Friday, 30 January 2009

THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND CLIMATE CHANGE


There's a gorilla in the room that politicians debating climate change don't like to acknowledge.

Next week the European Parliament will vote on a non-legislative report on the subject. It's a monster, an overlong dog's dinner review of the subject which includes statements from which I dissent as well as much that I cannot vote against.

I wanted to retable an amendment that was defeated in committee. It pointed out that world population has trebled in the past 50 years, is increasing by 153,000 every day, and this understandably generates a hugely increased demand for energy. It also called for the Commission and Member States to come up with some proposals for NON-COERCIVE measures to achieve optimum population levels.

And what does "non-coercive" mean? Women everywhere having greater control over reproduction. Couples having a first child a few years later than might otherwise be the case. Perhaps some financial incentives. But above all, discussion, just how many people can the planet support?

This prompted the first debate in the Lib Dem group about population that I can recall. The Romanians appeared particularly concerned about the idea that we should ask the Commission to actually propose something. It is the most important subject of all yet politicians are frightened of the consequences of discussing it.

We agreed to table my amendment so far as it mentioned the problem of growing numbers. But the call for some kind of follow up was deleted.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The man from Du Pont, he says yes!

9am, and a man from Du Pont (which I think is the world's biggest chemical company) knocks on my door. I had forgotten he was coming and had just returned from the parliament's gym. He stood in his suit for our conversation while I stood, dripping sweat, in my shorts (but after 40 years as a runner I bet my naked leg muscles were better than his covered ones).

The topic was HFCs, hydrofluorocarbons, which are used as refrigerants in supermarket chill chests, in air conditioning, and in foam insulation. Those in use today have an average global warming potential many times greater than CO2.

My Du Pont man proposes the creation of a trading system to discourage their use as an alternative to taxes or an outright ban. No doubt corporate self interest prevails but the idea has merits.

But I was interested to hear the latest on car air conditioning systems because I was involved in shaping the current legislation a few years ago (often pointing out that my car, a Nissan Micra, did not have an air conditioning system).

The refrigerant most often used is HFC134a, made in Runcorn by Ineos Fluor (ex ICI) which has a global warming potential of 1,500. The law we passed says that no new car from 2011 can use HFCs with a GWP greater than 150. This was set because there is an HFC with a GWP of this amount, although many in the car industry plan in future to use CO2 as a refrigerant which has a GWP of just 1 - but it has a few design problems, if it were to leak into the vehicle the driver might fall asleep.

What was interesting was to learn that Du Pont has now developed an HFC refrigerant suitable for car air conditioning with a GWP not of 1,500 but of just 4.

It's a text book example of how european environmental regulation drives forward innovation and brings products to the market.

Let's have more!

BUILDING ON THE RUINS

The messages are mixed and yet there is hope that progress can be made in the Middle East. Obama plays the right mood music. The appointment of George Mitchell is to be welcomed hugely; the man's independence and track record speaks for itself. But then there is Hilary Clinton giving words of support for Israeli actions that most across the world condemn. Maybe she has to - good cop, bad cop - but her business-as-usual signals suggest that the hope could prove forlorn.

I don't think the majority of Israelis have the slightest desire to create a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state. At most I imagine they foresee some kind of economic colony, which may explain the destruction of factories, flour mills and food processing businesses in Gaza. There will have to be a huge change in Israeli perceptions if Palestinian ideas are to be realised and selling a deal that involved this would go far beyond the ability of Israeli politicians alone. Nothing is possible without Obama, certainly don't waste your time looking to the EU for leadership (I despair!).

How do you even start to address the racist fact that too many Israelis seem to believe that a Palestinian life is not as important as one of their own?

Francis Wurtz, the French leader of the GUE (left) group in the European Parliament, has just returned from Gaza. Read his account here, and demand to know why European leaders have not demanded an immediate suspension of the EU-Israel association agreement.

Monday, 26 January 2009

RE-OPENING RAILWAYS



Just another excuse for a steam loco picture? This was the re-opening at Alloa, in May 2008, of the line to Stirling, and the first passenger train for 40 years. It was pulled for celebration purposes by LNER K4 3442 'The Great Marquess', originally built for the West Highland Line.

Read my December blog for the reasons why I was there on the day.

