Sweden, Israel and the banalization of evil

Sweden is perceived as being one of the European countries most sympathetic to the Palestinians. Two years ago, some Israelis became so incensed with this alleged bias that they initiated a campaign to boycott Ikea furniture and Absolut vodka.

The reality, as I realized on a trip to Scandinavia earlier this summer, is that the Swedish government has sponsored projects that seek to confer respectability on entrepreneurs who facilitate and profit from Israel’s crimes.

Headquartered in Stockholm, the Palestine International Business Forum (PIBF) is ostensibly focused on stimulating the private sector in the West Bank and Gaza as part of a wider strategy of bringing peace to the Middle East. That “vision” sits uncomfortably with the actual track record of many of the companies taking part in the forum’s activities.

The PIBF’s founders include Yacov Gebhard, chief executive with Partner Communications, a firm that provides telecommunications services to illegal Israeli settlers and the Israeli military. The list of the forum’s corporate members, meanwhile, features such individuals as Rami Guzman, a director of Africa Israel, a company involved in the construction of Israeli settlements, and Shalom Goldstein, a coordinator for the Jerusalem section of Israel’s wall in the West Bank. (Lest we forget, that wall was found to be unlawful by the International Court of Justice in 2004).

Among the other distinguished participants in the PIBF are Moshe Goan, a part-owner of Ahava, the company that produces “Dead Sea mud” cosmetics from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot, the bank that has provided financial support for the Har Homa settlement in East Jerusalem. Jacob Perry, chairman of Mizrahi Tefahot, was previously the chief of Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet. Evidently not content with having a reputation for authorizing torture of both child and adult detainees in the 1990s, he has applied fresh Palestinian blood to his hands in more recent years as chairman of Magal and as an advisor to Aeronautics, two makers of weapons used by Israel to murder and maim civilians.

The ghastly deeds of these men are at odds with the caring image that the PIBF projects. Its latest newsletter has a touching story about how it organized the first ever exhibition of Gazan flowers in Israel during April.

Eager to find out how the forum can justify this incongruity, I emailed and phoned Margit Vaarala, its secretary-general. Vaarala told me she was too busy to talk this week and couldn’t tell me when she would be available to comment. “I have just returned from vacation and have a lot of things to do,” she said.

So I called the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), an official government body that gave 19.5 million krona ($3 million) to the PIBF between January 2008 and December 2010. A SIDA spokeswoman explained to me that it has requested a new “conflict analysis and strategy” from the International Council of Swedish Industry, which oversees the PIBF’s activities.

Although the spokeswoman said that the agency wishes to see that analysis before deciding if it will release further funds, she contended that the PIBF had shown “good results” in helping to strengthen the private sector in Palestine.

This explanation chimes with the free market propaganda of the United States, the European Union and institutions they control such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. According to the narrative of these aid donors and their “technical experts”, everything will be fine if enough Israelis can be encouraged to do business with Palestinians.

Their collective worldview is so warped that they have no difficulty embracing arms dealers, torturers and other captains of industry hell-bent on dispossessing Palestinians. The truth is that these donors are not helping Palestine to prosper; they are enabling the banalization of evil.