Reflections on the APHEDA Middle East study tour


Her long red nails jabbed and waved in the air like a conductor dramatically tracing an absurdist symphony of propaganda, cajoling, and threats.

Avital Shapira-Shabirow, the Director of the International Department of the Israeli right wing union federation, the Histadrut in Tel Aviv, must have been under orders to convince our Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA — the overseas humanitarian aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions — delegation to drop support for the global, non-violent boycott, divestment and sanction campaign (BDS) against Israel. She insisted that BDS violated the solidarity of unions and, wait for it, that the Palestinians were its ultimate victims.

Caught between BDS and the Arab revolutions, Israel’s Histadrut mouthpiece shrieked the fear of global isolation — “Everyone in the world is against us” and whined that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas would never recognise Israel’s existence typically overlooking Hamas Leader Aziz Dwaik’s statement that Hamas had accepted Israel's right to exist and would be prepared to nullify its 20-year-old charter and Mashaal and Haniyeh had voiced support for an independent Palestinian state within the pre-1967 boundaries.

Questioned about a one-state solution, Shapira-Shabirow said she would prefer to leave Israel to be a minority in a foreign country, rather than lose the Jewish majority. She emphatically demanded a Jewish majority adding in this regard she was proud to be racist! The case for BDS rests.

It’s little wonder that the Histadrut is itself a target for boycott. On April 29, The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) stated: “It's clear, overwhelmingly, that the Histadrut has failed consistently to criticise the illegal occupation, the erection of the apartheid wall, the siege of Gaza, the attack on the humanitarian flotilla and countless other transgressions ... In the General Council's view this position is inconsistent with the duty of trade unions to support human rights and exhibit global solidarity.

Furthermore, the stance adopted by the Histadrut has the effect of normalising the illegal occupation and other serious transgressions committed by the Israelis."

This stand and support for BDS was commended by the Palestinian trade union movement, which urged the STUC to break with the Histadrut.

Also, South Africa’s national trade union centre, COSATU, issued a May Day statement on the BDS campaign: “We support and will further the position that as long as the Israeli trade union federation, Histadrut, does not clearly stand up against Israeli apartheid and occupation, it cannot be exempt from the call to boycott Israel and its institutions.”

One member of our group conducted a personal boycott refusing to attend the Histadrut meeting. However, I found it invaluable, as it was the only opportunity we had on the tour to experience a typical right-wing Israeli view. By contrast we had dinner in Jerusalem with the genial and reasonable Israeli dissident Jeff Halper who is the co-founder and director of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Halper considers the September push in the UN for an independent state of Palestine as a momentous event. While he favours the one-state scenario, he was upbeat on a two state solution making the point that with sovereignty the settlements will have to be evacuated as its inhabitants would be ‘invaders’ under international law.

That evening Jeff signed for us copies of his book An Israeli in Palestine in which he comprehensively explains the Zionist mindset of exclusivity and “security framing” which maintains the occupation.

In it he also puts forward the rationale for BDS: “BDS is a campaign that calls for accountability. A country threatened by sanctions stands in violation of the very principles underlying the international community as articulated in human rights covenants, international humanitarian law and UN resolutions.... It is invoked when injustice and suffering have become so routinized, so institutionalized, so pervasive, so resistant to normal international diplomacy or pressures, that their very continuation compromises the very validity of the international system and the moral standing of its members, countries, corporations and citizens alike. The very basis of a call for sanctions is that the targeted country has the ability to end the intolerable situation.”

Of the whole APHEDA tour, it was the Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut that had the most impact on me.

While life under occupation is very difficult, Palestinians in the West Bank can lift their faces to the blue sky, to the sun and see blue, white, yellow, red wild flowers and tiny pale pink cyclamens among the rocks, smell the barrage of scented flowers from orange and lemon orchards, sit under an olive tree watching goats and sheep graze on the hillsides albeit espied by endemic and hostile illegal colonies.

Palestine is a beautiful land and it's easy to understand the profound connection with it, and with the right to live there. However, the Bourj refugees are not only deprived of their legal right of return, they are deprived of the sky glimpsed through a dangerous miasmic network of electricity cables crisscrossing narrow lanes and four-storey dwellings riddled by bullets. In this two-km square treeless, grassless ghetto, live 20,000 refugees from the 1947 Nakba (catastrophe). The stress of overcrowding, unemployment, and statelessness drives vicious cycles of depression, domestic violence, illness and hopelessness.

Yet in this gloomy forsaken place, there is a light of hope shone by the dedicated staff of the Women’s Humanitarian Organisation, supported by APHEDA, which runs programs for pre-schoolers, the elderly, youth and women’s health.

Other eye-openers included the debasing Israeli armed checkpoints, the leviathan apartheid wall dividing Palestinian villages and families, Israeli only roads, the threatened evictions in Sheik Jarrah, meeting the Hamas asylum seekers in the Red Cross headquarters, the settler militias in Hebron toting M16s, Israeli soldiers patrolling the Old City, the cabinet filled with bullet casings and tear gas canisters (compliments of Ariel Sharon) in the Al Aqsa mosque, defaced Muslim tombstones, memorials upon memorials to martyrs lining Nablus streets and the model of the Third Temple designed to replace the Dome on the Rock blatantly displayed in the Jerusalem tunnels.

We didn’t get to see the forests in the Negev named after former Australian Prime Ministers Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[Vacy Vlazna is the coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. Visit: For more information on the Women’s Humanitarian Organisation visit: .]

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