The good news is that more than 400,000 passengers are predicted to use Alloa station in its first year of operation, compared with a pre-opening prediction of 155,000. The South East Scotland Transport Partnership claims that 30% of the journeys are new trips, 40% of passengers have transferred from buses and 35% from cars.

Time to re-open more old lines and build some new ones?

CANNABIS RE-CLASSIFICATION



You couldn't make it up!

Cannabis use has gone down since the criminal penalties for its possession were reduced, so now, five years later, the Government is increasing the penalties!

In 2002/03 the proportion of 16 to 24 years old who had taken cannabis in the past year was 26.2%. The Government followed the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and reduced the classification of cannabis from Class B to Class C. By 2006/07 the proportion of 16 to 24 years old cannabis users had fallen to 20.9%.

This is what the Advisory Council of experts said in its latest report:

* "Although cannabis causes physical harm to individuals the Council is unaware of significant new evidence since its last report." (12.3).

* Evidence about the effects on mental health have become more, rather than less, confused. (13.4.1). "On balance, the Council considers that the evidence points to a probable, but weak, causal link between psychotic illness and cannabis use," (12.9) but "...around 5,000 young men, or 20,000 young women, would need to be prevented from using cannabis to avoid one person developing schizophrenia." (12.9.1)

* "The Council (considers)...the risks of progression to class A drugs as a consequence of using cannabis...are less likely than those associated with the use of alcohol and tobacco." (12.11).

* "Cannabis should remain a Class C drug."

The Government's use of criminal penalties takes no account of this advice and is downright cruel to those who use cannabis for medicinal purposes. It is pathetic pandering to the tabloid press.

I would oppose the legal sale of cannabis to minors. I expect the government to inform people about dangers associated with its use. I support the use of criminal sanctions against people driving under the influence of the drug.

But most cannabis users will do nothing that can cause harm to another human being, and are unlikely to do any harm to themselves. In a free society there should be no laws to prevent them doing what they like.

WHO SHOULD PAY FOR GAZA?

The furore over the BBC's refusal to broadcast the Disaster Emergency Committee's appeal for Gaza is a good indication of the current state of public sympathies.

But maybe the criticism is misdirected.

Under international law, Israel is responsible for Gaza. Israel is in charge. Israel turned Gaza into the world's biggest prison. Israel has wrought death and destruction, placing huge demands upon hospitals, destroying thousands of buildings, and leaving many families destitute.

It is not taxpayers in Britain, Europe or elsewhere who should be paying to meet the needs of Palestinians in Gaza, but taxpayers in Israel.

Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary has attacked the BBC's decision. I agree with his words, but as a government minister his real target should be his friend Gordon Brown.

Even while donations are made to meet immediate needs it's important to remember that Palestinians don't want charity or handouts, but a change in policy.

Friday, 23 January 2009

CURBING COAL


An attempt by myself and others to introduce a ban from 2015 on building new coal fired power stations unless equipped with CCS was yesterday ruled inadmissable by the chairman of the environment committee (we have signed up to some rules that amount to self castration).

I raised the issue again at a CCS conference in addition Berlin and all the power company people shook their heads. With a cap and trade emissions control system in place the introduction of emission performance standards shouldn't really be necessary but regulatory instruments in the environmental field have a track record of success. Momentum will build up behind EPSs as years pass.

LET'S JUST DO SOMETHING

Members of the Palestine Delegation meet (Wednesday). We have the usual unfocused exchange of views and eventually agree to apply to the parliament's managers (the group leaders) for a special delegation to be allowed to travel to Palestine. Think we are all agreed that we will want to talk to both Hamas and Fatah representatives about re-establishment of a unity government.

The news that George Mitchell is to be appointed US envoy brings some cheer.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

NO GLORY IN WAR

What did some Israeli troops leave behind on the walls of Helmi Samouni's two-storey house in Zeitoun, on the southern outskirts of Gaza City?

"Most disturbing of all was the graffiti they daubed on the walls of the ground floor. Some was in Hebrew, but much was naively written in English: "Arabs need 2 die", "Die you all"; "Make war not peace", "1 is down, 999,999 to go", and scrawled on an image of a gravestone the words: "Arabs 1948-2009".

(From Rory McCarthy's account, The Guardian, 20 January 2009)

THE BODY COUNT

From the launch of the Israeli assault to 14 January:

Number of Israelis killed: 13 (including 5 soldiers killed by their own side and
4 civilians killed by Hamas rockets)

Number of Palestinians killed 1,203 (including 410 children)

(Source: Reuters)

Monday, 19 January 2009

TIME TO TALK TO TERRORISTS


Speaking to Stop The War rallies in Oldham and Manchester over the weekend I raised above my head a white scarf. It was given to me in Gaza on 1 May 2007 by Ismail Haniya, the 'moderate' Hamas representative who was then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Unity Government.

Hamas wants to sweep aside the State of Israel, but Haniya, in speaking to members of the European Parliament's Palestine Delegation, distinguished the position of the movement from the position of the government he led. The government, he stated, accepted the 1967 borders of Israel, would respect previous agreements made with Israel by the PLO, and would work to strengthen the ceasefire that then existed if only Israel would cease all military actions against Palestinians.

Haniya said that he had made clear to the Quartet (USA, EU, Russia and UN Sec-Gen) that he was open to discussions "without reservation or precondition," but had had no response.

These were not words of terrorism but of diplomacy. I relayed them back to Brussels and to then Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, but they fell on deaf ears. The EU blindly followed the USA - which of course did nothing other than the bidding of Israel - in not recognising the Unity Government. It fell amidst strife between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza just weeks later.

Palestinians, it is said, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but the EU is no better.

It is a simple truth that you cannot make peace without talking to your enemies. Even Israel should understand this, and Hamas are not even enemies of Britain or the EU. It is time we talked openly and directly to their representatives.

Let there be no hyprocritical condemnation of dealing with 'terrorists.' Israel's very creation owed a great deal to terrorism; Menachem Begin (6th Prime Minister), for example, was formerly Britain's "terrorist No. 1." The reflection that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter applies equally to Hamas and to Israel's founders.

Israel should no longer be allowed to dictate EU policy. After 22 days of slaughter, during which Israel has demonstrated that it treats Palestinian lives with contempt, the war criminals in its Cabinet cannot again pretend that they possess moral authority.

Friday, 16 January 2009

SPEAKING IN THE PARLIAMENT ABOUT GAZA

video

THE PERILS OF TECHNOLOGY

My wife has found my mobile phone, lost one evening just after Christmas somewhere in my house. I was distraught and searched well into the night as we flew to Marrakech the following morning for a holiday,

It was in a bag of flour in our 'larder'.

"I know exactly what you have done," she informs me. "It would have been in your top pocket. You leant over to pick up (another?) bottle of wine...."

But in the meantime my office has insisted that I modernise my communication abilities by getting a bit of kit that allows me to log into my e-mail (yes, I know that the rest of the political world has had these for years).

Instantly we have grown inseparable.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

PESTICIDE PROBLEMS


'Normal' politics, what a relief. The European Parliament votes for controversial compromise proposals for new laws on pesticides that represent the last stage of two years of discussion.

One part has become almost non-controversial: each EU member state should draw up plans to use less pesticides. There is good evidence that we really don't need to use the quantities we do.

But then there is the issue which arouses so much angst, the 'banning' of certain pesticides (actually the refusal to renew authorisation of some existing products when the time comes, which is rarely before 2013).

The lobbying, stimulated by pesticide manufacturers and backed by some farmers, has been intense, outrageous and ridiculous: I have had many letters claiming that the "EU" plans to ban 85% of pesticides. By this morning this had been reduced to farmers on TV this morning saying that they would be prevented from producing unblemished apples, and that potatoes and pea production could be severely damaged in damp Britain.

In fact the package we voted through today will result in the withdrawal of no more than 25 pesticides, some 4% of those on the market. These are the really nasty ones, those that pose risks to human health and the environment because they are mutagenic, carcinogenic, toxic to reproduction, or persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic - substances that, like DDT a generation ago, can lead to an accumulation of chemicals in the bodies of humans, birds and insects.

Could this make things difficult for farmers? My West Midlands colleague Liz Lynne claims it could do them "untold damage", and yes, an early run of bad weather conditions would make things tough. But there is an exemption if any crop is under special short term threat, and the new requirements will create an incentive for manufacturers to come up with safer alternatives that do the same job.

The big picture is this: we have got to stop treating our world like a giant chemistry set. Insect numbers are falling rapidly, and if insects go so does a lot else. We don't know all the reasons but it would be surprising if our excessive use of chemicals on land did not play some part.

