The Spanish government is paying for 40 activists from Spain to travel to Israel in August to help rebuild two Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem that the Israeli government deemed illegal and tore down in 2008. The volunteers will be working with a left-wing non-governmental organization called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
The Jerusalem-based ICAHD, which is holding its seventh annual summer “rebuilding camp” from August 2-15, signed up 80 activists this year, 60 of whom are from abroad. Of those, 40 are from Spain. The Spanish government is providing full sponsorship for the activists to participate in the camp.
The money is coming from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), which is part of the Spanish Foreign Ministry. During 2009, AECID has allocated approximately €80,000 ($110,000) to support ICAHD’s activities.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry says it is “very strange” that the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would “finance political activities” in another country, especially one with a democratically elected government like Israel.
But what seems equally strange is that Zapatero would be rebuilding illegal homes in Israel while he himself has been on a demolition spree all across Spain.
The Zapatero government recently unveiled a €5 billion plan to demolish thousands of illegally built coastal homes and hotels. The Spanish Environment Ministry says it wants to protect Mediterranean and Canary Island shorelines. By some estimates, there could be as many as 100,000 houses in Spain that have been built illegally. Homes built illegally after the 1980s, when laws to protect the coast came into force, face demolition with no compensation.
Consider the case of Len and Helen Prior, a British retired couple, who were singled out as the first victims of Zapatero’s demolition derby. Their home in southern Spain was demolished as illegal in January 2008, although it was subsequently discovered that they actually did have a valid building permit. The couple is currently sleeping in their garage with no electricity or running water while their case works its way through Spain’s languid court system. But the Zapatero government has not taken any interest in their case, perhaps because there are no political points to be scored for helping them.
In any case, Spanish house demolitions have not been limited to the coastal regions. In Madrid, the Orwellian-sounding Urban Discipline Service has been busy tearing down hundreds of illegal homes belonging mainly to Gypsies and Moroccan immigrants. The Madrid municipality is presumably using criteria similar to those used by the Jerusalem municipality for tearing down illegal structures.
Of course, Spaniards would be outraged if the Israeli government dispatched activists to rebuild the six dwellings in the Madrid district of Las Mimbreras that were deemed illegal and torn down in July 2009. Or the dozens of illegal homes that have been torn down in the La Cañada Real district of Madrid during the last two years. Or the homes of 236 families that were levelled in the El Salobral district of Madrid in December 2007 in order to build an industrial area.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman recently highlighted the duplicity underpinning Spain’s support for ICAHD. “Europe believes in peace and reconciliation, in a two-state solution with a non-violent path to that solution. It would indeed be strange if European money were going to an NGO headed by an individual who both rejects a two-state solution, and who justifies terrorism,” said Mark Regev. He was referring to Jeff Halper, the veteran left-wing activist who runs ICAHD.
But ICAHD is just one of several political activist groups that Spain is financing through its development budget. For 2009, AECID has allocated €80,000 for Breaking the Silence, €100,000 for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and €70,000 for Rabbis for Human Rights.
All of these groups have been highly critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and thus appear to have qualified as proxies for the Spanish government’s long-running political and ideological confrontation with Israel.
Since coming to power in 2004, Zapatero has repeatedly made headlines for his fixation with the Palestinian “resistance,” even while his foreign minister has tried to maintain the fiction that Spain is uniquely qualified to be an impartial mediator in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, bilateral ties have sunk so low that Israel now has better relations with Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, or Morocco than it does with Spain.
The anti-Israel rhetoric in Spain has become so pronounced in recent years that lately even newspapers traditionally favorable to Israel have been switching sides. In August, the center-right ABC newspaper published a “moral equivalency” article titled “Iran and Israel: Obama’s ticking timebomb.” Quoting anonymous sources, the article gives readers the impression that Israel is somehow more dangerous than Iran.
And in July, the center-right El Mundo refused to publish a letter submitted by the Israeli ambassador to Spain, who was attempting to refute a string of inaccuracies in a story the newspaper published about Israel.
Meanwhile, Israel seems to have concluded that exerting diplomatic pressure on Spain is the most effective way to push back against Zapatero’s pro-Palestinian political agenda. In late July, Israel formally asked Spain to stop its funding of the NGO Breaking the Silence, which also receives monies from the European Union, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.
Although Israel recently persuaded Spain to abandon its lawsuit against former Israeli officials linked to an air attack in Gaza that killed a top Hamas militant in 2002 (which was brought by another European-funded NGO, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights), it is unlikely that Zapatero will stop funding political activities in Israel anytime soon, mainly because bashing Israel (and Jews) is highly popular with Spanish voters.
Indeed, with the Spanish economy in recession and the unemployment rate forecast to reach 20 percent in 2010, rebuilding Palestinian homes seems to be one thing that makes Spaniards feel good about themselves.