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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 8:07 am

Labor in Palestine: The Work of Resistance Gets a New Push

BY Michelle Chen

Members of the Palestinian Popular Committee hold a protest calling for the boycott of Israeli settlement goods sold in Palestinian areas, on September 24, 2010, in Maasarah, near Bethlehem.   (MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)

There are a few values that trade unionists generally agree on: the power of collective action, basic economic security, fair job opportunities. Things get messy when those bread-and-butter issues clash with one of the most vicious and bitter political conflicts in modern history. The intersection of the labor movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict adds a twist to the expansive, convoluted battle for land, sovereignty and justice in the Middle East.

Left and progressive views get filtered through a curious prism when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Nationalist and revolutionary impulses on both sides have yielded rival versions of history; fractured memories of Palestinian displacement and trauma fulminate on one side of the wall, against Israel's ideological fervor and a fierce sense of entitlement. Civil society, labor included, have been militarized on both sides, with some groups calling for massive resistance and others for formal cooperation.

Today, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign (BDS) has emerged as a global nonviolent front to combat Israeli occupation; the economic agenda of the movement has foregrounded labor's stance.

The BDS campaign has gathered international momentum among labor advocates, spurred through solidarity campaigns by unions and civil society groups. Global organizing efforts culminated earlier this month with the release of a manifesto of the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS.

Following the Palestinian trade union conference on BDS last month, the “Statement of Principles & Call for International Trade Union Support for BDS” cited myriad injustices suffered by Palestinians in recent years, including systematic discrimination; the alleged confiscation of Palestinian workers' wages; “Maintaining active commercial interests in Israel's illegal settlement enterprise”; and perhaps most of all, the militarized devastation of the occupied territories, whether through outright  attack (as with the 2008-2009 War on Gaza ), or gradual socioeconomic strangulation through enforced isolation.

Some recommended direct actions include:

Boycotting Israeli and international companies (such as Elbit, Agrexco, Veolia, Alstom, Caterpillar, Northrop Grumman, etc.) and institutions that are complicit with Israel’s occupation and violations of international law,...

pressuring governments to suspend Free Trade Agreements, end arms trade and military relations with Israel with the intention of eventually cutting all diplomatic ties with it...

Calls on port workers around the world to boycott loading/offloading Israeli ships, similar to the heroic step taken by port workers around the world in suspending maritime trade with South Africa in protest against the apartheid regime, and

Calls on trade unions around the world to review and sever all ties with the [Israeli trade union] Histadrut.

Palestinian labor was one of many civil society forces galvanized by the massacre on the Freedom Flotilla, the activist mission that Israeli forces attacked about a year ago. Joining a worldwide outcry, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions indicted Histadrut as an accomplice the military aggression, and “reacted with shock at the irresponsible stand taken by General Federation of  Labour in Israel, Histadrut, regarding to the Israeli Forces brutal attacks on civilians, including trade unionists, on [the] freedom flotilla.”

Drawing a battle line across labor, the statement pulled back from an incremental rapprochement during the preceding months. The International Trade Union Confederation helped broker a framework for Israeli-Palestinian labor unity that included, at least in theory, settling financial disputes and ensuring more equitable treatment of Palestinian workers.

But the conciliatory statements failed to remedy the endemic inequality of the social structure under occupation. The assault on Gaza and the flotilla attack  underscored Palestinian grievances and seemed to prove, despite well-intentioned efforts by the ITUC, the hopelessness of formal reconciliation.

Histadrut's statement on the Gaza conflict displayed an almost eerie disconnect between the sanitized rhetoric of solidarity and the reality of political strife:

We strongly believe that it is a matter of Israeli and Palestinian self interest to have satisfied and relaxed citizens who will not be attracted to extremism or terrorism.

The Histadrut does not want to deal with the political bones of contention in the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is clear to us that the conflict between the two sides is a zero sum game. We believe that the trade unions in our region are the real grassroots representatives an, as such, we have the power to change the atmosphere and to create a stronger mutual understanding. Our role is to protect workers' rights, regardless of differences in religion, race and sex.

The statement might seem more plausible were it not for Histadrut's deep historical ties to the Zionist movement from its earliest days, and the role of labor Zionism in popularizing and solidifying the ideology of a Jewish state. The intertwining of socialism, labor and Zionism today remains a pillar of Israel's founding narrative.

As the Arab Spring has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, pro-Palestinian activism has taken on a new valence around the world, soon to be tested in the contentious push for unified Palestinian statehood. Palestine stands no longer as a mere symbol of oppression in the Middle East but as a crucible of structural change.

Recently in Al Jazeera, the words of Khaled Entabwe, a Palestinian-Israeli youth activist with Baladna, the Association for Arab Youth, captured the hope and anxiety of the current moment:

Our new modes of organising include a direct challenge to entrenched institutional power. We do not want to just memorialise the past, but also to demand a new future.

While the Palestinian plight has long served as kindling for activism throughout the Arab world, the power of secular pro-democracy movements throughout the region now reverberate in Palestine as a validation of grassroots resistance.

If that feedback loop can be harnessed to reinvigorate the idea of Palestinian liberation, then we might finally see the ends and the means match up in the struggle to defeat imperialism, violence and dictatorship. Peaceful resistance without compromise is harder than waging war—and it's a good job for a strong labor movement.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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