Thursday, March 31, 2011

War criminal? Welcome to Britain

I never wanted to be a policeman, so it’s still a novelty when a friend greets me with the question “Did you arrest anyone lately?”. Without owning a pair of handcuffs, I have tried to bring two political figures to justice. In February 2011, I invited Avigdor Lieberman to accompany me to a police station, where I had hoped the Israeli foreign minister would be charged with the crime of apartheid. One year earlier, I placed my hand on Tony Blair’s arm and accused him of starting an illegal war against Iraq.

By attempting to put these men under citizen’s arrest, I was following a tradition dating back to medieval Britain, where ordinary people were asked to help apprehend law-breakers by sheriffs. To no surprise, neither attempt was successful: security guards quickly intervened to protect Lieberman and Blair. Yet both drew attention to how scoundrels can masquerade as statesmen.

The first time that I heard of an activist trying to arrest a politician was about 10 years ago when Peter Tatchell confronted Robert Mugabe over the torture of homosexuals in Zimbabwe. While the likelihood of the tactic actually leading to a prosecution is miniscule, it can have a significant impact on public opinion. I am especially pleased that my action against Lieberman led to Israel behind described as an apartheid state in many publications. It is seldom that the words “Israel” and “apartheid” can be read in the same sentence in the mainstream press.

Some Palestine solidarity campaigners have suggested to me lately that an attempt should be made to arrest representatives of the Israeli state every time they travel abroad. It is an idea that I support, not least because the West’s leaders regularly accommodate Israel’s inhumanity.

Nick Clegg’s opportunism offers a nauseating case in point. While in opposition, Clegg wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian in January 2009, urging the then Labour government to “condemn unambiguously Israel’s tactics” against the people of Gaza and to impose an embargo on weapons sales to Israel. Yet in November 2010, Clegg gave a speech to the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (a group within his party), during which he spoke approvingly of the current government’s efforts to amend Britain’s law on universal jurisdiction, which is supposed to allow human rights abusers be tried in Britain regardless of where their crimes were committed. Amendments to the law were vital, Clegg (now deputy prime minister) said, to “avoid accusations based on poorly justified grounds against visitors to the UK.”

There was no doubt that the visitors Clegg had in mind were Israeli politicians, concerned about being arrested if they set foot on British soil. Less than two years earlier, Clegg was arguing that those politicians should be condemned unambiguously. Now he believes they should be free to go shopping in Harrods.

Apartheid has been treated as an offence against humanity by the United Nations since 1973. The UN’s convention against apartheid refers to the domination of one racial group over another. Even before that definition was approved, the racist nature of Israel was underscored by Henrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s prime minister in the 1960s. “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years,” he said. “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”

Since joining the ruling coalition in 2009, Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) have made Israeli apartheid even harsher than it had previously been. In late March this year, for example, a “citizenship” bill sponsored by the party passed into law. Clearly directed against the 1.4 million-strong Palestinian minority living inside Israel, it would allow anyone convicted of treason or terrorism to be stripped of their elementary rights. The law is so broad that it can only be interpreted as a bid to snuff out dissent in a country unceasingly depicted by its propagandists as the Middle East’s only democracy.

While the evidence illustrating that Israel is an apartheid state is abundant, our governments refuse to even utter the word apartheid. Absurdly, the European Union deems anyone who calls out Israel as a racist endeavour to be an anti-Semite. The EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism says that describing Israel as racist amounts to anti-Semitism. It is no coincidence that the definition was drawn up in consultation with several Zionist lobby groups, who deliberately conflate criticism of the state of Israel with hatred of Jews in order to scare people of conscience into silence.

Lorna Fitzsimons, a former Labour MP who now runs a lobby outfit called the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), said during 2010: “Public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue.”

Fitzsimons is wrong to be smug. A campaign against boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), coupled with mass public awareness, helped isolate South Africa during the apartheid era and to eventually put an end to white minority rule. There is no reason why BDS cannot also bring down Israeli apartheid as it is designed to put economic pressure on those institutions and companies that profit from the pain of the Palestinians. Once they realise that the occupation of Palestine is bad for business, Israel and its supporters will have to sit up and take notice.

·First published by Ceasefire Magazine (, 30 March 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

France, war and the denial of history

Recent history contains several examples of political leaders resorting to military action at times when public opinion is against them. Margaret Thatcher is widely credited with securing re-election in 1983 after going to war over those outposts of empire, the Falkland Islands, at a time of mass unemployment in Britain. Bill Clinton tried to distract attention from sexual peccadilloes that affected nobody beyond his immediate family in 1998 by bombing Afghanistan and Sudan. The resulting destruction of a Sudanese factory that was a principal supplier of medicines in a poor African country was deemed unworthy of comment by a supine US press.

Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be following the Thatcher/Clinton trend. One year before a presidential election, he has both political rivals and nominally independent editorial writers praising his hawkish stance on Libya.

France’s opening salvo of missiles against Libya has helped its president “win back his international stature”, according to Agence France-Presse. That verdict may have been slightly premature: there are rumblings of disquiet in NATO about France trying to upstage other “important” countries by making sure it was the first to attack.

The truth behind Sarkozy’s manoeuvre is doubtlessly crude. Sarkozy’s primary motivation in any major decision he takes is how it meshes with his plan to stay in office for as long as possible. So all his talk about being forced to assume a role “in the face of history” is claptrap. What he is really interested in is winning a second term.

You can be sure that Sarkozy has not been staying up at night shedding tears over how ordinary Libyans have been suffering under Muammar Gaddafi’s tyranny. Rather than protecting civilians, he is much more likely to be concerned with protecting the profits of Total, the French energy giant, which produced an average of 55,000 barrels of oil from Libyan wells per day in 2010. Let us remember that the same Sarkozy came out in favour of a ban on investment in Burma a few years back. The small print to his valiant act of support for Buddhist monks had an important caveat: Total could continue exploiting Burmese resources as before.

Nor should it be forgotten that Sarkozy had courted Gaddafi assiduously over the past few years. Business deals were central to this tawdry alliance. In 2009, the value of declared French arms sales to Libya came to €30.5 million. Ominously, these included nearly €500,000 worth of contracts belonging to a category called chemical and biological weapons and tear gas. They also included €17.5 million in sales of military planes. There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in calling for a no-fly zone against a country to which France had been supplying warplanes.

It is distressing, too, that the French Socialists have abandoned the chief responsibility of an opposition party: to oppose. Benoit Hamon, a leading member of the Socialists, has strongly backed Sarkozy on the Libya question.

Although Libya is a former Italian colony, rather than a French one, France has abetted crimes against humanity in various parts of the neighbouring region. Both Socialists and the centre-right in France are refusing to deal with imperialism’s toxic legacy. In 2005, they teamed up to introduce a provision in national law requiring that school textbooks celebrate “the positive role of the French presence in its overseas colonies, especially in North Africa.”

That amounted to a denial of historical reality. Four years earlier a book by Paul Assauresses revealed how France had supported widespread torture in Algeria, Libya’s next-door-neighbour. Assauresses admitted that as a French general he personally had committed grotesque abuses.

The US may be the world’s imperial leviathan today, yet French politicians are playing a supporting role. In his book The Breaking of Nations, Robert Cooper (now a senior official in the EU’s diplomatic service) lauds “limited form of voluntary empire” that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund embody. The IMF is headed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a veteran French Socialist whose name keeps popping up whenever there is speculation about who could be the next president of his country (assuming Sarkozy’s defeat).

Strauss-Kahn has embraced neo-liberal ideology as zealously as any politician from the centre-right. The IMF’s prescriptions of austerity for countries stretching from Ireland to Jamaica in recent times all bear his signature. The idea that he would represent an alternative to his old nemesis Sarkozy is laughable.

There may be a few differences between Sarko and the Socialists on dossiers like working hours. But the Socialist leadership is not seriously interested in making society more egalitarian (in the country that is credited with inventing the concept of equality). Martine Aubry, its leader, has been exposed as a hollow opportunist. Last year, she was highly critical of government moves to expel Roma gypsies. Yet it emerged that she had supported the dismantlement of a Roma camp near Lille, where she was mayor. I have visited some of the Roma camps in that part of northern France myself and was deeply shocked by the poverty in them and how they lacked basic sanitation. Roma are among the most marginalised people in French society; shame on Aubry for attacking them.

The cowardice of the French Socialists is replicated by their sister parties in Greece, Spain and Ireland. Those parties are all cutting back on public expenditure in a way that harms the poor most. The case for building a genuine left has never been more urgent.

·First published by New Europe (, 27 March – 2 April 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Corporate tax avoidance: a global scourge

Almost six years ago, I made the best decision in my life: to stop drinking alcohol. As a convert to sobriety, I feel embarrassed by my past. And so I stayed well clear of Irish pubs last week, for fear of being reminded of how I used to spend Saint Patrick’s Day quaffing a lot more beer than my liver could absorb.

If there is one thing more unsettling than how Ireland’s national holiday prompts many of my compatriots to reinforce national stereotypes, it is the behaviour of the new Dublin government. Enda Kenny, the taoiseach (prime minister), is engaging in a huge deception by claiming that the programme for misery imposed on Ireland by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund can be renegotiated. As the most he will be granted are a few trivial concessions, it would be more honest and honourable to default now than to cripple an entire nation with unpayable debts.

