Palestine solidarity on trial in Australia

April 30, 2012

Australia's political establishment is using any and all possible means to intimidate and criminalize activists engaging in solidarity with Palestine.

ON MAY 1, 19 Melbourne activists will be put on trial for their political activity. In a precedent-setting case, these pro-Palestine activists will be fighting a variety of charges designed to criminalize dissent in Premier Ted Baillieu's state of Victoria and to intimidate supporters of Palestine in Australia.

On July 1, 2011, Victoria police attacked a peaceful demonstration in Melbourne's central business district. In one of the largest political arrests in a decade, 19 activists were detained during a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) action against the Max Brenner store. The chocolate shop is owned by Israeli conglomerate, the Strauss Group, a company that provides "care rations" for the Israeli military, including the Golani and the Givati brigades.

These were two of the key Israeli military brigades involved in Israel's brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians. In more recent times, the Golani brigade has been noted for its enforcement of Israeli colonization of Palestinian Hebron in the West Bank.

Palestine solidarity activists face off against police at a demonstration in Melbourne
Palestine solidarity activists face off against police at a demonstration in Melbourne

After a series of peaceful demonstrations against Max Brenner, the July 1 action was kettled by police, and then activists were individually targeted in an unprovoked attack. The police used pressure point tactics on some of the demonstrators; others reported bruising and rough treatment. One woman had her shoulder dislocated.

Damian Ridgwell, one of the arrested protesters, told Electronic Intifada about his experience:

I was dragged behind police lines. Once they grabbed me and started dragging me, I went limp and dropped to the ground...As I was being carried through the corridors of the loading dock, I lost consciousness because one of the police had me in a chokehold. I am not sure how long I was out, probably a few minutes. I woke up on the loading dock floor and heard the police saying I was "out."

The majority of those arrested were charged with trespass in a public place (yes, that is apparently a crime) and besetting (an archaic law that means "to surround a building"). A small number were also charged with behaving in a "riotous manner."

After attending another protest, four of these 19 protesters were again arrested (for breaking their bail conditions) in dawn raids on their homes. These anti-democratic conditions stipulated that activists may not return within 50 meters of Max Brenner stores in the Melbourne's downtown. Three were released from jail on a bail of $2,000 each. One of the more prominent campaigners, Vashti Kenway, was made to pay a $10,000 bail or face prison. All told, the activists are facing fines of around $30,000.

IN SUBSEQUENT weeks and months, a parade of politicians and apartheid-loving celebrities attempted to initiate a new fad: the "drink-in." This involved a small gathering of freedom-hating individuals (including but not limited to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, former newscaster Jana Wendt and federal Labor Party politician Michael Danby) in their local Max Brenner for a relaxed drink--just to show their support for Israel.

While the "drink-in" fad bombed, these establishment figures found support in ever more unsavory quarters: the organized fascist movement got on board.

The Australian Protection Party (APP), a neo-Nazi and Islamophobic group, as well as the Australian Defense League, a spin-off from the fascist English Defense League, held counter-demonstrations at the pro-Palestine protests in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

To get a flavor of the politics of these organizations, you only have to read a post by one prominent APP leader, the noxious racist Darrin Hodges, who said on the Nazi Stormfront site, "I'm more interested in the purer form of fascism...and while I don't subscribe to the whole 'worship Hitler' thing, his comments on multiculturalism and politics in general are still just as relevant today as they were 70-odd years ago."

In Brisbane, one of the pro-Israel mobilizations actually invited the fascists onto the platform to speak. They waved Israeli flags and chanted pro-Max Brenner slogans. These bedfellows of the mainstream right in Australia physically assaulted an Aboriginal speaker, Robbie Thorpe, at one of the demonstrations in Melbourne because he drew the comparison between the dispossession of the indigenous people of Palestine and the indigenous people of Australia.

The fact that neo-Nazis and Zionists came together is no accident. This is part of a global phenomenon. Support for Israel and the U.S. invariably leads down a pro-imperialist, racist path. The increasingly brutal actions of Israel against the Palestinians fit neatly with the hysterical anti-Muslim campaigns by the APP and the Anti-Defamation League.

The possible fines against the BDS activists and the aggressive manner of the Victorian government's pursuit of them reveal a further series of intersecting agendas.

The first is the hostility of the Australian establishment towards those who support Palestine. To get anywhere in mainstream Australian politics requires a display of unwavering support for Israel. It is bipartisan policy to back the apartheid state.

Because Israel is a key link in the U.S. chain of command across the Middle East, the Australian ruling class is a champion of the Israeli state. It is significant that, with the exception of a few individuals, the overwhelming consensus in parliament is to offer a hand of friendship to Israel.

This commitment is what accounts for the hysteria in the establishment press (particularly the Australian) after the Marrickville council attempted to boycott particular Israeli-owned goods and services last year.

The liberal press is hardly any better with Melbourne's Age recently jumping on the bandwagon with a slanderous piece attacking not only the German writer Gunter Grass for his mild critique of Israel's brutality, but also the Max Brenner protesters for their supposed "hostility to Jews." No mention of Israel's war crimes, or of the thousands of Jewish critics across the world who back Palestinian demands for freedom and justice.

The case against the Max Brenner 19 also highlights the behind-the-scenes collusion between the Victorian government, the police, the shopping center management (of QV and Melbourne Central) and the Australian Zionist establishment.

Vic Alhadeff, CEO of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, outlined the anti-BDS strategy, stating that it includes "but is not limited to, engagement with civil society and politicians, patronage of boycotted outlets, cooperation with police, shop owners and center managers and exposure of the motives behind the BDS movement." The strategy should be one that seeks to "speak softly" but to also carry "a suggestion of a big stick."

Furthermore, during a bail variation hearing at the Victorian Magistrate's Court on July 27, 2011, Victoria police confirmed that the decision to arrest the protesters had been made before the demonstration. This decision was made after meeting with Zionist organizations, the Victorian government, shopping center managements and the management of Max Brenner.

THIS KIND of collusion reflects an escalation of the attempt to criminalize BDS and pro-Palestine solidarity activism internationally. Currently in the U.S., France and Greece, hundreds of pro-Palestine activists are facing criminal charges for nonviolently standing up for Palestinian human rights.

The response to these demonstrations also reflects a broader social phenomenon: the growing militarization of the police force. New highly trained units have been established, such as the Special Operations Group and the Critical Incident Response team.

These forces are trained in increasingly hostile forms of crowd control such as kittling--the practice of herding protesters into protest pens. Such tactics have been utilized against other protests such as Occupy Melbourne. There are squads whose sole purpose is to "monitor" and "infiltrate" activist groups. One senior sergeant's court testimony suggested that police infiltrators had been sent to pro-Palestine solidarity meetings in order to monitor the activity of BDS activists.

These intersecting interests have found targets in the Max Brenner 19 and will be on display during the three-week trial.

There has been an outpouring of support from Australia and abroad. John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Jeff Sparrow and Antony Loewenstein are a few of those brave enough to voice their opposition to the trial.

First published at Socialist Alternative (Australia).

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