Solidarity

Norwegian Trade Unions and Palestine by Eddie Whyte

Put Palestine on your Union Agenda and Keep it There

Originally posted on Solidarity:

Earlier this year I attended a fringe meeting at the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) about how labor activists can support the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The meeting which was organised by Dundee Trades Council and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign took place just after the STUC had voted to endorse the campaign against G4S, which Norwegian Unions and human rights Groups have also been campaigning for.

 Dundee Trades Council at the STUC Congress  

With Mike Arnott from the Dundee Trades Council at the STUC Congress

 

I was privileged to be one of the invited speakers at the fringe meeting and spoke about our model of building meaningful solidarity with Palestine.  Norwegian unions have a long tradition of international solidarity and Palestine has been a key area for us. We had been trying for a while to find a way to mobilize more union members on the Palestinian issue. You can read an interview…

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Put Palestine on your Union Agenda and Keep it There

Earlier this year I attended a fringe meeting at the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) about how labor activists can support the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The meeting which was organised by Dundee Trades Council and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign took place just after the STUC had voted to endorse the campaign against G4S, which Norwegian Unions and human rights Groups have also been campaigning for.

 Dundee Trades Council at the STUC Congress  

With Mike Arnott from the Dundee Trades Council at the STUC Congress

 

I was privileged to be one of the invited speakers at the fringe meeting and spoke about our model of building meaningful solidarity with Palestine.  Norwegian unions have a long tradition of international solidarity and Palestine has been a key area for us. We had been trying for a while to find a way to mobilize more union members on the Palestinian issue. You can read an interview on the pages of Electronic Intifada.

A Gesture of Solidarity

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States is in session as I write. Yesterday the preparatory committee voted in favor of a motion calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

It is a welcome sign that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining increasing momentum. Last time around, the resolution didn’t pass committee level.

Rev. Dr. Walt Davis, Co-Chair of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, is quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz, as calling the decision “an encouraging step”, adding that “It’s been a long and thorough process and it’s finally time for the church to stop profiting from the suffering of the peoples of the Holy Land.” A sincere statement that commands our full attention.

The Separation Barriers in Jerusalem

Economic boycotts of individual companies or states that are seen to ignore humane or moral standards of behavior have a strong, if controversial, tradition in Norway. Earlier this year Norwegian retail chain VITA stopped all sales of Ahava products which originate from illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.

Their decision echoes the words of Dr. Davis and came after a period of active lobbying from Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and the 320,000 member strong Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (NUMGE).  Human rights activists in Norway have also focused on Ahava and a new campaign has been launched aimed at convincing other stores to follow.

Only three weeks ago Norway’s finance ministry excluded Shikun & Binui from its Government Pension Fund (GPFG), citing the company’s role in the construction of illegal Israeli colonies in East Jerusalem as the reason.

The campaign to boycott, disinvest and sanction is not merely a political issue it is very much a moral one. It is a weapon in the nonviolent tradition of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and the Irish civil rights movement I grew up with in Belfast.

The BDS movement was started by the people on the receiving end of the oppression that is being challenged – the Palestinians themselves. They see it as a non-violent alternative to challenging  the oppression which confronts them on a daily basis.

Almost forty years have passed since Israel’s illegal, forced military occupation of Palestinian lands. The Israeli state is presently in the process of unilaterally annexing occupied East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank by means of the so called Separation Barrier.

A majority of Palestinians are stateless refugees and Israel’s entrenched system of racial discrimination against its own Arab-Palestinian citizens remains intact. The similarities to the racial bantustans of the South African apartheid regime are there for all to see.

Segregation and Apartheid
Whilst in Palestine, in June, our delegation met with the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network (PNGO), representing over 130 independent, non-governmental organisastions.

They were clear in their support for an economic boycott as a non-violent means of opposition. Their representatives reflected an attitude that was prevalent and resurfaced at various meetings with our project partners.

Representatives from the PNGO in Gaza

Amjad Y. Shawa and Monem Rmadan from the PNGO in Gaza at the June Meeting

“We are suffering injustice, oppression and state violence. Someone is making money out of it. That cannot be right.”

Indeed.

The final vote at the General Assembly of the US Presbyterian Church is expected later this week. We wish the delegates well in their deliberations and hope you will join us in extending  the General Assembly’s international  solidarity to the Palestinian people. Your support counts.

Risking Their Lives Daily

Fagforbundets Ambassador Corps visited Palestine at the beginning of June. During our first two days in Gaza, Israeli airstrikes and an artillery attack killed three people and injured eight. Nine houses, a poultry farm, a dairy factory and a carpentry shop were destroyed in the attacks. The Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) claimed it was targeting weapons factories following a border clash in which a Palestinian and an Israeli died in an exchange of gunfire. The owner of the dairy is now calling for an international inquiry and demanding an explanation as to why his livelihood was destroyed in what is often described as Israel’s economic war.