Kenny insists that Ireland’s low rate of corporate tax is sacrosanct and that he will not raise it under EU pressure. Foreign investors will quit the country if they are not allowed to keep the bulk of their profits for themselves, the argument goes. Everyone who tries to question that orthodoxy is portrayed by the Irish establishment as a far-left fantasist.

Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the IMF, can hardly be labelled as far-left. In a piece published on The New York Times website in November, he stated that at least 20% of Ireland’s gross domestic product derived from “ghost corporations”. Although firms operating in Ireland are officially taxed at 12.5%, the more shrewd among them “are able to construct complicated schemes involving other offshore tax havens that reduce their effective tax rates to the low single digits,” Johnson wrote.

Kenny is not the only one who is being Jesuitical. Attending his first summit of EU leaders earlier this month, he had a row with Nicolas Sarkozy over Ireland’s rate of corporate tax. Sarkozy alleged that Ireland has an unfair competitive advantage in luring multinational companies to its shores because its 12.5% rate is the lowest in the euro-zone.

But that is only part of the story. The target of Sarkozy’s ire is the statutory rate of taxation, not the actual amount that companies pay. What he neglected to mention is that while France’s statutory corporate tax rate stands at 35%, its effective rate stands at 14%, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The effective rate gives a more accurate picture, as it takes depreciation and a range of exemptions and reliefs into account.

When the EU holds yet another summit later this week, leaders will try to give the impression they are navigating their way out of the financial crisis skilfully and sensibly. You can be sure they will not bother themselves with ensuring their “solutions” are socially just.

In a recent paper, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) in Washington contended that corporate income tax is “one of the most progressive” forms of taxation. “Since stock ownership is concentrated among the very wealthiest taxpayers, the corporate income tax falls primarily on the most affluent residents of a state,” ITEP said. “The wealthiest 1% of Americans held just over half of all corporate stock in 2007, while the poorest 90% of Americans owned just 10% of the total.”

Although that message is cogent, there is a reluctance to make corporations pay tax on either side of the Atlantic. The European Commission has lately recommended a common system for calculating corporate taxes. But national governments will continue to set rates and allow multinationals avoid taxes.

Tax avoidance is a reason why much of the world’s population lives in poverty. In 2008, Christian Aid estimated that trade mispricing – whereby companies underreport their profits in order to wriggle out of paying tax on them – deprived poor countries of $160 billion per year.

Richard Murphy, a prominent tax researcher, stated in August last year that wealthier countries have allowed the concept of a limited liability corporation “to become debased, to become opaque to the point where we know little or nothing about most of the world’s corporations – even to the extent of not knowing where some of them are incorporated or if they even exist on registers anywhere.”

Through banking secrecy rules, many EU countries or their dependent territories have become tax havens. In 2009, the Tax Justice Network published a league table of 60 tax havens or “secrecy jurisdictions”. These included the Cayman Islands, Madeira, the British Virgin Islands, Austria, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Hungary.

Because tax avoidance is a global scourge, it must be tackled on a global level. Yet Europe is preventing this from happening. Last summer the United Nations launched an inquiry into how it can beef up its capacity to promote international cooperation on tax. In a submission to that inquiry in January, the EU argued against giving more power to a UN committee of tax specialists. Britain is particularly opposed to the idea because it wants to preserve the City of London’s status as a tax haven.

One of the most inspiring protest groups formed in recent times is UK Uncut, which targets corporations that avoid tax. There is a desperate need for this to grow into a truly international movement, so that corporations are finally made to pay their fair share.

·First published by New Europe (, 20-26 March 2011.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Muzzling of Israel critics in Europe's universities

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then the activists behind Israeli Apartheid Week have been paid an immense tribute. As students belonging to Palestine support groups across Britain held events to mark the annual March event, they learned of a rival initiative. A network of on-campus Zionist societies have declared their own Israel Awareness Week over the same period.

The “awareness week” has relied heavily on gimmicks to try and counter impressions that Israel has a war addiction. Stalls staffed by visiting Israeli students have offered sugary delights labelled “Peace of Cake”; signatures have been collected for a “we support a two-state solution” petition.

When I spoke in Birmingham University a few days ago, the competition between the two “weeks” appeared relaxed. Yet there is a more sinister side to how on-campus Zionists are behaving. In Birmingham, the students’ Jewish Society has enjoyed considerable success in convincing university authorities to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. When Gaza was described as a “concentration camp” by Mike Prysner (a US army veteran) at a February debate organised by pro-Palestine students, an official investigation was triggered. Earlier this month, the Birmingham Guild of Students (the equivalent of the students’ unions in other universities) approved a resolution saying that visiting speakers must not say anything that would fall foul of a European Union definition of anti-Semitism.

That definition was drawn up by an official EU body known as the European Union Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005. It was not the result of a serious scientific exercise but of a few consultations with representatives of the Israel lobby on both sides of the Atlantic, including the American Jewish Committee.

The definition was an extremely broad one. It cited comparisons between the state of Israel and the Nazis and any attempts to label the establishment of Israel as a racist endeavour as examples of anti-Semitism.

Although the Monitoring Centre’s director at the time Beate Winkler described the definition as a work in progress, it has subsequently become the EU’s de facto definition of anti-Semitism. As a result, it is routinely invoked whenever Zionist zealots wish to give a veneer of respectability to their efforts to make Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians a taboo.

The intimidation of Palestine-supporting students is happening across the English Channel, too. Earlier this month, I shared a platform with the Palestinian writer Azzam Tamimi in the Free University of Brussels (known by its Dutch-language acronym VUB). The event was denounced by the website Joods Actueel (Jewish News), which published allegations that Tamimi glorified “terrorism”. (Tamimi is a self-declared supporter of Hamas but has stated his opposition to the killing of civilians. He has also advised the party to drop references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent 1903 text purporting to be a plan for Jews to take over the world, from its founding charter).

The complaint against Palestinian students in the VUB went as high as the university’s rector, who told them they could only go ahead with the event if they had a third speaker making a case against the boycott of Israeli goods and institutions. Pascal Smet, the Flemish minister for education, has now been asked parliamentary questions about whether the event Tamimi and I addressed should have been banned.

I’d be interested in learning if students involved in other forms of political activities come under this kind of pressure. Do environmental campaign groups have to invite BP or other big polluters to their meetings about climate change? Do gay rights activists have to ensure that on-campus homophobes don’t feel uneasy with their work? I’d doubt it. Yet when it comes to Israel and Palestine, universities expect the views of the oppressor to be treated with deference and respect. Please explain.

·First published by Mondoweiss (, 25 March 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cruel and cunning: Van Rompuy's true face

Conspiracy theorists make me laugh. So when I’m in need of comic relief, I occasionally check out the website of Jim Corr, knowing that its contents are a lot more entertaining than the music of his banal pop group The Corrs. For a number of years, Corr has been spouting pseudo-scientific gobbledegook in an attempt to persuade the gullible that man-made global warming is a hoax and that the collapse of the World Trade Centre wasn’t actually caused by the planes flown into it.

Just because conspiracy theorists are nearly always wrong doesn’t mean everything they say should be dismissed. A dedicated bunch of researchers and bloggers have made it their task to follow the activities of the Bilderberg Group, that bunch of businessmen and politicians which meets in top secrecy on an annual basis. Some of these researchers – like the Italian MEP Mario Borghezio – belong to the extreme-right and should be denounced as racist opportunists. Yet while warnings about the Bilberbergers wanting to create a new world government might be far-fetched, there are solid reasons to be wary of what they are up to.

Any club of the wealthy and powerful which seeks to avoid scrutiny is by definition a threat to democracy. And so it is correct that questions were asked about why Herman Van Rompuy dined at a Bilderberg event near Brussels shortly before he was appointed the first full-time president of the European Council in November 2009. If nothing else, his attendance at the exclusive gathering indicates he is more eager to please Goldman Sachs and Shell than the 500 million mere mortals who live in the EU.

Van Rompuy’s behaviour since taking up office further signals that equality is not high on his list of concerns. Even though he trousers €25,000 per month – more than Barack Obama’s salary – he has the insolence to argue that the wages paid to ordinary workers should be kept under control. In a paper he prepared recently in tandem with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission chief, Van Rompuy advocates that a system should be put in place whereby wage levels can be reduced if they are viewed as inimical to “competitiveness”. The two overpaid men also hope their system will lead to a higher retirement age.

Reading their plan, I was half expecting it to be titled “A Modest Proposal”. For it bears similarities to the thinking behind Jonathan Swift’s 1729 tract of that name, which recommended that the poor should eat their own children. The key difference, of course, is that Swift was being satirical, whereas the pair of unelected presidents are deadly serious.

It is instructive that their “modest proposal” focuses on the cost of labour. This illustrates that they are only interested in cutting the pay of the average worker, not the exorbitant salaries and bonuses offered to their Bilderberg buddies. And isn’t there something sadistic about how mainstream politicians are so fixated on raising the retirement age? The fact that people are living longer than ever before is one of Europe’s most awesome achievements. But instead of celebrating it, our rulers talk about people who manage to avoid kicking the bucket as a “pensions time-bomb”? Why shouldn’t we be able to draw down our pensions at 65 (or even earlier) and look forward to a lengthy and healthy retirement?