Of course 'insects' in general are not particularly popular, so those of us who like the new legislation have pointed to the special concerns expressed in the new law for the most 'cuddly' type, the honey bees, the future of which is a matter of great concern.

If the price for a better world and a happy bee is the occasional blemished apple, well, so be it!

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

GETTING INTO GAZA : REFLECTIONS

Back in the peace and safety of my Strasbourg office questions come to my mind.

How did we get into Gaza given that the Israelis had made clear that they would not let us in? Who knows, but I imagine it was all down to the UNRWA people. In effect we were smuggled into Rafah to take the briefest of looks at what was going on, with the risk being taken that the Israelis would not stop a UN convoy. We also had great assistance from the Eygyptian authorities, again for unknown reasons but given the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt it must say something.

Why did I not emphasise how desperate journalists are to get in too? Israeli aggression would have long since been forced to a halt if they were reporting what they saw each day. I did not mention in my account that every journalist standing around at the Rafah crossing compound tried to get into our UN minibus when it was realised it might cross the line. They had to be shouted at and pushed out before we could proceed.

Why did I not make the point that the Palestinians in Gaza are trapped? Israeli civilians facing Hamas rockets can flee if need be, but the Palestinians are like fish in a tank with no means of escape. There is a wall around the Gaza Strip and Palestinians will be killed by the Israeli Defence Force should they try to cross it. (And don't imagine they can get out by boat either).

And with the benefit of hindsight why did we not think through how we might better have communicated our thoughts? All 8 MEPs have given accounts to their national media, but we did not have the equipment with us to give them pictures. And instead of travelling back to Europe why did we not go to Israel, hold a press conference in Jerusalem, and challenge the Israeli version of events? It would have had so much more impact.

E-mails have poured in thanking me for the account and congratulating my 'bravery'. But I am not in the least brave. The brave ones are the UN people. I look at the pictures on the news of Gaza being blasted and blasted, and I think of the fear I felt when explosions took place hundreds of metres away. The Palestinians in Gaza are no more brave than me, but for them there is no escape.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

GETTING IN TO GAZA



We travelled up from Cairo through the Sinai in a coach with an Egyptian police escort. Assembling our team of 8 MEPs took a long time at the airport, and what with confusion about where to stay we didn´t put our heads down till past 3am. More confusion in the morning delayed us getting to the Rafah crossing till just before noon. It didn´t seem to matter; UNRWA had already called to tell us that the Israeli Defence Ministry was not prepared to let their vehicles meet us. A series of telephone calls had produced conflicting stories but the result was the same: ¨No way are you getting in!¨ This fact-finding trip was going to prove nothing more than a gesture.

I´ve been to the Rafah crossing before but last time approached it from within Gaza. It´s a modern border control complex, a smaller version of the Channel Tunnel vehicle entrance all paid for with EU money. There are passport control offices, a cafeteria, even a duty free shop – but it´s a fiction, they are all empty and covered in dust. The Israeli siege of Gaza has kept the flow of goods and people to Egypt to a minimum.

Escorted by the mayor of the Egyptian town of Rafah we climbed onto a rooftop platform to look across at Gaza City. All was quiet; ¨bombing is at night,¨ we were told. Returning to the ground we talked with Egyptian ambulance drivers, waiting to take the injured coming out of Gaza. They were all lined up with nothing to do it seemed. We chatted to various journalists, all of them frustrated at not being able to cross into the Gaza Strip.

Then a flurry. ¨Get into the minibus, GET IN, GET IN!¨ For unknown reasons a window of opportunity had opened. It was 2.20pm and the ´ceasefire´ lasted till 4pm. We passed through the gate to be met by UNWRA´s director of operations John Ging and three bullet proof (really heavy doors) UN Range Rovers. We transferred and drove into the Palestinian town of Rafah (yes, there are two Rafahs), passing a few bombed buildings on the way, probably ones that had cloaked entrance/exit routes to tunnels across the border. In so doing we may have become the first ´observers´ to cross since the assault began 16 days ago.

It´s a funny thing about a bombed building but I always find that, even though they may have been destroyed by a devastating explosion just yesterday, they look as though the incident took place a year or two ago. And maybe, their appearance suggests, it wasn´t a bombing at all but a demolition job by a firm that went into liquidation just after the work commenced. So long as it is not your own building it somehow diminishes the impact.

