Responding to the call to protest apartheid

March 17, 2009

An action by South African dockworkers is one of the most important in the growing international solidarity movement against Israeli apartheid, writes Mike Marqusee.

SOMETHING SPECIAL took place in Durban last month when dockworkers, members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), refused to unload a ship carrying Israeli cargo. It was an intervention from below in global politics, driven not by national, ethnic or religious affinity, but by principle, experience and common humanity.

The dockworkers were responding to the call for a boycott of Israeli goods issued by a broad coalition of Palestinian (and some Israeli) civil society organizations, including human rights groups and trade unions. That call had already been endorsed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, of which SATAWU is an affiliate, and the dockworkers knew that they had the backing of the wider movement.

Immediately and concretely, the dockworkers were responding to Israel's three-week attack on Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, including 431 children, as well as 5,300 injured, including 1,870 children and 1,600 permanently disabled. Israel's losses were of a different order: three civilians and 10 soldiers killed, 113 soldiers and 84 civilians injured.

Protesting against Israel's attack on Gaza in Durban, South Africa
Protesting against Israel's attack on Gaza in Durban, South Africa

Gaza's infrastructure was battered. 120,000 houses were damaged and 4,000 demolished. In the course of the operation, the Israelis are said to have dropped 1.5 million tons of explosives on Gaza--one ton for each inhabitant.

The dockworkers were also responding to--and respecting--the call and lesson of their own history. They remembered the importance of international support in the battle against apartheid. Initially, the international campaign had been little more than a small-scale irritant, reliant on the patient, sometimes lonely labors of grassroots activists. An early success came when dockworkers in various countries refused to unload South African goods. In time, the boycott grew and took a material toll on the apartheid regime.

South African trade unionists know this history well. That was seen last year when they turned away a Chinese ship carrying arms to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

They also know that throughout the course of their struggle against apartheid, Israel was engaged in intensive military, economic and technological (not least nuclear) collaboration with the white minority regime, whom it saw as an ally in a global conflict.

SIGNIFICANTLY, IN explaining their action in Durban, union leaders and members have stressed the similarity between Palestinians' experience of Israeli rule and their own experiences under apartheid.

Supporters of Israel object fiercely to this analogy; for suggesting it, even as prestigious a figure as former President Jimmy Carter was anathematized: speaking engagements canceled and funds removed from his charitable foundations. But how will they resist the analogy now, when it is being drawn by those with most authority and right to draw it?

There are many who think of international labor solidarity as something belonging to a distant past. True, far too often it has amounted to little more than empty rhetoric. But what we saw in Durban was international labor solidarity not as a slogan or admirable ideal or bit of wishful thinking but as a living practice, a pointer to the future. In a world of over-hyped spectacle, this was the real thing.

Most importantly, it is not an isolated event. The Western Australian section of the Maritime Union of Australia endorsed the boycott and has urged its members not to handle Israeli goods. In January, the Norwegian Locomotive Drivers Union stopped all trains in the country for a two-minute protest against the Israeli onslaught.

In fact, Durban was really a crest in a wave of protest that has followed Israel's all-out military assault on a captive, besieged, largely defenseless population. In Britain, students at more than 21 universities have mounted occupations demanding an end to their institution's ties with Israel and support for Palestinian education. Victories have been secured: scholarships for students from Gaza, reviews of investment policies and, in some cases, cancellation of contracts with Israeli-based corporations.

For the students as for so many others, Gaza epitomized basic divisions, basic choices. Between the powerful and the powerless, between the "war on terror" and respect for human rights and human life. Between Western interests and the interests of the world majority. Between passively standing by and actively engaging--whatever the odds--in the pursuit of justice.

THE WAVE of protest has washed well beyond academia and the trade unions. A convoy of more than 100 vehicles carrying $1.4 million of aid assembled in the north of England and is now making its way across North Africa to Gaza. A crude attempt by British police to smear the convoy by arresting some of its participants (all later released uncharged) under anti-terrorism laws deterred no one.

The pro-Palestinian activists, obviously small in number in the greater scheme of things, draw strength from the fact that they represent an increasing proportion of public opinion, in Britain and elsewhere. On this issue, there is a growing fissure between governments and peoples. International support, whether from dockworkers of Durban or students in Britain, is critical for the Palestinians: a vital counterweight to the powerful forces arrayed against them, which include the U.S. government and the European Union, due to sign a new preferential trade agreement with Israel.

India is also one of the major culprits. In recent years, commercial, military and intelligence links with Israel have burgeoned, under both the BJP and Congress-dominated governments--links justified by a drastically misconceived paradigm in which Israel and India share a common enemy in the "war on terror." In this context, the issue is not as peripheral as it may seem to many in India.

The international boycott and divestment campaign has, of course, a long way to go. As yet, the pressure on Israel is symbolic, not material. The bulk of the public there regards the Gaza assault as a success. The big vote for the right-wing parties in the recent election suggests they have turned their backs, for the moment, on any compromise with the Palestinians. It is sobering to note that the U.S. Congress voted to support Israel's actions in Gaza by a majority of 390 to 5. Meanwhile, Gaza remains under Israeli blockade, even minimal humanitarian aid is often blocked, and it has been impossible to start reconstruction. On the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, Israel gobbles up more territory and makes wider claims.

In these desperate circumstances, economically strangled and violently assaulted, the Palestinians at least know that they are not alone, that there are people out there aware of and angry about their plight.

Common assumptions about the limits of human solidarity have become routinely and excessively pessimistic. It is taken for granted that our loyalties--our willingness to sacrifice--are confined to family and close friends, and beyond that, to ethnic, communal or national groups, somehow also assumed, like the family, to be "natural" categories. Anything wider is weighed as too abstract, too remote, too theoretical to motivate human activity. In their uncompromising, far-reaching and, at the same time, concrete universalism, the Durban dockworkers and their global allies have shown that this is not the case.

First published in The Hindu.

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