Wednesday, September 25, 2013

EU refuses probe into why it rewarded contractor for apartheid tramway

John Kerry is miffed. Benjamin Netanyahu is raging. And Zionist lobby groups are apoplectic.

You might have guessed that I am referring to an ongoing controversy over guidelines stating that the European Union will cease giving grants and loans firms and institutions active in Israel's settlements in the West Bank. But the more I examine the surrounding matters, the more I conclude that Israel and its supporters have no reason to kick up a stink.

A few weeks ago, I submitted a formal query to the EU's executive, the European Commission, over how it is rewarding an Israeli entrepreneur who has helped build an illegal tramway in occupied East Jerusalem.

Gilad Rafaeli is the Commission's main contact point in Israel for a project on transport security, which enjoys some €25 million ($34 million) in EU support. Rafaeli's own resumé states that he was contracted to work on the "Jerusalem light rail" system between 2006 and 2011.

The EU-supported scheme -- known as Secured Urban Transportation or SECUR-ED for short -- was launched in April 2011. The overlap in dates suggests that Rafaeli was assisting the construction of a tramway designed to service illegal settlers, while he and his firm, MTRS3, were discussing the goals and activities of an EU-funded project with the Brussels authorities.

Yesterday, I received a response to my query from Daniel Calleja, who heads the Commission's department for enterprise and industry. Calleja confirmed that the EU executive was "not aware" of Rafaeli's involvement in the Jerusalem tramway. He admitted, too, that this issue did not arise when the SECUR-ED project was evaluated.

Infrastructure of apartheid

Surely, then, it is necessary to examine why someone who helped build Israel's infrastructure of apartheid and occupation was benefiting from the EU's largesse. Yet Calleja wrote that there are "no legal grounds" on which his colleagues "could perhaps launch an investigation."

Calleja's rationale was based on how the Jerusalem tramway has not received any support from the EU's "framework programme" for scientific research.

That is beside the point. My query reminded the Commission that it regards Israel's occupation and subsequent annexation of East Jerusalem as illegal under international law. By definition, then, a tramway designed to tighten Israel's occupation of Jerusalem is illegal. When the EU rewards people -- like Gilad Rafaeli -- who profit from that occupation, it is acquiescing in unlawful behavior.

Daniel Calleja also claimed that "at present, the Commission is not aware of any misuse by Israeli participants of the framework programme."

I am having difficulty remaining calm as I read Calleja's letter.

For more than two years, a number of Palestine solidarity activists have been undertaking a campaign against the EU's awarding of science grants to Ahava, a firm making cosmetics in the occupied West Bank. Brussels officials -- including those belonging to Calleja's department -- have been told both in writing and in face-to-face meetings about how the EU is giving money to this firm.

Maintaining a fiction

The officials are aware that the construction of Israeli settlements violates international law and that aiding firms active in them is, by definition, illegal. And yet Calleja tries to maintain the fiction that there is no problem here.

It would be nice to take heart from the EU's new guidelines and believe it will soon take a more robust stance towards Israel. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic. Catherine Ashton, the Union's foreign policy chief, has insisted that the EU wants to "continue to have a strong relationship with Israel" and that the guidelines do no more than reiterate existing policy.

Is Ashton signaling a "business as usual" approach? Will the EU continue to pose as a staunch defender of Palestinian rights, while furtively supporting Israeli apartheid?

If so, it would be wrong for people of conscience to think that a full boycott of Israel can be swapped for a few ever-so-timid guidelines.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 25 September 2013.

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