Visiting Budapest in December last, Van Rompuy paid a clumsy tribute to the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai. It was fitting, he said, that Márai had spent time in 1920s Frankfurt meditating on whether there were some intellectuals who identified more with Europe than with their own home countries, given that the German city now hosts the European Central Bank. According to Van Rompuy, the ECB is “the institution at the heart of Europe’s new political identity”.

Is that what Europe amounts to: a vast landmass controlled by a bank? If that’s true, then European citizens need to pay attention to the battle for labour rights in Wisconsin and start demanding back the powers we have ceded to a pin-striped cult.

Jean-Claude Trichet – the ECB head and another Bilderberger, as it happens - has been echoing Van Rompuy. Earlier this month, Trichet told EU governments that the “priority must be to enhance wage flexibility”. In layperson’s terms, that means the working poor should be made poorer.

Economics derives from the Greek term “oikonomia”, which means management of a household. No head of household would be satisfied if the price of keeping costs low was that everyone in the family was miserable. Van Rompuy should be ashamed of himself, then, for using a trip to Bucharest last month to say he is “delighted that Romania has turned the corner economically”. Under pressure from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, Romania has introduced some of the cruellest cuts in Europe recently. Public sector wages have been slashed by 25% and – contrary to the rosy picture painted by Van Rompuy – Romania remains in severe difficulty.

Nigel Farage, the idiotic MEP with the UK Independence Party, provoked an uproar in 2010 when he alleged Van Rompuy had “the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. Hurling insults based on how somebody looks is unbecoming of a politician. And besides, Van Rompuy is no low-grade bank clerk. He is a right-leaning ideologue with a lot of influence. And he is using that influence to cause huge pain in the real world.

·First published by New Europe (, 13-19 March 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

Israeli universities: agents of apartheid

One of the most enjoyable things that has happened since I wrote a book on Israel’s relations with Europe is that I have been asked to speak at various universities. So when an invitation appeared in my email inbox to visit King’s College London (KCL), I immediately accepted. Big mistake.

The request came from the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), a partnership between King’s College and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. I only became aware of the partnership one day before I was scheduled to address an ICSR seminar in January. Following a hasty consultation with some friends in the Palestine solidarity movement, I withdrew from the event, informing the organisers that I fully supported the campaign to boycott Israeli goods and institutions.

In hindsight, I am relieved to have taken that decision. Set up in 2008, the ICSR boasts on its website that it is “the first initiative of this kind in which Arab and Israeli academic institutions can work together”. This appears to be a reference to how the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy is also involved in its research on political violence. However, the participation of an academic body from an Arab state does not exonerate the ICSR for embracing the Herzliya centre, which has long tried to cloak Israeli apartheid with intellectual gravitas.

Each year the IDC hosts the Herzliya security conference, attracting Israel’s political, military and business elite, as well as illustrious foreign guests. Speakers at this conference can spout racist invective without fear of being challenged; in 2003, Yitzhak Ravid, a senior researcher with Israel’s weapons development authority Rafael called for coercive measures to curb the birth-rate among Palestinians. “The delivery rooms in Soroka Hospital in Be’ersheba have turned into a factory for the production of a backward population,” he said, alluding to an area with a considerable number of Bedouin inhabitants.

Furthermore, the IDC expresses pride in its links with the Israeli army, despite that army’s role in enforcing the occupation of Palestine. Representatives of Israel’s most profitable arms manufacturers frequently sit on the IDC’s management committee, while 10% of its student places are reserved for veterans of elite combat units in the Israeli army.

John Bew, director of the ICSR, told me there is no “financial relationship between ourselves and Herzilya”. He added: “You will see that we also have contacts with universities across the world, including Jordan. This is not an expression of support for any political position on any state - Israel, Pakistan, India, wherever. It is part of our belief that academic institutions should be a source of dialogue and discussion and the first port of call for discussion between divided peoples. Having grown up in Belfast, I am personally committed to that sort of dialogue. I don't think demonising or boycotting one side or another has any constructive impact.”

Bew’s comments are disingenuous. Although he is opposed to a boycott of Israel, he is happy to put his name to pamphlets defending the boycott of Hamas by western governments. In a 2008 paper he wrote with fellow scholar Martyn Frampton, Bew urged the West to be wary of negotiating with Hamas, lest that doing so would “strengthen its position against more moderate alternatives”. In his writing, he habitually labels Hamas as “terrorist”, without applying that term to the state of Israel, a far more prolific killer of civilians than Hamas. Moreover, he appears reluctant to learn from the situation in his native Belfast, where a peace settlement could only be achieved after the British government agreed to hold talks with Irish Republicans.

Bew’s flawed analysis chimes with the stance from chief administrators in King’s College. In November 2008, KCL awarded an honorary doctorate to the Israeli president Shimon Peres, an inveterate warmonger (his status as a Nobel Peace laureate notwithstanding). The award sparked protests from student activists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Along with his post with the ICSR, Bew is listed as a vice-president of the Henry Jackson Society, a “think-tank” that defends America’s imperial machinations. The society’s founding principles commit it to advocating that the US and Britain maintain “a strong military with global expeditionary outreach”.

A Palestine solidarity campaigner studying in KCL, who asked not to be named, said: “The idea that the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation is there to combat radicalisation is quite absurd. If it wanted to follow the Northern Ireland model [to conflict resolution], it wouldn't be covertly pressing to exclude Hamas from the so-called peace process.”

The case for an academic boycott of Israel was bolstered by a 2009 paper from the Alternative Information Center (AIC), a group combining Israeli and Palestinian researchers and activists. “All major Israeli academic institutions, certainly the ones with the strongest international connections, were found to provide unquestionable support to Israel’s occupation,” that paper stated. Such support ranged from how the Technion in Haifa developed a remote-controlled bulldozer for the demolition of Palestinian homes to how Tel Aviv University has welcomed arms manufacturers to symposia on robotics and electro-optics.

Uri Yacobi Keller, an author of the AIC paper, said the Palestine solidarity movement is not seeking that European academics to cease talking to their Israeli counterparts. Rather, the movement is urging a boycott of Israeli universities as institutions and that the flow of finance to them be cut off until they sever their links with the occupation. “This would make Israeli universities understand that these [international] contacts are in danger if they continue to cooperate with the Israeli security establishment and the settlement project [in the occupied Palestinian territories],” he said.

Academic cooperation between Europe and Israel has been encouraged by governments on both sides. In July 2008, the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX) was launched by the two prime ministers then in office, Gordon Brown and Ehud Olmert. This £1 million ($1.6 million) scheme, which involves the allocation of grants to science researchers, is mainly funded by the Pears Foundation, which presents itself as a philanthropic body. All of the Israeli universities taking part have links to the Israeli military, according to the aforementioned AIC paper.

Mike Cushman from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), which has called for an academic boycott of Israel, noted that some of the activities sponsored by BIRAX exclude Palestinian institutes. “BIRAX funds research on the Dead Sea ecology without the involvement of Palestinian universities but the Dead Sea is a vital resource for Palestinians,” he said.

“Israeli universities develop the arms and control technologies that directly support the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza,” Cushman added. “Their alumni magazines proudly boast of their links with the Israeli military and security services. Israelis who have done military service get privileged entry into universities: one of a number of ways the universities directly and indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

The European Commission, meanwhile, is a major provider of grants to Israeli universities and to private Israeli firms, including weapons manufacturers. Israel is the main foreign participant in the European Union’s multi-annual “framework programme” for scientific research, which has an overall budget of €53 billion ($73.5 billion) between 2007 and 2013. Israel is taking part in 800 EU-financed research projects, worth a total of €4.3 billion. Israeli officials have told me that they hope they will have directly drawn down more than €500 million worth of science grants by the time the EU’s programme concludes in 2013.

Cordis, a searchable database on the EU programme (, is a useful resource for activists wishing to find concrete cases of European universities linked to Israeli institutions and the private sector. When I gave a talk in Ireland’s University of Limerick towards the end of last year, a member of staff told me she was shocked to discover the extent of its cooperation with Israel. By checking Cordis, I found five examples linking Limerick to Israel; several of the beneficiaries are profiting directly from the occupation of Palestine. Among these projects was one with the unwieldy title Innovative and Novel First Responders Applications (INFRA), which aims to develop communications services in tunnels and other locations where mobile phones prove unreliable. Athena GS3, a company founded by Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Israeli secret service Mossad, is involved in this project; the firm belongs to the Mer Group, which provides surveillance equipment to illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and to military bases and checkpoints in the wider West Bank. Another Israeli beneficiary of this project is Opgal, a maker of infrared cameras. Opgal is partly owned by Elbit, a leading supplier of warplanes to the Israeli air force.

Contrary to Israel’s claims that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, its university authorities are actively seeking to quell dissent. After Israel attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, killing nine activists, in May 2010, Haifa University banned its students from protesting. Ben Gurion University of the Negev has also begun disciplinary proceedings against students who demonstrated against the flotilla massacre and for improved conditions for workers hired to clean the campus.

