Zionists try to counteract campaign to isolate Israel

By Kathy Newnam

A significant victory in the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel was registered on June 8. It was reported in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper that the French-owned Veolia company plans to abandon its involvement in the light rail project being built to connect Jerusalem to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

This project had made Veolia a target of the campaign internationally — contributing to Veolia’s loss of contracts worth more than US$7.5 billion since the BDS campaign escalated in the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza in January. The pressure will be kept up, because Veolia continues to profit from the occupation of Palestine — including running a waste dump in the West Bank for waste from Israel and the illegal settlements.

Gillard’s trip to Israel

As the BDS campaign continues to gather momentum, there are increasing efforts to counter it by supporters of Israel. British foreign secretary David Miliband released a statement on June 23 expressing “dismay that motions calling for boycotts of Israel are being discussed by trade union congresses and conferences”. In late June, Australian Deputy PM Julia Gillard led a delegation to Israel to attend the inaugural “Australia Israel Leadership Forum”. Australian trade and diplomatic missions to Israel are nothing new, but this high profile trip was clearly timed to counter the growing calls for a boycott of Israel. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the Australian, who was part of Gillard’s delegation, condemned the BDS campaign in his June 25 column, giving glowing praise to Gillard for attending the forum despite calls from the Palestine solidarity movement for the trip to be cancelled.

Gillard’s trip was also about trying to undo the impact that the Gaza war had on the popular view of Israel in Australia. This impact was reflected in a recent poll commissioned by the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine (CJPP). The Roy Morgan poll thought that 42% of people thought Israel’s actions were “not justified” while only 29% found them “justified”. According to CJPP convener Peter Manning, this showed that Gillard “was well out of step with public opinion when she expressed sympathy for the few Israelis who died from rocket attacks rather than the 1400 Palestinians being slaughtered by Israeli gunfire on schools, hospitals and residential buildings”.

Sheridan was sycophantic in his praise for Gillard, writing: “She delivered a remarkably gracious address to the gala dinner in Jerusalem’s majestic King David Hotel, kicking the forum off. Without any ambiguity, Gillard celebrated Australia’s friendship with Israel. She drew attention, with pride, to Australia’s long military involvement in the Middle East.” Gillard celebrated this history of imperialist military intervention — a history stained with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people. The Australian ruling class and both the major capitalist political parties have stood side by side with the major imperialist powers in their decades-long struggle to dominate the region. It is this that underlies their ongoing support for the Zionist state, which is aptly described as the “US watchdog” in the Middle East.

Laborite support for Zionist state

Both Australia and Israel were founded as colonial-settler states. Support for Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine is ideologically consistent with support for the ongoing dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous people. The Australian Labor Party has played an especially important role in supporting Israel, starting with the Chifley government, which was one of the first governments to recognise the Zionist state in 1948. ALP representatives in the labour movement have fought consistently, though not always successfully, against unions extending solidarity to Palestinians. The latest example is the initiative of Paul Howes, Australian Workers Union national secretary and ACTU vice-president, to establish “Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine” (TULIP) — formed explicitly to counter the BDS campaign.

Howes and his collaborators Michael Leahy, secretary of Community, a British union covering the clothing, textiles, footwear, steel and betting industries as well as workers with disabilities, and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the US Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, have launched TULIP as an international organisation. On May 23 the Australian reported that their “international launch” would “not be remembered so well. Only two reporters rolled up, so plans for speeches and a formal press conference had to be dropped.”

In a statement in the Australian two days earlier, the TULIP founders said, “We believe in engaging with workers and their unions in Israel and Palestine, promoting co-operation and reconciliation”. When a people are being oppressed, such calls for “reconciliation” are nothing but mealy-mouthed cover for support to the oppressor. The TULIP statement lauds what it claims are “outstanding examples of co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian unions”. It makes no mention of the fact that the Palestinian unions signed on to the BDS call that launched the campaign in 2005 (with the support of more than 170 Palestinian organisations). It also does not mention that the Israeli “trade unions” played a central role in the establishment of the Zionist state and in the oppression and exploitation of Palestinian workers, or that they supported the Gaza war.