The journey was short, just a mile or so. There were lots of people on the streets taking advantage of the ceasefire - ¨The streets are deserted except during these periods,¨ explained our UN security guide - but very few vehicles except the occasional cart pulled by a donkey. We turned into the compound of a UN distribution centre. There was time only to look at the devastation of a former police station opposite, and exchange a few words both about the damage to the UN buildings and the distribution operation with John Ging. I asked him about the Israeli defence for civilian casualties being that Hamas uses human shields to cover its operations. His response was dismissive, and when you looked around at the context of a war in the midst of a living community you could see why.

Suddenly there was a huge bang; the ground shook and so did my stomach. An Israeli blast during ceasefire. It may have been 6-700 metres away but it felt bloody close! What must this be like for people who really are close? Allegedly, we learnt later, it was a response to Hamas rocket attacks.

Back in the vehicles we drive a short distance through back streets to a primary school being used as a shelter. ¨The UN has 71 ´shelters´ across Gaza and we have 30,000 people in them whose homes have been bombed or are at risk,” said John. ¨Some of them, just like this, have been hit nonetheless as you will know.¨ It seemed to me that most of the residents were children, and they were hugely enthusiastic to see us. (At least our presence changed the routine a bit).

Another Israeli blast, and again the ground and my stomach shook. Smoke arose between buildings a few hundred metres away. The kids weren´t phased, ¨Too far off¨ I imagine they were thinking.

Pushing through their numbers, shaking lots of hands and smiling hard, (some of our team shed tears as soon as they had privacy), we met in a side room to hear about the distribution arrangements (¨We need more than just food and medicines, it´s all the essentials of family life, like bedding for displaced families, and nappies¨).

I asked John about Israeli claims that Hamas were using civilians in places like this as human shields. "Look around you", he said. "Do you think the mothers here would allow fighters to put their kids' lives at risk?"

It was 3.15pm. ¨We need you to go NOW,¨ said John Ging. ¨I am so pleased you have been here to see this for yourselves. Just take back the message that the people here need protection. The violence has got to stop. The UN has got to back up its words about a ceasefire with some real action and pressure.

We walked out of the building into the throng of excited kids, mostly 7-11 year olds. I was struck by how many made ´V for Victory´ gestures with their fingers. Do the Israelis really believe that bombing urban communities and terrorising their populations is going to bring them security? What about the next generation that even now starts to merge with the existing one?

The streets were still busy but very few people had anything in their hands. Not much to buy I suppose.

I asked the UN driver about casualties at the hospitals. ¨We´re approaching 900 dead and more than 3,000 injured,¨ he said. ¨From what we hear it is mainly ordinary people. Amongst the numbers there do not seem to be that many young fit men of fighting age that would fit the ´combatant´ category.¨

We get back to the crossing and leave the UN vehicles. Back in the Rafah compound it´s interview time, and we watch also as a succession of Israeli F16s cross the sky dropping white flares of some kind. Donkeys pulling carts in the streets and 21st century killing machines in the air.

Then the explosions start. One of them close enough so that journalists and ourselves start to move quickly away.

Twenty or 30 minutes later the crossing complex starts to get really busy. Ambulance after ambulance arrives from Gaza, and their occupants are transferred to Egyptian ambulances.

Our coach sets off in the direction of Cairo just before sunset. Ambulances race past on the road south.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

OFF TO GAZA



A late evening call on Thursday, "would I join a delegation to Gaza?"

"How do we get in, and what do we do there?" I ask.

"The Egyptian authorities are offering help at the Rafah crossing, and UNRWA (the UN Reliefs and Works Agency) will do their best to provide transport and security."

So I have a ticket in hand, hoping to join in Cairo with a group of MEPs of different nationalities, but not convinced that the Israelis will let us pass into the Strip.

If they do, I hope to use my eyes and ears, and then report back in a bid at least to influence the shaping of future EU policy.

It would be my fourth visit to Gaza. It would be also an expression of support for the people I have met in the past whose lives have been made intolerable by the Israeli seige and blockade.

Mind you, I have to change planes in London. It's not the Israelis who are most likely to block my progress, it's Heathrow!

SMOKE IN YOUR EYES


A visit to the coal-fired power station at Fiddler´s Ferry near Widnes, the largest source in the North West both of electricity and of CO2 emissions.

