Hanaa Shalabi (R) spent 43 days on hunger strike after being arrested and held without charge Source: Getty Images
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A third intifada? Mehdi Hasan on the hunger strikers in Palestine

Expect violence and chaos if the Palestinian hunger strikers perish.

In her excellent report today on the 2,000 or so Palestinian hunger strikers, the Guardian's Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood quotes Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas telling Reuters:

If anyone dies … it would be a disaster and no one could control the situation.

She also quotes Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, telling a solidarity rally in Jaffa:

If one of the striking prisoners dies, a third intifada [uprising] will break out.

A third intifada? Is that what the world wants to see? If not, why on earth has so little attention been paid to the plight of these prisoners in "administrative detention"? Why has so little pressure been brought to bear on the Israeli government?

In a provocative and passionate column today, the Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes:

The moralistic Chief Rabbi will not be on "Thought for the Day" expressing sorrow for the treatment of these prisoners. Ardent British Zionists will not be pressed to condemn those responsible for the state barbarism. You certainly won't get a big TV hit like Homeland, (based on Hatufim, an Israeli TV series that fictionalised the capture by Palestinian militants of the IDF soldier Gilad Shalit) being made about these men. Come on, you cool, edgy TV chaps, how about a film about a handsome Palestinian held by the Israelis till he loses his mind? Do I hear a choral "No"?

Western opinion formers have been indifferent, in some cases knowingly so, about what is happening. No condemnations are heard around our Parliament. They say we must have freedom of speech, but that right is never evoked when it comes to Israel.

Perhaps it is our own morally questionable behaviour that is holding us back in relation to Israel's behaviour. As I noted in a column that I wrote on the plight of Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, the detained father-of-two who ended his remarkable 66-day hunger strike on 21 February as doctors warned he was "in immediate danger of death":

As is so often the case, international law is not on the side of the Israelis. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - to which the State of Israel is a signatory - makes clear that no person should be "subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention". The ICCPR allows for governments, in narrow and extreme circumstances, to derogate from this obligation temporarily, yet, as Litvin notes, "Israel uses it on a regular basis".

In fact, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has condemned Israel's use of long-term administrative detention - in particular, those cases, like Adnan's, in which detainees are held without trial merely for belonging to an "illegal organisation".

Here in the west, however, we have abandoned any moral high ground we may have occupied. The last Labour government inter­ned terror suspects without trial in Belmarsh between 2001 and 2004; the current coalition government's Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures allow for indefinite house arrest without charge. In the US, President Obama has signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act, which permits the indefinite detention in military custody of terror suspects. Habeas corpus has been consigned to the history books.

You can read the full column here.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation