Are diamonds Israel’s best friend?

Naomi Campbell (left) gave evidence linking Charles Taylor with the smuggling of African diamonds. By contrast, the importance of diamonds to Israeli apartheid is rarely discussed.

Presidency of Argentina

The conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity this week prompted some journalists to recall how his trial was briefly glamorous. Evidence given by “supermodel” Naomi Campbell of receiving dirty gem stones from Taylor helped link him to the smuggling of diamonds.

It is only proper that the role of the diamond trade in fuelling some of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts should be exposed. But why is there a virtual silence about the importance of diamonds to Israel, which has an economy built on oppression and apartheid?

In preparation for a few talks I gave in Belgium over the past fortnight, I have been examining the connections between Israel and the diamond district in Antwerp. The results of my research leave me stunned.

In September last year, Belgium’s acting prime minister Yves Leterme undertook a visit to the Middle East, where he celebrated the importance of the diamond trade between Belgium and Israel. Leterme cited data indicating that this bilateral trade in diamonds is worth €2 billion ($2.6 billion) per year.

A billion dollar contribution

If you consider that the entire European Union trade with Israel came to about €20 billion in 2009, this indicates that about one-tenth of all business between the EU and Israel could pass through Antwerp.

Leterme neglected to point out that diamonds are a significant source of revenue for the Israeli military. So I would recommend that he reads the book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation, which is based on the work of the Russell Tribunal for Palestine. One of its contributors, the Israeli left-wing economist Shir Hever, argues that every time Israel sells a diamond abroad, some of the money involved helps finance the Israeli military. Hever has calculated that diamonds bring at least $1 billion every year to Israel’s war and occupation industry.

About half of all polished diamonds in the world are traded in Antwerp. And at least two of the top three leading companies in Israel’s diamond industry — AA Rachminov and MID House of Diamonds — have offices in the Belgian city.

Basic contradiction

Since 2003, the EU has been active in the Kimberley Process, an international forum which is supposed to prevent the international diamond trade from contributing to war and human rights abuses. The EU even requires that diamonds passing through Antwerp and other major centers of the gem trade like London and Amsterdam must have certificates of origin to show that they are “conflict-free.”

Yet there is a basic contradiction here. The definition of “blood diamond” or “conflict diamond” followed by the EU and the US only applies to raw diamonds, not to the cut and polished diamonds exported by Israel.

A meeting of the Kimberley Process participants scheduled for next month is supposed to consider whether this definition should be changed. The United States, which has been chairing the Kimberley Process since January, has stated that it would be opposed to widening the concept of conflict diamonds to cut and polished diamonds.

Antwerp may soon assume an even more pivotal place in the global diamond trade. In April, The International Herald Tribune reported on plans to make diamonds a commodity available to investors in the way that gold has been traded through funds on exchanges. Under a proposal being studied by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the first diamond-backed exchanged fund would involve the storage of one-carat diamonds in an Antwerp vault. An index whereby the diamonds are given values each day would be established.

Together, a glossy magazine distributed in Brussels, also has a feature on Antwerp in its current issue. As the rest of Belgium sinks into a recession, “the $57 billion diamond business in Antwerp is humming,” according to the magazine.

I fully support the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Perhaps, though, the BDS campaign hasn’t yet examined Antwerp’s support for Israeli apartheid as forensically as it should have. That is despite how the presence of major Israeli diamond companies in Antwerp should provide a good target for protests and possibly even direct action.

It would be wrong of me to claim any real expertise on the diamond trade. But I do know how to identify hypocrisy. And that’s precisely what I’ve detected in the way diamonds from Africa are regarded with suspicion, while almost nothing is said about how diamonds help bankroll Israeli apartheid.

Thanks to Seán Clinton for briefing me on the Kimberley Process.




Great post--happy that you are taking up this essential issue. Incorporating diamonds into BDS should play a larger role, especially given the ways we can link it with the oppression of African peoples and the product, ultimately, is superfluous. I also hope that as part of this ongoing struggle people can take up research on the role of Israeli diamonds in Arab countries as part of the BDS campaign.