The environmental problems caused by acid rain are now much reduced in Western Europe thanks to EU measures to curb sulphur dioxide emissions from plants like this. A major new flue gas desulphurisation plant has been completed, allowing the limits on operating hours to be lifted. Under the terms of the Large Combustions Plants Directive (LCPD) the plant will now be able to stay open till the end of 2015.

I was interested to learn that up to 200MW of electricity can now be attributed to burning of biomass, much of it imported wood waste – that makes this huge coal giant also the largest source of electricity from renewable sources in the country!

My discussion with the plant manager and his team touched on the future possibilities of equipping a plant on this site with CCS technology. It is likely to be applied first where there is a cluster of high emitting installations in an area so that transport and injection costs can be shared.

I tend to think of Fiddler´s Ferry as standing in grand isolation but I am reminded that Ineos Chlor has a private power station in Runcorn to generate electricity for chlorine manufacture, there is one also at the Shotton Paper Mill no great distance away, and the Stanlow oil refinery is another high source of emissions. Potential exists to capture the CO2 released for storage in depleted Irish Sea gas reserves.

The LCPD Directive will require the closure of power stations that don´t by then meet SO2 and NOx reduction targets, and with old nuclear stations also closing there is a threat that by 2016 we could be facing a serious shortage of generating capacity. CCS on a commercial scale will only just be getting underway by then. Maybe we should consider putting back the closure deadlines rather than considering building new coal-fired power stations before they can be equipped with CCS. Think I shall try and get an impact assessment commissioned.

MEETING THE BRUSSELS BUREAUCRATS´ BUREAUCRAT

They´re a shadowy lot, these faceless, unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. I know they must be because the Daily Mail says so. Maybe I should have worn a cloak and carried a dagger when I stepped into a lift in the Berlaymont - European Commission HQ - on my way to meet with the boss, the Secretary-General, Catherine Day.

But close up, Brussels bureaucrats usually seem like ordinary human beings. Catherine is striking - Irish, tall, and formidably on top of her brief (or if not she is a class act at bluffing). She is a former head of DG Environment and I´ve come across her a few times in the past. Nick Clegg was a colleague with her in Leon Brittain´s Cabinet some 13 years ago and tells me her capacity for work then was awesome.

I had emailed her before Christmas, fresh from the success of having secured funding of up to €9 billion, to ask for a meeting to discuss the development of the programme to construct up to 12 carbon capture and storage demonstration projects. A meeting was arranged for the first week of the New Year. Sitting with her now are Jos Delbeke, the Deputy Director of DG Environment, Piotr Tulej from the same department, and Jan Panek from DG TREN (Energy) who has to do most of the real work.

My concern is to ensure that implementation starts to happen quickly now that money is available, and as more than one Commission department will be involved I want assurance from the top that turf wars will not be allowed to get in the way.

It proves a happy meeting with everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Catherine emphasises that developing CCS is regarded as a priority. Jos agrees emphatically. Jan explains that there are some 30 potential projects in the pipeline and that firm declarations of intent will now be sought. The Commission will be looking for match support funding from member states and wants to get construction of the first few schemes underway as soon as possible.

They say nice things about my CCS work and hope that I will maintain my involvement. I indicate that this is my intent and invite the Commission to take part in a public workshop I shall be organising on the subject before the end of the parliamentary term, to which they assent.

I depart, ego duly flattered. Maybe the faceless ones have deceived me, but the bureaucrats have won another battle.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

THE VIEW FROM TEHRAN

The Iranian ambassador to Belgium, His Excellency Mr Aboulghasem Dalfi, calls to see me in my office.

Through an interpreter he expresses his concern for Palestine and the people of Gaza. I concur.

"But what about the firing of rockets by Hamas aimed at innocent Israeli civilians?" I ask. "It's immoral and it's politically self-defeating. It's used by the Israelis to justify their attacks upon Gaza. If Iran is supplying or funding these rockets then it could be said that it has contributed to the suffering of Palestinians."

The ambassador justifies the use of the rockets on the grounds that the Palestinians have been subjected to intolerable pressures. "During the intifada even when they threw stones the Israelis would kill them with bullets." The EU does nothing to stop Israeli behaviour.

