No to Veolia Action Group members protest in front of Waltham Forest Town Hall on 13 December 2012(No to Veolia Action Group)
No to Veolia Action Group has been campaigning for two years to keep Israeli occupation profiteer Veolia at bay in a multi-billion pound waste management tender in north London. UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk recently lent his support by urging the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) not to award the contracts to Veolia “due to its deep and ongoing complicity with Israeli violations of international law.”
London-based charity War on Want and the Civic Coalition for Palestinians Rights in Jerusalem have also added their voices in support to the No to Veolia Action Group campaign. But as the pressure mounts, Israel lobby groups have moved into action to prevent debate at the local level.
“Disquieting goings-on at the Town Hall”
No to Veolia Action Group’s campaign gained considerable attention from local media following Falk’s intervention. This intensified after councilors in the London Borough of Hackney adopted a motion to block No to Veolia Action Group’s spokeswoman and local resident Caroline Day from speaking about Veolia at a November council meeting.
On 13 December, Hackney Gazette reported that Labour Party councilor Luke Akehurst had played “a fundamental role” in blocking Day’s speech. Akehurst is the director of We Believe in Israel, a campaign of BICOM, Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre. The center is “dedicated to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain.”
Hackney Citizen described the motion to block Day from speaking as “disquieting goings-on at the Town Hall” and characterized the reasons behind the decision as “puzzling and perhaps disingenuous.”
This refusal to allow debate, constrasted with the decision of Waltham Forest council to allow Irfan Akhtar of Waltham Forest Council of Mosques to present No to Veolia Action Group’s case at its 13 December session.
Obstruction in Hackney council
Day was barred from giving a speech after Hackney council adopted a motion proposed by Conservative Party councilor Linda Kelly and seconded by Labour Mayor Jules Pipe. One of the reasons the council gave for blocking Day’s speech was that “the references to events in the Middle East were not relevant to local people,” writes Hackney Citizen. But, the paper observed:
This is a questionable argument, given that an Israeli flag was recently unfurled at a council meeting to celebrate Hackney having twinned itself with the Israeli city of Haifa.
The Mayor has argued that because “Hackney has no foreign policy” the deputation was irrelevant. Isn’t the twinning with Haifa then inappropriate?
It seems unfair, and a blow for freedom of speech, when campaigners clear all the various hurdles involved in bringing a deputation to the Town Hall only to be censored by their own councilors.
Whilst Ms Day’s speech conformed to the letter of the constitution, it was argued that the speech did not observe its spirit.
Residents should not be prevented from speaking to council simply because the council does not want to hear what they have to say.
Role of Israel lobby groups
Labour councilor Luke Akehurst declared a conflict of interest at the Hackney council meeting and did not participate in the discussion or vote on the motion. However, it seems Akehurst was less reluctant to play a role behind the scenes. One week after the silencing of Caroline Day, David Lewis of UK Lawyers for Israel declared victory in an article headlined “How we helped justice to prevail in Hackney” in the Jewish Chronicle. Conservative councilor Linda Kelly had sought the help of UK Lawyers for Israel and “we prepared a motion that the deputation be not received,” Lewis wrote.
We contacted Labour councillor Luke Akehurst, who heads the advocacy organisation, We Believe in Israel. Councillor Akehurst liaised with the ruling Labour group, who decided to support Councillor Kelly’s motion along with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on the Council.
Lewis once again confirmed Akehurst’s role by telling the Hackney Gazette on 13 December that Akehurst had played “a fundamental role” and changed the situation from where councilor Linda Kelly was going to “cause a bit of a fuss” to something “that was going to work.”
Who is Luke Akehurst?
Luke Akehurst presents himself in Progress Online as “a Labour party activist who works as director of We Believe in Israel, a grassroots campaign group.” Akehurst seems to have no problem with Israel’s violations of international law. In a comment of 21 November in Progress Online, Akehurst does not hesitate to legitimize Israel’s unlawful blockade of Gaza. Akehurst contradicts UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who told Israel in a November 2009 press statement it should end the blockade of Gaza. Akehurst wrote:
I don’t believe that Hamas’ rocket attacks, a huge escalation of which necessitated Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence, are caused by Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The reverse is true. The blockade came in response to the rocket attacks which quadrupled in the 12 months after Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and before the blockade was imposed. The blockade was imposed to stop weaponry reaching Hamas. It will be lifted when all threat of further rockets is ended.
Moreover, Akehurst expressed his support to Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank in a tweet “personally I want main current settlements to be in Israel after peace deal.” Again, Akehurst showed his contempt for UN resolutions and the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s wall in the West Bank which confirmed that settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Veolia has been a target of opposition because of its construction and operation of the Jerusalem light rail which connects West Jerusalem with illegal Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Considering Akehurst’s opinion on settlements, he might see no problem in Veolia’s complicity with Israel’s unlawful acts.
Mounting pressure on NLWA
The member councilors of the NLWA received letters from UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk and the Tel Aviv-based research project Who Profits? In addition, War on Want director John Hilary urged NLWA member councilors not to select Veolia for public contracts “because of its complicity with Israeli violations of international law and Palestinian rights. We are intimately aware of the situation on the ground in Jerusalem, and think it is inappropriate for companies profiting from the suffering of Palestinians living there to be operating and receiving contracts in our communities here in London.”
Zakaria Odeh, director of the Civic Coalition for Palestinians Rights in Jerusalem also wrote NLWA. The coalition – representing 25 Palestinian organizations – highlighted the on-going crisis for Palestinians in Jerusalem and Veolia’s role in the construction and operation of the Jerusalem Light Rail. “We urge you not to support a company actively involved in violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinians and, hence, not to award Veolia with any public contracts,” the letter said.
Al Haq director Shawan Jabarin told me on 10 December “NLWA should not waste its reputation and not let Veolia get away with its crimes.” He calls on NLWA:
not to waste its reputation. It should want to be morally clean. I hope NLWA will take this into account and not award Veolia for the role it plays of profiting from violations of international law. NLWA should keep their eyes open and not separate business from principles. By not awarding the contracts to Veolia they send a clear message to companies that it will not get away with their crimes. NLWA will help prevent illegal actions. And it sends a message of hope to the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, NLWA has extended the procurement process for the second time. Less than a week before the vote on the decision scheduled for 6 December, NLWA announced that Veolia and the other bidders have to re-submit final tenders in March 2013.
No to Veolia Action Group campaigning has won extra time to inform the public and the member councilors about the reasons why Veolia should be shunned.