The wounded at Khan Younis, after an Israeli missile-strike June, 2012. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

On the same day we arrived in Palestine, Israeli naval vessels opened fire on Palestinian fishing boats off the northern coast of  Gaza. The fishermen fled, heading immediately back to land. There were no casualties or injuries that day but neither was there any fish caught and families again went hungry.

Two days later we met with the fishermen’s syndicate at Rafah to hear more about their situation. It was a humbling experience. We had decided to meet on the beach which provides a base for some of the 500 small boats that make up part of the 700 strong Palestinian fishing fleet.

One of the many small fishing boats

One of the many small fishing boats

We had an appointment with Jamal Basala, the Vice President of the fishermen’s syndicate in Rafah, and Samir Alnahhal, project worker with the support group Palestinian Environmental Friends. As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by enthusiastic people – young and old – thankful for our visit and keen to tell us their story.

Jamal Basala pulled no punches: “The Israelis want to kill our independence by destroying our livelihood and making us dependent on them. We have the right to work and to feed our families.”  He is clearly agitated and asks us to tell people back home that lack of food is not a humanitarian problem in Gaza. “It is a political problem and it needs a political solution. The international ommunity needs to get involved. We are being denied the right to make a living and support our families the way we have done for generations. We do not need charity, we can support ourselves. Just give us back our rights!”

From left to right: Eddie Whyte, Jamal Basala and Samir Alnahhal

Basala’s family have been fishing for generations. He started at the age of 15 and has two brothers and six sons all trying to make a living under very difficult circumstances. His anger is aroused by the injustice of the Israeli military and naval blockade which ensures that Gaza is sealed in on all four sides. Thousands of people in Gaza depend on the fishing industry to survive and yet they are denied access to the sea.

The Oslo Agreement defined the Palestinian fishing zone as twenty nautical miles from shore. The Israelis have unilaterally decided that this is no longer valid and the zone has been reduced several times to its present three miles. Basala is equally worried about the environmental effects of the naval blockade, pointing out that they are forced into over-fishing the breeding grounds.  It is clearly not sustainable.

“Israeli gunboats are on patrol 24 hours a day seven days a week.  We are under constant threat. The Israelis can open fire, destroy our nets and boats, or force us back to shore,” he says. “They even use helicopters.”

The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has been vocal in their criticism of the naval blockade. It is common practice for Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF)  to open fire on the fishermen, confiscate their nets and attack their boats. The IOF operate in violation  of Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power under international law and they operate in violation of the fishing community’s right to earn a living and support their families. There are regular reports of the same forces harassing Palestinian boats even within the three mile limit unilaterally imposed by Israel. Recently documentary maker and activist Harry Fear documented just such an incursion on film.

There are 4,400 fishermen providing a source of living for almost 70,000 people. Three quarters of the fishermen are affiliated to the syndicate. During an 18 month period in 2009 and 2010, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights documented  53 Israeli attacks on fishing boats leading to 2 dead, 7 injured and 42 arrested. Most of the arrested were subject to ill treatment. 17 fishing boats were confiscated and destroyed during the same period.

Mending nets on Rafah beach

Increased aggression from the Israeli Occupation Forces has led to 90% poverty rates among fishing families. Palestinian fishermen are risking their lives on a daily basis to support their families. It is all part of the Israeli economic war on Palestine. While it is being waged, the international community stands idly by. A collective punishment is being imposed on Palestinians in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.

Calls for an international boycott of Israel are gaining increasing momentum in Norway. As trade unionists we are committed to doing our part.

You can read more about the issues affecting Palestinian fishermen at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights

Pressure Mounts Over Blockade

One week after the return of Fagforbundets Ambassador Corps from Palestine, Norways largest union with over 328,000 members,  joined fifty international charities and United Nations Agencies in calling for the lifting of the illegal blockade of Gaza. The organizations have published a simple three line statement to mark the fifth anniversary of the enforcement of the blockade.

For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: End the blockade now!

The government of Israel is facing increasing international criticism for the Gaza blockade and this unanimous statement from some of the most world’s most respected international organizations is likely to increase pressure for the blockade to be lifted.

You can read more here.

International Intervention is Needed

Along with millions of others all over Europe and the world we have been enjoying this week’s European soccer Championships. Meanwhile Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak from Gaza is close to death in an Israeli prison.

During our visit to Palestine people spoke often and warmly about Mahmoud Sarsak. He is regarded as a sporting hero and has become an important symbol for Palestinian youth. Mahmoud has been imprisoned by Israel for 3 years without charge or trial under so called administrative detention.

