and monetary affairs committee held in 2009, German MEP Wolf Klinz argued that the recommendation on the table failed to distinguish between different types of investment funds. “The problem is the one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

I checked a briefing paper that the EPFSF circulated on the same proposals in 2009. It closely resembled Klinz’s comments by warning of a “one-size-fits-all approach of regulation to a very heterogeneous group of fund types”. The resemblance is unlikely to be accidental. Klinz is the current chairman of the forum.

Also this week, Michel Barnier, the EU’s single market commissioner, is scheduled to come forward with new proposals on credit ratings agencies. Don’t be surprised if the MEP put in charge of responding to them sits on the aforementioned forum.

Theodore Roosevelt once spoke of an “unholy alliance” between business and politics. That kind of alliance is commonplace in Brussels.

●First published by New Europe, 14 November 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"We must challenge Israeli mindset," says rugby player turned blockade buster

Trevor Hogan, best-known as an international rugby player, was one of 14 Irish people detained by Israel over the past week after they tried to break the illegal siege of Gaza.

In a telephone interview this morning, Hogan recalled how the MV Saoirse (called after the Gaelic word for freedom) and the Canadian-flagged Tahrir were approaching the waters off Gaza last Friday (4 November) afternoon when they were intercepted by the Israeli navy.

“They were circling us for ages, with their rifles trained on us,” he told me. “It was surreal looking out our window at these guns.”

Still in international waters, the two boats were surrounded by numerous Israeli vessels. Hogan estimates there were 15 or 16 vessels in total, including several full-sized warships. Eventually, the MV Saoirse was attacked by water cannons.

“The water cannons destroyed the electricity,” said Hogan. “They flooded the engine room. We had to use emergency power. The boat could have sunk if it went on much longer.”

Balaclava-clad Israeli commandos then boarded the Saoirse. “We just stayed sitting down peacefully,” he added. “They wanted to search us on deck but we refused. We all acquitted ourselves well. One sudden move and they were sure to fire. My heart was pumping looking at this.”

Hogan expected to be beaten when the Israelis brought their captives to the port of Ashdod. But the arrival of an Irish diplomat at the port “calmed things down.”

Women “stressed and traumatized”

Hogan said that the Israelis kept him and the others awake on their first night in Givon Prison. But the treatment was even worse for the two women, Zoe Lawlor and Mags O’Brien, on the boat, who were detained separately from the 12 men.

“There was solidarity among us [the men],” he said. “We were all together. We managed to meet them [the two women] for 20 minutes each time the consular was there. You could see that the girls were stressed and traumatized. They were under serious pressure.”

Yesterday morning, seven of the 14 were scheduled to be flown from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to London. Yet they were prevented from boarding a British Airways flight by the Israeli authorities and placed into cells in the airport.

“Givon was tough enough,” Hogan said. “Ben Gurion was a lot worse. We thought we were going home and then we were banged up in cells. It was more decrepit. There was no information and no free association. We were held apart.”

Israel has blamed British Airways for the episode at Ben Gurion, alleging that the carrier would not take the seven campaigners. “Maybe there was an element of the airline being at fault,” Hogan explained. “But there was more to it than that. It was part of a pattern. They wanted lessons to be learnt and that’s why they made life as difficult as they could for us. We didn’t sign anything saying we were criminals, [even though] there were threats made that we would be kept [in prison] indefinitely.”

Five of the Irish, including Hogan, were put on a later flight and arrived in Dublin late last night. Two others, Fintan Lane and Zoe Lawlor, were stopped from taking that later flight and were instead made to travel via Istanbul. They and the seven remaining prisoners are expected to land in Dublin today.

Effective tactic

Hogan retired from professional rugby earlier this year because of persistent knee injuries. His efforts to reach Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II during the summer and now with the smaller Freedom Waves initiative have been supported by a number of Irish sports personalities.

