Thursday, March 27, 2014

Arrested for confronting arms-dealers

I spent seven hours today in a police station cell. Why? Because I tried to disrupt a feast of flesh-pressing between weapons dealers and top political figures.

As the annual conference of the European Defence Agency (EDA) was about to begin in Brussels this morning, two peace activists poured buckets of fake blood outside the venue's entrance. Disguised as corporate lobbyists, I and a few others then sat down in the dark red puddle. We were promptly arrested.

The purpose of the action was to make the invitation-only attendees walk through "blood". This was entirely appropriate: the arms industry thrives on wars in which innocent people are killed as a matter of routine.

We may not have caused too big a headache for the event's organisers. But we certainly drew attention to how the EDA, an official European Union institution, is trying to confer respectability on an industry that deserves to be reviled.


Stripped of their jargon, the speeches delivered at the conference had a sinister edge. Bernhard Gerwert, chief executive of Airbus Defence and Space, called for the EU to help finance the killing machines of the future through its scientific research activities. "Research and development is only worthwhile if we have the ambition to build the next generation of products," he said.

It was particularly grotesque that Dimitris Avramopoulo, the Greek defence minister, gave a keynote address. Until recently, Greece spent more on its military than any other EU country as a proportion of national income. One largely-overlooked contributor to the Greek economic crisis is that it had been splurging on weapons from Germany and the US.

The unemployed, patients waiting for vital treatment and the homeless had nothing to do with this profligacy. Perversely, though, they are paying the price for it through reduced access to social services.

Avramopoulo did not confess today that the level of Greek military expenditure has been irresponsible. Rather, he charmed his hosts by urging that the EDA be granted more power.


Considering that the agency has been explicitly tasked by the EU's governments to push for increased spending on warfare, his plea can only be interpreted as a desire to keep repeating the same foolish policies over and over again.

An important caveat is that these policies do not appear foolish to the establishment. If you are an arms dealer, it makes perfect sense to argue for more public support.

More than likely, it's coincidental that the EDA held its yearly get-together one day after Barack Obama visited Brussels. Still, it's fitting that the two events came so close together. The agency is fixated on building a European equivalent -- or rival -- to America's drones programme.

I'm sure that the EDA's guests were too polite to acknowledge that Obama has used this programme to flout the law. Under his presidency, the right to due process has been discarded. If Obama wants someone dead, all he has to do is put their name on a list.

In fact, I'd doubt that the word "drone" was used much, if at all, during today's proceedings. The EDA's newly-published annual report refers to these monstrous warplanes as "remotely piloted aircraft systems" (RPAS).

Readers of this turgid document are told that drones (sorry, I mean, RPAS) have "proven their value in the military sphere in recent operations." Drones have proven so effective in bombing wedding parties in Yemen that the agency now wants them to be flown in civilian airspace.

From previous experience, I know that the food tends to be excellent at the EDA annual conference (once upon I time, I was allowed to attend such events).

Sadly, I wasn't able to sample whatever delicacies were on offer this time around. I had to make do with cheese sandwiches, waffles and water, passed through the bars of a police station cell.

But given that the EDA's activities are so nauseating, it's probably just as well my stomach didn't have to deal with anything more substantial.

•First published by EUObserver, 27 March 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Transporter of Israeli settlement goods benefits from EU science grant

A transporter of food grown in Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank has benefited from the European Union's scientific research grants.

Cargo Air Lines, an Israeli firm, and its subsidiary Liège Air Cargo Holding Services (LACHS) have taken part in a €3 million ($4 million) surveillance technology project, mainly funded by the EU.

Yossi Shoukroun, the head of LACHS, told me that the freight company handles fruit and vegetables "coming from both Israel and Palestine," along with herbs and flowers. Asked if such products originate from Israeli settlements, Shoukroun replied that the company does not have "any ability to find out where the product really grows."

This is tantamount to an admission that a proportion of the goods in question are from Israeli settlements. Israel's main food exporters all trade in produce from settlements in the West Bank. Such produce is routinely labelled "Made in Israel," even though it has not been grown within Israel's pre-1967 borders.


Although the European Commission, the EU's executive, officially regards Israel's settlements in the West Bank as illegal, it has no qualms about providing financial support to a transporter of goods grown on those illegal colonies.

A spokesperson for Commission said its officials were "not aware of the possibility" that Cargo Air Lines and LACHS transported items which "might have been produced on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank."

According to the spokesperson, no official investigation has been conducted into why the firms have benefitted from the EU's project -- known as iDetecT 4ALL -- "nor are there legal grounds" on which a probe could be launched. Israeli participants may only be excluded from the EU's research projects if their contribution to those projects is performed in the West Bank, the spokesperson added.

As it happens, there is prima facie evidence indicating that work relating to the iDetecT 4ALL project, which ran from 2008 to 2011, was carried out on Israeli settlements.

Refusal to probe

The aim of the project was to examine how surveillance equipment can be used to raise the alarm when "intruders" approach sites considered to be of economic importance. Motorola Israel, another participant in the project, has installed a "virtual fence" -- using sensors and thermal cameras -- around Israeli settlements, on the pretext that they needed to be protected from "intruders."

Yet when this matter was brought to the attention of the European Commission in 2011, it also refused to investigate. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU's science commissioner, said then that she was satisfied that Motorola Israel was based within the State of Israel.

So that makes everything OK, apparently.

Last year, the Israeli press alleged that the EU caused an "earthquake" by devising guidelines stipulated that firms and institutions active in Israeli settlements were not eligible to receive EU subsidies. If implemented (and there is no guarantee that it will be), that policy would involve the Union taking a more assertive line towards Israel.

And yet the EU's executive continues to overlook how it is supporting Israel's theft of Palestinian land in other ways.


Israel is the most active non-European partner in the EU's scientific research programme, which has been allocated €80 billion ($111 billion) between now and the end of the decade.

The way Cargo Air Lines and LACHS are soaking up research grants makes a mockery of the EU's oft-repeated denunciations of Israeli settlements.

LACHS is based in Liège Airport, which is partly owned by the Belgian state of Wallonia.

A new report by François Dubuisson, professor of law at the French-speaking college Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), emphasizes that the EU and its governments have an obligation to avoid providing any aid or assistance to Israel's illegal settlements by, for example, trading with them. A similar point was made by the 2004 International Court of Justice rulingon Israel's wall in the West Bank.

Neither the Belgian nor the EU authorities have any desire to examine LACHS' involvement in the trade in illicit settlement goods. There are no restrictions in place to stop goods from Israeli settlements being sold in Belgian stores.

On a recent trip to a local supermarket, I noticed that Israel was listed as the country of origin for ten out of 15 fresh herbs on display. There was nothing to inform the customer if these herbs were from within Israel's internationally recognized borders or from illegal settlements in the West Bank.

That is not to say that placing more precise labels on these goods will rectify the situation. As these goods are grown in illegally occupied land, it follows that their export should be banned completely.

So long as the EU rejects calls to do so, it will remain an enabler of Israeli apartheid.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 12 March 2014.