With deep cuts imposed on education spending in many countries, it is understandable that student unions and academics are preoccupied with domestic economic issues at the moment. But those cuts are being taken as part of a greater ideological effort to make universities more subservient to the private sector and restrict third-level education to people from wealthy families. Cooperation with Israeli universities needs to be viewed in that context.

Indeed, Israel’s experience should be a wake-up call for everyone concerned about social justice. Whereas most industrialised countries spend around $8,000 on each student attending school or university per year, Israel spends $6,000. By contrast, Israel devotes 8% of its gross domestic product to military expenditure, almost six times the average for industrialised countries.

Israel’s political elite is clearly more concerned with prime-pumping its arms industry and tightening its grip on Palestinian land than in ensuring that education helps people realise their potential. That is one of many reasons why an academic boycott of Israel is so vital.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (, 10 March 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

Put merchants of death out of business

Over the past few years I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the arms industry. Just as I tend to become transfixed in art galleries, the images of precision-guided missiles in “defence” magazines can leave me with a pleasantly blank sensation. That’s when I have to shake myself and recall that these photogenic instruments were designed for the sole purpose of ending human life.

The promotional copy pumped out by weapons manufacturers renders satire redundant. In February, Belgium’s FN Herstal displayed some of its shiny new assault pistols and submachine guns at the IDEX arms fair in Abu Dhabi. An explanatory note told us that the Liège-based firm “contributes to maintain and restore international peace and security”.

One day after the exhibition opened, a video appeared on YouTube. It showed a Libyan civilian clasping one of the “special” weapons held by forces under Muammar Gaddafi’s control. Branded an FN-303, the weapon was made by the aforementioned Herstal, as part of its contribution to international peace and security. About 2,000 such weapons were authorised for export to Libya by the Walloon regional government in June 2009. This is by no means the first time that Herstal has profited from grubby deals. Automatic rifles made by the company were found in eastern Congo in 2005, indicating they were used in a war that left nearly 400,000 people dead over the previous two years.

In a prescient report published in November last, the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade cited Libya as one of the clearest cases where EU governments attach greater importance to “export promotion” than to ethical considerations when licensing the arms trade. When Gaddafi was the West’s favourite bogeyman in the mid-1980s, the European Community imposed an arms embargo on Libya. But as soon as it was lifted in 2004, arms exporters scrambled to do business with their new buddies. The British trade association Defence Manufacturers Association rhapsodised in 2005 about how Libya was a “relatively sophisticated customer with a political will to procure equipment”. The “relatively sophisticated” Gaddafi could be persuaded to be anything: one British deal to supply an elite brigade in Libya’s army was worth €100 million.

Since 1998, the EU’s governments have been committed to observing a “code of conduct” on arms exports. Made legally binding a decade later, it requires that weapons are not sold to countries where they are likely to be used for internal repression or to exacerbate regional tensions. Like more than a few policy documents, it looks great on paper and is routinely violated in practice.

It is not difficult to see why. Data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that the arms trade has been largely cushioned from the global recession. In 2009, the volume of sales for the world’s top 100 arms companies amounted to $401 billion, a rise of almost $15 billion over the preceding year. One-third of these companies have their headquarters in Western Europe; they include BAE, EADS, Finmeccanica and Thales.

With their deep pockets, the representatives of these companies have no problem twisting arms in the Brussels bureaucracy and in national capitals of EU countries. Due to their diligent schmoozing, support for the arms industry is being treated as an enterprise promotion dossier in the nominally civilian European Commission. The EU’s multi-annual “framework programme” for scientific research has also been partly hijacked by the arms industry. A little-noticed study completed at the European Parliament’s request in 2010 decried a clash of interests: the same arms companies that persuaded the EU authorities to allocate science grants for “security research” after the 11 September 2001 attacks have been the biggest recipients of those same grants. Out of a sample of 91 projects with a total value of €443 million analysed for that study, the French firm Thales bagged well over half (€254 million) of the cash on offer.

Top-level politicians often double up as salespeople for the arms industry. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is pushing for the arms embargo slapped on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre to be scrapped on the grounds that relations with Beijing need to be nurtured for strategic reasons. Proving that she suffers from the same lack of scruples as other top players in New Labour, she is more concerned with drumming up business for the arms industry than in China’s oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang or Buddhists in Tibet. Proving, too, that mollycoddling the arms industry transcends party lines in British politics, David Cameron toured the Persian Gulf last month with a few of his country’s leading arms traders. Critics of the trade are “completely at odds with reality”, the prime minister thundered.

It is right that a fresh ban on weapons sales to Libya has now been introduced. But we know that such bans can be lifted on the flimsiest of pretexts. The EU officially stopped selling weapons to Uzbekistan after its troops mowed down peaceful protesters at Andizhan in 2005. Four years later, the embargo was removed because the Uzbek authorities were deemed useful allies for NATO’s imperial war in Afghanistan.