He is adamant that the attempts to penetrate the Gaza blockade have been worthwhile. “We don’t want to make out that we are the victims or martyrs,” he said. “We were in Givon Prison. But Gaza is the world’s largest prison. Whatever we have gone through, the Palestinians have to go through 10 times worse.

“It was very interesting to notice the attitude of the Israelis towards us. They couldn’t comprehend why were doing this. What we were doing challenges their mindset and that is why it is such an effective tactic. They treat the Palestinians as if they are subhuman. They don’t think Palestinians deserve to live in a normal society, to be able to import and export and fish and farm. It’s great to be able to meet that mindset head on.”

●First published by The Electronic Intifada

Thursday, November 10, 2011

EU Parliament chief refuses to protest at illegal arrests by Israel

The president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek has declined to protest at how Israel arrested one of his own colleagues in international waters.

Last weekend, Paul Murphy was one of 14 Irish people kidnapped by Israeli forces who boarded the MV Saoirse, as it sailed towards Gaza. Murphy, a member of the European Parliament (MEP), has still not been released but is expected to be flown from Tel Aviv to Dublin tomorrow.

Buzek took his time reacting to Murphy’s arrest, which took place last Friday. It wasn’t until Wednesday this week that Buzek issued a statement urging Israel to “quickly” release his fellow MEP and the other detainees.

I called Buzek’s spokesman Robert Golanski this morning to ask if Buzek had gone beyond calling for the release and complained at the unlawful manner of Murphy’s arrest. “The main concern of the president is to make sure that EU citizens, including a colleague of his, be released as soon as possible,” Golanski replied.

When I repeated the question about whether or not Buzek protested at Israel’s illegal conduct in international waters, Golanski remained evasive. “It looks as if Mr Murphy is going to go home very soon,” he said. “The issue is closed.”

Buzek, a former prime minister in Poland, is sympathetic towards Zionism. During a meeting last month with Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, Buzek described Israel as an “indispensable partner for the EU.” Buzek has been more vocal in demanding the release of Gilad Shalit, the only Israeli soldier detained by Hamas until recently, than any of the thousands of political prisoners held by Israel.

Furthermore, Buzek’s refusal to protest at Israel’s illegal behavior in recent days is at variance with the official position of his institution.

In June 2010, the Parliament approved a resolution condemning Israel’s killing of nine activists taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The resolution argued that the manner in which Israel attacked the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship, breached international law.

Fortunately, nobody was killed when Israel used heavy-handed tactics against the Saoirse and the Canadian boat the Tahrir last weekend. But considering it behaved in a manner that had been previously condemned by his assembly, Buzek had strong grounds to protest. His decision not to do so indicates that he either has a short memory or that he is not willing to upset Israel.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How EU science chief helps Israel's war industry

Ensconced in Brussels, the only controversy Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has been embroiled in over the past few years related to her bloated income. While she has displayed remarkable chutzpah in seeking to draw down both a European commissioner’s salary and Oireachtas and ministerial pensions, her personal greed is of little consequence compared to how she is abetting Israel’s crimes against humanity.

Israel is the most active non-European participant in the EU’s multi-annual scientific research programme, which Geoghegan-Quinn administers. According to the European Commission’s own data, Israel is currently involved in 800 EU-financed research activities with a total value of €4.3 billion. What the Commission is less eager to spell out is that the beneficiaries of this largesse include weapons manufacturers and technology firms that supply Israel with the tools of repression and occupation.

The Irish Times regularly publishes columns on the EU’s research activities by Conor O’Carroll from the Irish Universities Association. Because the seven universities O’Carroll represents receive funding from the EU’s science programme, he has a direct interest in presenting that programme in a positive light. Although The Irish Times is nominally committed to informed debate, its editors have told me on several occasions that they would not have space on their pages for an article explaining how Irish academics cooperate with Israel’s war industry.

