Surrealism was once the preserve of painters in Belgium. Today, even the country’s diplomats appear to have mastered it.
For there is something surreal about how they are promoting the cartoon character Spirou as a human rights advocate, while refusing to stand up for a real-life Belgian artist whose human rights have been denied.
Mustapha Awad – an exponent of dabke, the traditional Palestinian dance – was arrested by the Israeli authorities in July. Awad is a Palestinian with Belgian citizenship. Yet the government in Brussels has been mostly silent about his continuing detention.
The silence was eventually broken last week. Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister, tweeted that consular assistance was being provided to Awad and that Israel had been asked for clarification about the charges against him.
Reynders’ tweets were inexcusably timid.
Israel’s allegation that Awad belonged to a “terrorist” organization has been emphatically rejected by his legal team. The Israeli authorities have not presented any credible evidence – as Reynders has acknowledged – against Awad.
Mustapha Awad is a Palestinian who had never previously been to Palestine. Aged 36, he was born in Ein al-Hilweh, a refugee camp in Lebanon; Belgium recognized his refugee status when he was 20. Israel arrested him this summer as he tried to enter the occupied West Bank via Jordan.
If Belgium takes its duty to protect all its citizens seriously, the government must demand Awad’s immediate and unconditional release.
The inference in Reynders’ tweets that Belgium is doing all it can does not hold up to scrutiny. It took almost three weeks until a Belgian diplomat went to see Awad in jail.
Awad has been prevented from making contact with family or friends. According to his lawyers, Awad has has been ill-treated, particularly through being deprived of sleep.
Reynders acted more swiftly when another Belgian citizen, Amaya Coppens, was detained in Nicaragua last month. She, too, was accused of terrorism.
Although he waited two-and-a-half months until making any public comment about Awad’s case, Reynders voiced his unease about Coppens’ situation within two days of her arrest. He made a point of discussing the matter with Nicaraguan representatives while visiting New York for the UN General Assembly.
Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, was photographed shaking hands with Benjamin Netanyahu, his Israeli counterpart, during that gathering. There was no indication that Michel availed of the opportunity to push for Awad’s freedom.
Why is the Belgian government behaving so differently in these two cases?
Under Daniel Ortega’s presidency, Nicaragua has a strained relationship with the West. There is no major political or economic cost for Belgium to having a row with the left-wing administration in Managua.
By contrast, Belgium boasts of its cordial relations with Israel. Sometimes, Belgian diplomats go so far as praising musicians from their country who bring a “great vibe” when they play Tel Aviv. Such inane praise overlooks how those musicians have refused to heed the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel.
Belgium and Israel are significant commercial partners. Both Antwerp – Belgium’s second city – and Tel Aviv are important players in the global diamond trade, with extensive interaction between the two.
More than 40 percent of all Israeli goods imported to Belgium in 2017 were categorized as precious metals and stones.
The Belgian military is also a customer of Israeli weapons firm Elbit Systems.
Last year, Belgium briefly indicated that it may be willing to behave with a little less deference towards Israel. It took the lead among a group of EU countries in protesting the destruction caused by Israel to aid projects they had funded in the occupied West Bank.
The protest floundered – because Belgium did not accompany it with the threat of sanctions or a lawsuit. Predictably, Israel has kept on vandalizing Palestinian schools financed by the European taxpayer.
That was a vicious assault on the right to education. Yet rather than challenging Israel’s aggression, Belgium has been punishing Palestinians.
Belgium announced in September that it had cut off funding for schools administered by the Palestinian Authority. By doing so, Belgium capitulated to pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists objecting that one school bore the name of a Palestinian resistance fighter.
Israel habitually names streets and institutions after war criminals, and continues to openly celebrate the terrorists who bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946. That embrace of violence has never been an obstacle to Belgian support for the Israeli state.
As Belgium has a multicultural society, it should be proud of people like Mustapha Awad. He has led the Ra’jeen dabke troupe with great enthusiasm. I recall how he smiled radiantly at the end of a rousing performance by the group at a Brussels university earlier this year.
The refusal of Didier Reynders to demand Awad’s release smacks of double standards and, very possibly, racism.
Belgium’s foreign ministry is following a script that resembles George Orwell’s Animal Farm. All citizens are equal but some are more equal than others.