I agree with him that the EU applies dual standards, and that this is disgraceful, but again condemn the firing of rockets. "If nothing else it is simply bad tactics," I argue. "It results in Palestinians being killed in response. To make any progress you have to force change on the Israelis through non-violent protests that undermine their claims to be a civilised nation that supports human rights. I know that is very hard, and I understand the anger of Palestinians, but I don't accept the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" argument. It doesn't get anyone anywhere."

He gives no indication that he accepts any of my arguments but claims that Iran had not supplied the rockets.

I ask him about Iran's position on the Saudi peace plan that proposes peaceful co-existence and recognition of Israel by all the Arab nations in return for a Palestinian state. He indicates no support for it, poses questions about the holocaust, and leaves the impression that the continued existence of Israel is unacceptable.

Ambassadors reflect the official position of their government, I reflect. By comparison to the recent comments of his President ("criminal Bush, complicit Europeans, hostile disbelievers, Muslim governments in harmony with the usurping Zionist regime") his words could have been even worse.

RUFFLING FEATHERS


A call from my delegation leader, Andrew Duff MEP: "We need to rally around the courageous position taken by Nick Clegg in calling for an arms embargo against Israel. Comments on your blog might be taken to suggest that you are calling Israeli's racist, and this is not helpful."

"Someone's been getting at you," I replied.

But I checked my blog, and I think it clear to any impartial reader that words I have used describe Israeli government policy as racist, not Israeli people in general.

But this is how some of the knee jerk pro-Israeli Government lobby works. One word of condemnation of Israeli policy and the critic is branded "anti-semitic."

They also conveniently ignore my consistent condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks!

My first visit to Israel/Palestine was to be present at the launch of an organisation called 'Combatants for Peace,' former IDF soldiers and Palestinian fighters who had come together to call for a change in approach. On my last visit I joined with Israeli peace activists.

By the definition my critics apply to me, some people in this country would be saying that there are "anti-semitic" Jews in Israel.

And to any Israeli government spokesman who dares again to claim that Israel's Palestinian foes do not share the same concern for human life as themselves I say: "Count the bodies and hang your hypocritical head in shame."

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

LIGHT RELIEF



British Blood - Europe says No!


The local blood transfusion service are holding one of their regular blood donor sessions in the Parliament in Brussels.

Anyone who lived in Britain between 1980 and 1996 need not apply. The possibility exists, it is said, that mad cow disease (BSE) can be transmitted even years after contamination.

So British blood isn't good enough for Europe.

A new solution to Global Warming

Meanwhile, in an aside from a discussion about CCS, an Australian trade unionist tells me that kangaroos emit very little methane; something to do with microbes in the gut.

Could be useful given the high proportion of CO2 emissions in some countries that stem from intensive rearing of animals in huge numbers.

Now if we could only cross a marsupial with a cow - a jumping kangermoo perhaps.

NICK CLEGG TALKS SENSE ON GAZA

The double standards are nauseating.

The EU makes demands of Palestinians and backs them up by refusing to recognise their elected representatives and by cutting off financial support. We make requests to the Israelis (lift the economic blockade, stop the expansion of settlements, etc) and when they are ignored we reward them by strengthening our partnership.

Tzipi Livni says that Israel can not accept terrorism. Well just exactly who is doing the terrorising now?

Nick Clegg is the first of the main political leaders to demand that we back our words with some deeds. His call today for suspension of the enhancements to the EU-Israel agreement, and for an arms embargo, is hugely welcome. It draws a line in the sand and sends out a message that we should no longer accept that Israeli government actions are those of a 'normal' democratic partner.

Israel has rights but it has also has responsibilities that it must start to exercise. Let's no longer make demand of Palestinians and Hamas without making equivalent demands of Israel. Let's have an end to the double standards.

Name The Terrorists?


Three views:

Those of the young waiter (an economics graduate he claimed) serving tables in the Marrakech hotel where I stayed for a few days over New Year. Asked for his views of the situation in Gaza he broke down in tears before me, denouncing the killing of innocent people by Israelis. Asked about the Hamas rocket attacks directed at Israeli civilians he replied: "But what can you expect when you imprison a million people and deny them all opportunity and hope?"

Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister, speaking yesterday, defending the actions of her government on the basis that the "terrorists" must be stopped.

Tony Blair, speaking yesterday morning on the Today programme, his entire position stemming from an acceptance of the Israeli arguments. Hamas and the Palestinians must do this and that, he explained in his most reasonable terms, but where was his outrage directed at Israeli behaviour, and what demands did he make of Israel? I heard none.

