26/11/2012 07:44 GMT | Updated 23/01/2013 05:12 GMT

The Trouble With Veolia and Palestine

A ceasefire has been reached in Israel-Palestine and people can again, for now, sleep peacefully. With the tragedy of 160 dead in Gaza and five dead in Israel, things are settling back into calmed tension. However, in the UK, a lesser known controversy is brewing closer to home.

The North London Waste Authority will, on 6 December, decide on whether to award £4.7billion worth of contracts to Veolia Environment Services to take care of waste and cleaning in seven boroughs. Veolia currently already operates in 14 London Borough providing services such as street cleansing and recycling. Their Reuse and Recycling centre is located just off the Old Kent Road in Southwark.

They are also very active in Palestine - they run a number of services in the lands illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day war.

According to Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on Palestine and the Occupied Territories:

"Veolia has a 5 per cent share in the CityPass consortium, through its subsidiary Connex Israel, which was contracted by Israel to operate the light rail project in Jerusalem. The light rail is designed to connect the city of Jerusalem with Israel's illegal settlements. Veolia owns approximately 80 per cent of Connex Jerusalem, the company that operates the trains. Furthermore, through its subsidiary company, the Israeli Veolia group, Veolia owns and operates the Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley of the occupied Palestinian territory. The Tovlan landfill is used to dump Israeli waste from both within Israel and Israeli settlements. Veolia furthermore operates buses linking Modi'in and Jerusalem via road 443 and thereby servicing the Israeli settlements of Giv'at Ze'ev and Mevo Horon. All these activities directly contribute to flagrant violations of international law."

He put his case quite firmly:

"I am writing to you in my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 to urge you not to select Veolia for public contracts due to its active involvement in Israel's grave violations of international law."

The group No2VAG has been active in trying to raise awareness of the issue and have been petitioning North London councillors to drop the bid. "Effectively it would mean that my taxes would pay for a company which is complicit with violation of international law" says Yael Kahn, an Israeli living in North London who leads No2VAG, "I find it absolutely outrageous, so I took it upon myself to do everything in my capacity to block this company. In particular as an Israeli I have been visiting a lot the West Bank and Gaza Strip before I left Israel and I have a lot of Palestinian friends there and I find it absolutely outrageous." She said that her Palestinian friends have expressed their disgust at the bid. "I spoke with Palestinians from Gaza today and they find it absolutely outrageous that while they are being bombed by Israel that North London would give a company which is complicit with Israeli crimes such a huge contract." Her campaign plans to target various North London councils until 6 December decision on the bid. "I would not sleep at night if Veolia is getting this contract."

Their campaign has already provoked some hostility from councillors, in particular Brian Coleman, a Barnet councillor. Coleman, a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, was censured after responding to a critic of the Veolia bid with: "I will continue to ignore this campaign from you and other anti-Zionists. In my book anti-Zionism is just a modern form of anti-semitism. I suppose 70 years ago you would have been in the Blackshirts".

I contacted the NLWA to try and get their side of the story but they informed me that to talk about the issues surrounding the bid might "leave ourselves open to legal challenges" by the companies involved and that it was a case of being "between a rock and a hard place". They sent me this statement:

"Issues around the West Bank / Israel are ones that cause very strong feelings. There has been much said and communicated to the authority in letters and representations regarding this issue. The legal position is however very clear and these are not issues that the NLWA can or will in any way take into account. Rather in undertaking this procurement the authority will do so in accordance with procurement legislation and ensure that a fair and proper competition is run with the winner being the bidder who will offer the best overall package for the benefit of north London residents."

We'll have to wait and see then.

Veolia themselves told me:

"Veolia Environnement has a presence in Israel through its operating local subsidiaries owned by Veolia Israel. In relation to the Occupied Territories, there are no current plans to undertake any further activities or to service the Israeli settlements situated there."

I followed up on this, speaking to the London spokesman from Veolia. He informed me:

"The Tovlan landfill was sold by Veolia Israel in the summer of 2011. For a short tail off period Veolia is advising the new owner on Environmental Protection Standards to facilitate the permit transfer to the new owner, Masua and to assist in the smooth transfer."

The new owner, Masua, is an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, declared illegal by international law.

He disputed discriminatory employment practices on the Jerusalem Light Railway; it has been suggested that the railway only employs those who have completed their military service in Israel, which automatically would exclude both Arabs and Orthodox Jews neither of whom undertake military service. The website for the railway does in fact state that Arabs or Orthodox Jews may have undertaken "civil service obligations". This would still exclude Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and, according to a 2010 job advert, it is also required that Hebrew be spoken at "mother tongue level" which some may perceive as discriminatory towards Arabs and other ethnic minorities in Israel.

The Israel-Palestine conflict touches a nerve internationally more than any other conflict. Rarely does it seem to feel like just a lot of foreigners killing each other in some far-off exotic land, it feels like it hits home more directly. The controversy surrounding Veolia exemplifies this - the opponents of Israel's occupation of the West Bank see opposing contracts with Veolia as an opportunity to give their objections an immediate voice with an immediate effect.