Palestine — strengthening the movement

January 24, 2009

Along with the sheer brutality and horror inflicted on Palestinians, the massacre in Gaza has resulted in a serious political setback for Israel. Internationally, support for the Israeli apartheid state has been weakened and Hamas' legitimacy has skyrocketed.

In the space of three weeks, solidarity with Palestine grew rapidly and reached an unprecedented scale. An estimated one million marched in Turkey; some 150,000 marched in London — twice the size of the rally the week before; and demonstrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands occurred in country after country.

In Australia, massive protests denounced the Rudd government's support for Israel's atrocities, demanding that it cut ties with Israel.

On December 27, acting prime minister, Julia Gillard, defended Israel's military onslaught, blaming it on Hamas "aggression".

A week later, with hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead, Gillard was still talking about "Israel's right to defend itself".

Greens Senator Bob Brown waited seven days before finally taking a position against "the violent and disproportionate action by Israeli leaders". He quickly added, however, that the Greens "have consistently condemned violence from both sides", thus equating the violence of Israel's occupation with armed Palestinian resistance.

Australian solidarity

It was Palestinian activists and socialists that initiated emergency rallies around Australia. There was also an immediate response from the mosques.

Over the next few weeks Islamic and Arab communities in Australia displayed a new confidence to organise and speak out.

A new alliance developed and was the motor force for rapidly expanding solidarity organisations, such as the Gaza Defence Committee (GDC) in Sydney.

Progressive Jews, unionists, peace activists, Greens and Labor Party members, among others, further strengthened the committees; as did the enthusiasm and organising capacity of new activists, in many cases militant young women from Arabic backgrounds.

Together, we were able to build mass rallies where the platform of speakers reflected the breadth of the movement.

One feature of the mobilisations was an increased identification by a wing of the campaign with the national liberation movements fighting Israel.

Hamas and Hezbollah flags were present in large numbers at the demonstrations, together in some cases with pictures of Venezuela's socialist President, Hugo Chavez.

The political differences socialists have with Hamas and Hezbollah notwithstanding, an open identification with these forces and a rejection of groups collaborating with Israel, such as Mahmoud Abbas' Al Fatah, reflects an increased anti-Zionist militancy in the solidarity movement.

By contrast, the Labor Party, as an organised force, was almost completely absent from Palestine solidarity rallies and organising committees.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions took a soft Zionist position, putting an equals sign between "Israel's military actions" and "Hamas' rockets".

A minority of union leaders backed a call, initiated by Socialist Alliance, that demanded the Rudd Government denounce Israeli aggression and suspend all ties with the Israeli state.

Union and Greens contingents were either absent from the rallies or small in size, reflecting internal divisions within unions and the Greens over whether to support Palestine.

Where next?

Today, far more than at any other time, people are openly comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa. This puts added pressure on Israel's ruling elites and governments that collaborate with Israel.

We need to build on the work done in the past month and be in a stronger position to respond to any new Israeli onslaught. We must continue to expose the sham cease-fire and demand Israel's total withdrawal from Gaza and an end to the sea, land and air blockade that aims to starve the Palestinians into submission.

While the immediate focus has been on Israel's outrages in Gaza, we must recognise that there can be no lasting peace without justice for all Palestinians.

The boycott, divestment and sanction campaign gained traction internationally during the Gaza offensive. This could be an effective tool to isolate Israel, as it was with South African apartheid. The campaign needs to be taken up by the Australian trade union movement given its power to halt trade with Israel.

Similarly, the Bolivian government's initiative to try Israeli leaders for war crimes in the International Criminal Court represents another step towards bringing Israel to justice and requires international support.

The Rudd government's support for Israel must be continually challenged. Australia should follow the powerful example of Venezuela and Bolivia and cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

Hamas should be removed from the list of terrorist organisations. This would not only be a blow to Israel's campaign to delegitimise the Palestinian government, but also challenge the so-called "anti-terrorism" laws here in Australia.

This solidarity campaign is far from over. For the movement to strengthen, it will need to maintain the level of inclusiveness and unity that it has until now, notwithstanding some splits in some cities.

Differences inevitably arise in such broad committees, but these need to be framed around concrete proposals about how to move forward democratically.

Only by strengthening these fledging alliances can we ensure that this latest outpouring of solidarity contributes to a movement powerful enough to put an end to Israeli apartheid.

[Aaron Benedek and Fred Fuentes are activists in the Sydney-based Gaza Defence Committee and members of the Socialist Alliance.]

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