The TULIP statement pointed to an “initiative launched by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) to make life much easier for Palestinian drivers”. It called the initiative “a small but ground-breaking union agreement encouraging dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli national trade union centres, as well as individual unions and their members on both sides of the divide. This agreement will help improve the livelihoods of hard-working union truckers and their families.” This agreement was between the Israeli Transport Workers’ Union-Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Transport Workers. A report on the ITF website about the meeting that struck the agreement noted: “The Palestinians described their working lives as drivers, overwhelmingly dominated by the difficulties they face from over 500 military checkpoints and barriers which divide communities from each other”.

Checkpoints

The agreement did not mention that these checkpoints are illegal under international law, deliberately designed to restrict the movement of Palestinians. The “difficulties” created by the checkpoints include the fact that to get from Ramallah to Hebron can take up to 10 hours when it should take just under two, or that the trip from Ramallah to Jenin, which should take two hours, can take up to six (figures from International Checkpoint Watch). This does not include checkpoint closures, which are frequent and completely arbitrary, making it impossible to pass.

Another example of the “difficulties” caused by the checkpoints is the following story told in a report by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights. On August 1, 2006, “Mater Khamaiseh was on his way back to Jenin from the vegetable market in Beita, a village south of Nablus. He knew that the army did not allow Jenin residents to cross the ’Anabta checkpoint, which is situated east of Tulkarm, so he bypassed the checkpoint. As he was driving, an army jeep with four soldiers inside stopped him. The soldiers removed him from the truck and led him to a nearby olive grove, where one of the soldiers fired a long volley of bullets over his head for no reason at all. Then the soldiers beat him all over his body, punching him and hitting him with their rifle butts, and kicking him.”

The “ground-breaking union agreement” lauded by TULIP agreed only that “the Histadrut Transport Workers’ Union will approach the Israeli security forces and request that they assign a representative to participate in the committee when security issues, including checkpoints and barriers, are under discussion” and “that the Palestinian Transport Workers’ Union will develop fast response mechanisms, such as a telephone hotline for transport workers facing urgent problems. The Palestinians will handle relevant problems in coordination with the Israeli Union.”

Leaving aside the bizarre assumption that a representative of the Israeli Defence Force on a committee would make one iota of difference, the ITF report also states that Histadrut “pledged its commitment to provide positive help where it can without compromising security”. But it is under the guise of “security” that the IDF prevents ambulances and women in labour from crossing checkpoints. According to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, in the two years 2000-2002 there were 69 recorded deaths of Palestinians waiting at Israeli checkpoints, the majority of whom were stopped on their way to hospital. If women in labour are a “security” risk in the view of the Zionists, it’s a safe assumption that the same excuse would be used for truck drivers.

The May 23 Australian implied that Howes initiated TULIP to build “his political profile”. But this misses the point. According to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce website, Howes will lead a “timely trade mission” to Israel in September. Not only is he aiding the Zionist state within the Australian labour movement, but he will also do the bidding of the Australian ruling class in securing trade deals with Israel. TULIP is entirely consistent with the Zionist politics of the ALP.

The Zionists have taken their campaign into the labour movement because they know the threat posed by the growing support within unions for BDS. The TULIP website itself states that the BDS movement “has already won considerable support from trade unions in South Africa, Ireland, Britain and Norway. It seems unstoppable.” Israel is already suffering the effects of consumer boycotts. If the growing union support was turned into action, like the South African dock workers’ refusal in February to unload a ship of Israeli goods, then the campaign would start to have a serious impact on Israel. Furthermore, unions can play an essential role in educating and mobilising workers to support sanctions.

This is also why building support within the unions needs to be a priority for the BDS movement. This campaign won’t be starting from scratch; many unions have longstanding positions in support of self-determination for the Palestinians — a product of many years of education and solidarity actions. The stepped-up Zionist activity highlights the importance of continuing such work.

The likes of Howes have to couch their support for Israel in hollow rhetoric about workers’ solidarity because they do not have the truth on their side. Workers’ solidarity means siding with the oppressed. This can be served only by siding unequivocally with the struggle of the Palestinian people, because Israel is the oppressor. The BDS campaign gives the international solidarity movement a powerful weapon.