Friday, August 23, 2013

Express delivery for Israel's war diamonds

Antwerp is a favorite location for those who are in a hurry to help Israeli apartheid.

A few minutes' stroll from the central train station in Belgium's second city, I found posters for a new express delivery service run by the Israeli firm Malca-Amit. "Simply hand over your shipments to Malca-Amit offices in Tel Aviv by the end of working day and the next morning, they'll already be at Antwerp's diamond office by 9.30am at the latest," they read.

To show that the firm means business, an armored truck was parked right outside its Antwerp office. "Delivering peace of mind," a sign above it declared. The motto is particularly inappropriate, when you consider that diamonds are of critical importance to Israel, a state addicted to war.

Israel is the third largest exporter of polished diamonds in the world. According to Israel's trade ministry, these sales were worth $5.6 billion in 2012.

Malca-Amit started its accelerated delivery service over the past few months. It is one of several private security firms involved in the gem trade between Belgium and Israel.

Around the corner from its Antwerp office, I noticed the unmistakable logo of G4S, a company that has become infamous for providing equipment to Israeli jails in the occupied West Bank.

When I phoned G4S' office, I asked a man identifying himself as Rob if his firm undertook diamond deliveries between Tel Aviv and Antwerp. "Yeah, we do," he replied. "Every day."

Rob added that the service on this route began in November last year, so it was "too early" to say how profitable it had been.


Another company, the Ferrari Group (which appears to be separate from the car-maker of the same name) was also advertising rapid delivery. I called its office to ask if it delivered diamonds between Tel Aviv and Antwerp. "Yes, that's correct," a man replied.

When I put another question to him, he said: "I don't have time for an interview. I am just an employee. All the managers are on holiday. They will be back in two or three weeks."

Eight out of every ten mined diamonds in the world pass through Antwerp, where they undergo quality assessments. Although Israel has no raw diamond deposits of its own, its industrialists habitually describe diamonds as being a "cornerstone" of the Israeli economy.

Most of the big players in Israel's diamond business have a presence in Antwerp. Despite selling a product that is synonymous with romance and razzmatazz, these big players behave in a low-key and secretive manner.

A small name-plate on a letter-box is the only thing that notifies you that one of Israel's leading diamond firms, AA Rachminov, has an office in Antwerp's Diamond Center Building. As soon as I took a photograph of the building's entrance, a security guard rushed out. To ensure he would have no excuse to confiscate my camera, I walked away slowly, trying to convey the impression that I was a tourist.

"Zero tolerance"

On an adjoining street -- neighboring the aforementioned G4S office -- sits the Diamond Exchange Building. A number of Israeli exporters are represented here. MID House of Diamonds and Yoshfe Diamonds International are on the first floor; Rosy Blue is on the twelfth.

Later, when I checked MID's website, I was intrigued about how it had a section trumpeting its "zero tolerance policy toward conflict diamonds."

So I phoned its Antwerp office to ask how it could claim to have such a policy when it deals in diamonds from Israel. The man who took my call first insisted that MID was a Belgian, rather than an Israeli firm (a patent lie; it was established by two Israeli brothers Benny and Yossi Meirov).

"But you bring diamonds from Israel to Belgium," I said.

"I'm sorry this is confidential information," the man replied.

"Why is it confidential?" I asked.

"I'm not interested in answering the question," he said, hanging up.

Shir Hever, an Israeli left-wing economist, has calculated that Israel's diamond trade brings about $1 billion per year to Israel's war and occupation industry.

Yet the Kimberley Process, an international body nominally dedicated to stopping the diamond trade from fuelling wars, has refused to accept that Israeli diamond exports should fall into the category of "conflict" or "blood" diamonds. The Kimberley Process has been almost exclusively focused on Africa.

The close connections between Israel and Antwerp might explain -- at least partly -- why the Belgian political elite will not call out Israel as an apartheid state.

To a large extent, the diamond district in Tel Aviv is an offshoot of the one in Antwerp. During the World Zionist Congress in 1905, some Belgian delegates offered to teach the tricks of the diamond trade to Zionists settling in Palestine. And many of the Zionists who founded a diamond center in Palestine during the 1930s started off by polishing half-finished diamonds they had imported from Antwerp.

The Antwerp World Diamond Centre -- the body representing the city's diamond sector -- also signals that it abhors conflict diamonds. Yet it is willing to make an exception for Israel.

I asked Caroline De Wolf, the AWDC's spokesperson, if her organization had ever held discussions about the ethics of trading with Israel, given its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights. "We don't take a position on these topics," she said.

The only time that Antwerp's diamond quarter receives unwelcome publicity is when there is a major heist or allegations of fraud.

My research indicates that there is a far worse scandal.

Antwerp provides vital support to a sector which generates important revenue to the apartheid state of Israel. Until this support ceases, Belgium will be complicit in Israel's crimes against humanity.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 23 August 2013.

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