Trinity College Dublin, for example, is taking part in a €14.5 million EU-financed project called Total Airport Security System (TASS), under which new surveillance equipment will be installed in Heathrow Airport ahead of next year’s Olympic Games in London. Among the other participants in the TASS consortium are Elbit, a company that has helped install surveillance equipment in the apartheid wall that Israel is building in the West Bank. Elbit was also one of two makers of the pilotless drones(or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) with which Israel attacked Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

Duty not to assist apartheid

When ruling that the West Bank wall was illegal, the International Court of Justice stated in 2004 that public authorities throughout the world had an obligation not to render any aid or assistance to its construction. Norway – a country outside the EU - has taken that verdict sufficiently seriously to order that its state-owned pension scheme divest from Elbit. Yet Geoghegan-Quinn and her officials continue to subsidise that same company.

The University of Limerick is involved in a €70 million project called Maaximus for developing “more affordable” aircraft than those currently in use. Other participants in this project include Israel Aerospace Industries, another firm that has worked on the West Bank wall and provided warplanes used to kill civilians in Gaza.

University College Cork, meanwhile, is trying to give credence to the Israeli myth that it is saving the world from terrorist attacks. UCC is the official coordinator of an EU-funded project called CommonSense, which is focused on developing sensors for detecting bombs containing radioactive materials. This project also involves the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Israeli Institute for Technology in Haifa. Better known as the Technion, that institute has been responsible for such innovations as a remote-controlled bulldozer, explicitly intended for use in demolishing Palestinian homes.

Geoghegan-Quinn was pressurised by the Dublin government last year into returning her pension payments to the state. She has not come under pressure from any European government to cease assisting Israel’s military industry. This dearth of scrutiny has allowed her to remain in denial about reality.

Poorly informed

She recently dismissed concerns about an EU-financed surveillance technology project that includes Motorola Israel. The aims of that project – to design sensors for detecting “intruders” who venture near buildings or resources deemed to be of critical economic importance – appear similar to those of the “virtual fences” that Motorola has placed around Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. (Using thermal cameras, those “fences” are also designed to identify “intruders”). But when a British MEP alerted her to that similarity, Geoghegan-Quinn claimed her officials do not have “any information about any radar systems Motorola Israel might or might not have installed in the West Bank.” Her advisers should take greater care reading their email messages in future; a paper containing detailed information about Motorola’s work in the West Bank was sent to them by the Palestinian organisation Stop the Wall in May.

Geoghegan-Quinn will be kept busy in the coming months finalising plans for the next EU science programme, which is likely to have a budget of around €80 billion between 2014 and 2020. While the negotiations on the programme’s priorities remain ongoing, Israel’s participation in it has been guaranteed. This means that Geoghegan-Quinn will continue approving the allocation of grants to companies profiting from war and human rights abuses.

Why doesn’t her support for Israel attract more attention than the contents of her bank account?

●First published by Politico, 7 November 2011.

Who killed more: Gaddafi or NATO?

In a 1936 essay Aldous Huxley summarised how warfare relies on dishonesty. “War is enormously discreditable to those who order it to be waged and even to those who merely tolerate its existence,” he wrote. “Furthermore, to developed sensibilities the facts of war are revolting and horrifying. To falsify these facts, and by so doing to make war seem less evil than it really is, and our own responsibility in tolerating war less heavy, is doubly to our advantage. By suppressing and distorting the truth, we protect our sensibilities and preserve our self-esteem.”

Shortly after reading those words, I checked NATO’s website and was greeted with cheerful images of Libyan children returning to school. The message was clear: now that Muammar Gaddafi is dead, the people who lived under his dictatorship can finally breathe easily. The truth, of course, is more sobering.

Yes, Gaddafi did appalling things. Hundreds of people suspected of opposing him “disappeared”. About 1,200 were estimated to have been massacred by his forces at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. The case for bringing him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) was compelling.

But who killed more Libyans: Gaddafi or NATO? While accurate data is impossible to come by, educated guesswork indicates that NATO caused a higher number of civilian deaths over the past six months than Gaddafi did over several decades.