Then consider what is actually happening in Gaza:

Israel bombed a UN run school building full of civilians, killing 40 people. Israel says it came under fire, the UN says it did not.
http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/01/07/israel.gaza.school/index.html

Children suffering, children dying
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7814490.stm

International aid agencies get 3 hours a day to feed 750,000 people while hundreds have died and thousands have been wounded
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7815266.stm

Here are some excerpts from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on Gaza

"Gaza is now divided into two sections with internal movement within the Strip extremely dangerous. It is increasingly difficult for humanitarian staff to distribute aid or reach casualties. More than a million Gazans still have no electricity or water, and thousands of people have fled their homes for safe shelter. In addition to the destruction of essential infrastructure including electricity, water and waste water, communications and roads, hospitals are unable to provide adequate intensive care to the high number of casualties."

"A paramedic working for the UHWC,an Oxfam-funded organisation, was killed when an Israeli shell struck an ambulance trying to evacuate an injured person in the Beit Lahiya area; another paramedic lost his foot and a driver was injured in the same incident."

"Over 530,000 people (approximately 400,000 people in Gaza and North Gaza, 100,000 people in Rafah, and 30,000 people in the Middle Area) are entirely cut off from running water, and the rest are receiving water only intermittently, every few days."

Here are a few weblinks showing news on the situation from points of view you may not see that often

http://www.pchrgaza.org/

http://www.maannews.net/en/

http://english.aljazeera.net/

Friday, 2 January 2009

SLAUGHTER IN GAZA


The New Year opens with news that the Israelis have bombed the parliament building and the offices of Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City, both places I have visited myself for discussions with PLC members and with Haniyeh when he was prime minister of the shortlived Palestinian unity government.

The current death toll stands at 4 Israelis to 380 Palestinians, a ratio of nearly 1:100. I join in condemnation of the killing of Israeli civilians on both humanitarian and political grounds (what on earth does it accomplish except to provide the Israeli government with an excuse for its actions), but how can Israel´s actions be described as anything other than slaughter?

On the first day of Israel´s attack I took part in a discussion on Al Jazeera with Mark Regev, the Israeli government´s appallingly brilliant spokesman and propagandist (day after day he is allowed by journalists to get away with defending the indefensible). He demanded that Hamas and the Palestinians do this and that. I pointed out that the demands are always one way, why are not questions also being asked of Israel, about its blockade of Gaza, the expansion of the Jewish settlements, the stealing of Palestinian land, etc etc?

The firing of missiles – however primitive many of them are – with the intention of killing Israeli civilians provides a justification for Israel´s actions that is impossible to dismiss. No politician could ignore them. Those of us who are horrified by the killing in Gaza are forced to criticise its grossly disproportionate nature rather than condemn it outright.

The reality that this obscures is that the Israelis have the Palestinians tied like a donkey on a rope. They deny the animal much that it needs, they poke it and humiliate it. From time to time the donkey kicks out. The Israeli response is then to shout ¨Bad Donkey,¨ and to hit it, and hit it, until it is cowed and subdued. The failure of the West is to bring in the police and make an arrest for mistreatment of an animal!

The racism that goes to the heart of the Israeli Government's approach is to assume that the Palestinians can be beaten and beaten until they are subdued and will then do what they are told. It fails to recognise that the Palestinians might respond to such treatment in exactly the same way as Israelis would – with defiance.

The response from the West to the events of the past week has been utterly hopeless. Perfectly good words from George W Bush backed by no action at all (I expect no better from Obama). France and Germany united in their unswerving support for Israel. Miliband gives the impression that he wants to go a bit further in his criticism of Israel policy but clearly has no support for that from Gordon Brown, hence his dismissal as ¨naive¨ Nick Clegg's call for a halt to the development of a closer EU-Israel partnership. ¨Naive¨. Why?

It is time for Liberal Democrats to call a halt to the attempt to ride two horses and to try not to upset the Israeli lobby. Our support for the Palestinian cause is well enough known amongst those (by no means all!) in the Jewish community who will not countenance criticism of Israel. It is not well enough known amongst the majority who are appalled by Israel´s behaviour.

We should make clear that we will campaign tooth and nail for a viable and independent Palestinian state and will demand an end to deals with an Israeli government that bases its policy approach on a stance that is fundamentally racist.