At the United Nations, a July 2012 deadline has been set for a global treaty to regulate the arms trade. As weapons-sellers are so powerful, there is only one way to combat them: by massive public pressure. Everything must be done to put merchants of death out of business.

·First published by New Europe (, 6-12 March 2011.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dutch firm shirks responsibility for apartheid wall

On a recent visit to Ramallah, I heard a fascinating tale about two entrepreneurial brothers and how they are trying to evade prosecution for aiding Israeli apartheid.

Doron Livnat is the director of Riwal, a Dutch company that supplied cranes used in building the 650-kilometre wall that snakes through the West Bank. In October last year, Riwal’s headquarters in Dordrect, The Netherlands, were raided by the country’s national crime squad, investigating a complaint into the firm’s activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The probe has led to a hasty corporate makeover, with Riwal changing the name of its Israeli subsidiary to Rom. Rik Maaskant, a spokesman for Riwal, told me there is “no relationship whatsoever” between the two firms now. Yet there are several coincidences indicating that his assurance should be treated skeptically.

1. Under a 2003 international crimes law, any Dutch citizen can be prosecuted for violating human rights anywhere in the world. Doron Livnat has dual Dutch and Israeli nationality. Should we be surprise, then, that his brother Adi, who does not have Dutch citizenship, has been placed in charge of Rom?
2. Both firms continue to have an almost identical logo: it is oval-shaped with the name of the firm marked in yellow against a dark blue background. The only discernible difference between the logos of each firm is that the name Riwal is featured in one and Rom in the other.
3. Riwal has a reputation for being economical with the truth. It even supplied false information to a government minister in the past.

The involvement of Riwal in the wall’s construction first came to light in 2006 when a Dutch TV documentary was broadcast, showing that its cranes were being used in Hizma, a village on the wall’s route. After Bert Koenders, a member of parliament with the Dutch Labor party, protested at Riwal’s activities, the then foreign minister Ben Bot said he did not have “any indication” that the Dordrecht-based company was assisting the project. Bot stated that the cranes in question were owned by a firm called Lima. It soon transpired, however, that Bot had been misled by Riwal’s management. Although he described Lima as Israeli, it was in fact Dutch-owned and had been authorised to use the brand name Riwal.
By all accounts, Bot was furious at being deceived. Despite making his displeasure known in Dordrecht, Riwal cranes remained a visible fixture at various spots along the wall. In the summer of 2007, for example, Riwal-branded machinery was found next to the village of Al-Khader, near Bethlehem.

The case against Riwal was brought by Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, which had gathered photographic evidence of how cranes and other equipment supplied by the company were used in the construction of the wall. According to Al Haq, the building of the wall may have involved the crimes of apartheid and persecution. Both offenses are covered by the Dutch international crimes act.

“The building of the wall potentially entails committing the crime of apartheid,” said Salma Karmy, a representative of Al Haq. “It results in the commission of inhuman acts in the context of a regime aimed at the domination of one racial group over another. We’re saying that the Dutch company Riwal was an accessory to this and other crimes. The crimes were primarily committed by the Israeli government but Riwal helped knowingly.”

It will be interesting to see how the case progresses, not least because there could be repercussions for the overall Dutch relationship with Israel. While the judicial system in the Netherlands is nominally impervious to political meddling, the relatively new Dutch government would doubtlessly prefer that the investigation is dropped. Uri Rosenthal, the foreign minister, is regarded by Israel as one of its most reliable supporters in Europe. At the beginning of March, he upbraided the United Nations Human Rights Council for approving too many resolutions critical of Israel.

Doron Livnat, meanwhile, is a prominent figure in two of the key groups belonging to the pro-Israel lobby in the Netherlands. He is a board member for the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) and president of a team advising Collective Action Israel (known by its Dutch acronym CIA).

Based in The Hague, CIDI has consistently campaigned in favour of the apartheid wall, ignoring how it was declared illegal by the International Criminal Court in 2004. An article on the CIDI website claims that the wall has “saved countless lives from terrorist attacks”. Amsterdam-based CIA collects funds for the training of Israeli soldiers, particularly on the use of advanced technology. In February, it hosted a tour of the Netherlands for Tsahal, a band of musicians serving in the Israeli army.

Riwal, as it happens, enjoys name recognition well beyond the construction industry. Thanks to a sponsorship deal, its logo is emblazoned on jerseys worn by FC Dordrecht, a soccer team playing in the Dutch First Division. Time will tell if the Livnats’ support for Israeli apartheid proves to be an own-goal.

·First published by Mondoweiss (