Local peace and human rights activists are taking action against Veolia Transport, the French multi-national running the Auckland passenger rail network, because of its activities in Israel’s occupied territories.
Outraged at Israel’s attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla off the coast of Gaza this week, activists are calling for Auckland councillors to follow the example of three councils in Ireland and cancel the contract of Veolia Transport Auckland.
The company is a division of the global corporation Veolia Environnement, which operates in 25 countries and has more than 65,000 employees.
Galway City Council and Sligo County Council cut their links with Veolia last year and May this year Dublin City Council passed a resolution to stop future contracts with Veolia due to concerns about a project the company is involved in Jerusalem.
Joe Carolan, campaigns co-ordinator for Unite Union, is angry about Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla this week and is calling on councils to cut ties with Veolia in Auckland.
“Dublin City Council cancelled the contract with Veolia, which will also operate the trams in the illegal settlements on the West Bank. It also runs the railway service here in Auckland and we’ll be asking local councillors to cancel the contract with it,” says Carolan.
Veolia is in a contract to build a light railway system in occupied territory in Israel, which activists say implicates it in Israel’s breach of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a number of other international laws.
For example, in 1980 the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 465, which called on Israel to dismantle existing settlements and to stop any new construction in occupied Palestinian territory.
Resolution 465 said the colonies are a “a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”.
In June last year, in a speech in Cairo, US president Barack Obama told Israel to stop building settlements on Palestinian land, and in March this year the so-called Middle-East Quartet, consisting of the United Nations, the US, the EU and Russia, demanded Israel halt new settlement construction.
However, Israel has continued to build settlements in occupied territory despite political opposition from around the world.
Veolia Auckland’s spokesperson Tessa Marjoram says the Jerusalem project – a light rail network being built in Jerusalem – was conceived in the wake of the 1994 Oslo Accords and was agreed as a “positive project by both Jewish and Palestinian groups”.
Marjoram says according to Veolia’s legal advice the project is not in breach of international law, but admits there is a case before a French court contesting this view.
“The project has become the subject of some controversy as a result of the complex and emotive politics inherent in the Middle-East and not due to any particular legitimate concerns about the project itself.
“It is a project designed to enhance movement and bring economic development to a region in need of it. It is intended to benefit all residents of the area and will not restrict its services according to religious background.
“We are not aware the issue is relevant to Auckland, though there could be a chance of small scale pro-Palestinian groups generating protests. The issue has never been raised by key stakeholders, including clients and potential clients, as an issue of concern to them.”
However, Joe Carolan does not agree with Marjoram that the Jerusalem railway system will be for everyone.
He says the Oslo Accords have broken down because “Israel has sabotaged them again and again”.
“Veolia is providing a transport system to the illegal West Bank settlements that are populated by racist right-wing Zionists who have stolen land from the Palestinians.
“Without that transport system those settlements would not be able to exist and those settlements are opposed by the international community, including Joe Biden, the US vice president.”
Carolan says there are also calls to boycott companies operating from the occupied West Bank and from Israel itself.
“One of those companies seen by a lot of Kiwis when they go shopping is a company called Seacrets which boasts its cosmetics are made from salts of the Dead Sea.
“We’ll be targeting this company to raise awareness amongst Kiwi consumers about boycotting products from Israel. This will be a very visible target to begin with.”
Patrick Holmes, the chief executive of Amnesty International NZ, says his organisation does not support a boycott of Israeli products because it never supports sanctions against civilians who are not directly involved in a conflict.
“We support a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on international law, in the interests of civilians on both sides. We have consistently called on both Palestinians and Israelis to refrain from violence.
“In terms of the blockade, Amnesty International is calling for Israel to immediately lift the blockade as it is a form of collective punishment in contravention of international law and primarily affects the most vulnerable among the population.”
Veteran activist John Minto, who led the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, sees the situation in Israel as very similar to apartheid South Africa and says boycotts can be effective in bringing change.
“In the same way we campaigned in New Zealand to isolate South Africa, we need to isolate Israel. That’s the most effective way we’ll bring pressure for change. It’s happening now and it’s certainly been gathering momentum.”
Minto believes Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 and its 22 days of bombing Gaza in 2008, along with attack on the Freedom Flotilla this week, is gradually changing public opinion towards Israel.
“With those three events the world can see who the aggressor is and where the problem is. In the past people had rose coloured spectacles when it came to looking at Israel but now people can see Israel is not the victim here, but the cause of the problem.”