According to estimates from the new Libyan government in September, at least 30,000 had died because of the war. Thomas Mountain, a member of an American group that laid flowers in Tripoli graveyards in 1987 to remember the children bombed at Ronald Reagan’s behest a year earlier, calculated (also in September) that NATO’s 2011 war involved the dropping of 30,000 bombs. Assuming that each bomb killed an average of two civilians, that brings the death toll to 60,000.

Supporting war crimes “all the way”

And what about those Libyan rebels that Catherine Ashton pledged to support “all the way”? When the EU’s foreign policy chief uttered those words during a visit to Benghazi in May, she did not specify what “all the way” meant. Did it include racist attacks on the inhabitants of Tawergha, a small town south of Misrata, who are largely descendants of African slaves? Human Rights Watch has reported in the past fortnight that witnesses and victims interviewed by its researchers provided “credible evidence of Misratan militias shooting and wounding unarmed Tawerghas and torturing detainees, in a few cases to death.” A report in August by Al Jazeera gave prima facie evidence that Ashton’s beloved rebels resorted to ethnic cleansing. It showed a large residential block set ablaze and one of the few remaining civilians left in Tawergha being evicted.

On 23 October, Ashton applauded the announcement of a “day of liberation” and exhorted the construction of a “new Libya based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.” Two days earlier, the decomposing bodies of 53 people were found at the Mahari Hotel in Sirte. They appear to have been Gaddafi supporters, who were executed by Ashton’s rebel friends. Ashton has not yet made a public call for an investigation into their deaths. And why would she? The rebels who seem to have carried out the attacks had been told she supported them “all the way”.

And what exactly happened in Abu Salim hospital in Tripoli? In August, an Al Jazeera TV crew counted 39 dead bodies when it visited this trauma treatment centre. Numerous patients seem to have been killed in fighting between Gadaffi supporters and the rebels. Did any of the men Ashton promised to support carry out these atrocities?

Humanitarian imperialism

And what about the killing of Gadaffi himself? I didn’t shed any tears over his death. But if we are to believe in the universality of human rights and international law, then they must not be applied selectively. There is a term for the deliberate killing of someone who is already in captivity during a conflict, as Gaddafi was. That term is war crime. It would be hypocritical to gloss over that fact, just because the assassination was undertaken by rebels that Ashton supports “all the way”.

Jean Bricmont, a Belgian academic, coined the phrase “humanitarian imperialism” to describe the agenda behind war in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The suffering of civilians in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has been used as a pretext for military intervention by the US and its European lackeys, in an attempt to divert attention from their ulterior motives. The war against Libya fits that pattern.

Gaddafi had long been a tyrant. But until recently he was “our tyrant”; his rapprochement with the West meant he was a valued customer for our arms dealers. The Italian weapons company Finmeccanica had a backlog of orders worth 800 million euros with his regime when NATO started bombing Libya in March.

Ashton was not known to be troubled by the plight of Libyan civilians when her mentor Tony Blair was cosying up to Gaddafi. She has not expressed any disquiet either about the obscene haste which BP has displayed in trying to wrap its paws around Libyan oil contracts in the post-Gaddafi era. In 2007, that British corporation signed a 900 million dollar deal with the Tripoli authorities for exploiting two wells. Bob Dudley, the chief executive, says “we remain enthused” by their potential now that BP can return to them. You bet he does.

●First published by New Europe, 7 November 2011.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book review: Friedman seeks to make racism respectable

It is unusual for politicians to namedrop journalists. And so it should be; our job as reporters and commentators is to expose the harm done by the powerful, not to curry favor with them. One exception I recall was during a 2003 press briefing given by Jim Wolfensohn, then the World Bank’s president, most of which he spent listing his influential acquaintances. Among them was Thomas Friedman, who, Wolfensohn reminded his listeners, “belongs to your profession.”

After reading The Imperial Messenger by Bélen Fernández, the thought of sharing a profession with Friedman revolts me. Fernández demonstrates meticulously how The New York Times columnist seeks to make racism respectable.

His racism is directed at one ethnic group: Arabs. In 2001, he even implied that Arabs are innately backward, writing: “In an age when others are making microchips, you are making potato chips (116).” The following year, he effectively advocated the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians. Three days before Israeli troops went on their March 2002 rampage in Jenin refugee camp, Friedman called on Israel to “deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay (xv).” Israel’s murder of 1,200 people, mostly non-combatants, in Lebanon during 2006 was, in Friedman’s view, part of the “education of Hezbollah” (142).

More Middle East than Minnesota?

Even though just one chapter is specifically focused on the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, Friedman’s commitment to Zionism is criticized throughout the book. While Friedman has claimed he learned he was “more Middle East than Minnesota” on his first visit to Jerusalem in 1968 (55), Fernández stresses that his refusal to analyze Zionism and its legacy from a critical perspective means that all his work on the region must be treated with circumspection (54). In any event, his claim is a dubious one; a great deal of his travels are spent in the Westernized environments of golf clubs, luxury hotels or hamburger restaurants (one typically ludicrous Friedman theory is that no two countries hosting a branch of McDonalds have gone to war against each other (3)).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is how it highlights the shoddiness of Friedman’s research and how someone who has been lauded by Pulitzer Prize judges for his “clarity of vision” is frequently muddled and inconsistent. Last year Friedman stated that “when widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem (135).” Yet his own copy is known to rely on sources of questionable veracity, in particular the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which, according to Friedman offers “an invaluable service” by translating foreign-language articles written by Arabs and Muslims into English (61). MEMRI is a somewhat shadowy neoconservative outfit, yet it is upfront about one of its goals: to aid the US government and military in their “war on terror.” By definition, then, the “invaluable service” is fighting a propaganda battle on behalf of American foreign policy.

Another telling example of why Friedman should not be trusted is that he concluded Yasser Arafat was a “bad man” based on a Google search, which yielded more hits when Arafat’s name was combined with “jihad” and “martyrdom” than when it was combined with “education” (106). Meanwhile, Friedman’s view of Israeli settlements has veered from arguing their continued expansion was as irresponsible as drunk-driving (96) to dismissing them as “extraneous” to the underlying conflict (93) within the space of a seven-month period.


Perhaps the strongest indication that Friedman’s ego is out of control came in his 2002 collection of essays Longitudes and Attitudes. In it, he sought credit for the Saudi plan to establish relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Friedman has convinced himself that the genesis of this initiative was a column he wrote on transforming Saudi Arabia “from terrorist factory to peacemaker”. Fernández derides this self-important twaddle by querying its pertinence: Friedman’s boast was pointless, given how he recognized that Ariel Sharon was determined to reject the Saudi offer (124).

My only complaint with this book is that it doesn’t go into much depth in examining how Friedman is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the mainstream media. A reader unfamiliar with the American press could come away with the impression that Friedman is a singular buffoon, when, in fact, his prejudices are shared by many of his senior colleagues. But that is a tiny gripe. I fully accept that this is a brief polemic targeting Friedman and does not purport to be the definitive history of an American institution.

Few books on current affairs merit being called page-turners; because of Fernández’s witty and punchy style, this one does. Her conclusion turns to the urgent task of developing a counter-narrative to that of Friedman and other writers who pander to a corporate and political elite. The healthy growth of alternative publications on the internet is certainly helping that task and hopefully this trend will continue.

Nonetheless, it is sobering to reflect on how Friedman remains something of a role model for aspiring journalists (at least, that is what I have gleaned from speaking to reporters younger than me). It is vital to explain that the high salary he commands is atypical of his trade and, the way newspaper sales are declining, is bound to become more so. Even more fundamentally, it is vital to ask whether or not Friedman can really be considered a journalist. Fernández indicates that he has essentially become a copy-writer for big business, the US military and the state of Israel.

Does America’s best-known columnist have trouble thinking for himself?

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 November 2011.