Mahmoud Sarsak – an important symbol for Palestinians

Amnesty International has called for an immediate end to this form of internment without trial. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has been equally clear in its condemnation of this repressive legislation.

Mahmoud was abducted by Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint while on his way to join the Palestine National Football Team. He has now been on hunger strike for more than 80 days and his health is deteriorating rapidly.  Yesterday was an international day of action which included a protest outside the department of Foreign Affairs in Oslo demanding his release.

Yesterday Israeli prison authorities released a statement saying that he had ended the hunger strike, but Palestinian sources, including his family and lawyer, denied the claim. He does not have many days left. International intervention is required if his life is to be saved.

Inspiring Resilience

Our stay in Palestine has come to an end and we are heading for home. Back to a country with no barbed wire, no fences, no early morning raids, no armed soldiers controlling our every move. Being here has been an education.

Yesterday we visited Al Maqdese  and Jamal Juma of Stop the Wall, both working in their own way to promote, human rights and against the Israeli occupation. These are impressive people. They are dedicating their lives to ensure social, economic and political rights for their fellow Palestinians.

One of the many apartheid walls

They echo the words of others we have met whether it is the fishermen in Gaza, the refugees in the camps or the many people we have spoken to in the various international non-governmental organizations.

This is not a problem that will be solved by humanitarian aid. The issue is a political one and can only be challenged by confronting it as such. Apartheid and colonialism are not words that belong to the past. They are alive and well in the occupation of Palestine and the forced imprisonment of Palestinian civilians behind walls and barbed wire.

It will be good to get home.  I will not miss the oppression that pervades this place.  I will miss the hospitality and warmth of the Palestinian people.  And their courage. We have been privileged to spend our time in the company of people who have dedicated themselves to creating a new society. They are working under the toughest of conditions and their resilience is inspiring.

Our Ambassador Corps was created to raise awareness on human rights, forced occupation and humanitarian issues. Now we will travel back to Norway better equipped to do just that.

Still Waiting for Justice

I met Ahmed in Gaza. We were talking over a cup of tea. Palestinian tea with enough sugar for half a dozen cups of Irish tea. I am visiting for a week with a Norwegian trade union delegation. He has lived here his whole life. He is demonstrably proud of his people and where he comes from.

Sunrise over Gaza city

We were talking about the massacre of innocent civilians in Syria that recently grabbed the world headlines. Almost a hundred dead and several hundred wounded when official government forces, backed by local paramilitaries, attacked Houla, a village near the troubled city of Homs.Many of the dead and injured were children and had been executed by shots to the head. The pictures reverberated around the world.

He said that the appalling media pictures of the attacks sent shivers down his spine and reminded him of the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 when so many Palestinian refugees were butchered. The culprits were the Lebanese Phalangist militia and the Israeli army who stood passively to one side and allowed it to take place.

He wanted to know who will be punished for these crimes against humanity. All these crimes. And he asked me a question I could not answer.

When the Syrian regime is brought down by international pressure and the guilty are captured and brought to book, will the world remember the families of the victims of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon who are still waiting for justice?

Give us back our rights!

Gaza is effectively sealed off by Israeli occupation forces. Over 1.6 million people are “locked in” in what is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Under the Oslo Agreement Israel committed to recognize the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a “single territorial unit”  with freedom of movement between the two parts of the Palestinian state.

It is clearly not worth the paper it is written on. Freedom of movement as a concept simply does not exist. Palestinians wishing to travel from one part of the country to the other have to apply to the Israeli authorities for permission. More often than not it is refused with no reason given.

Over the last few years Palestinian freedom of movement between the Gaza Strip, Israel and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has been drastically reduced.

Whereas previously there were 6 crossing points between Israel and Gaza there is now only the one at Erez. Not only does this have a social impact in that families are isolated from one another but the restrictions effectively ensure that the vital products needed for any society to grow and prosper are being denied Palestinians.

The ban on movement applies equally to products both for import and export. Israeli border controls operate according to their own severely restricted lists of so called “acceptable items”. According to the UN office in Gaza, the goods coming into Gaza cover only the most basic of humanitarian needs.  The denial of access to basic materials combined with military attacks on industrial and agricultural areas has led to what the UN has classified as “de-development”

Israeli military forces also enforce a naval blockade which ensures that Gaza is sealed in on all four sides. Thousands of people depend on the fishing industry to survive and yet they are denied access to the sea and the right to work and provide for their families. The Oslo Agreement defined the Palestinian fishing zone as twenty miles from shore. The Israelis have unilaterally decided that this is no longer valid and the zone has been reduced several times to its present three miles. It is clearly not sustainable.

Crossing from the Israeli side to Gaza

The blockade is destroying livelihoods, leading to worse living conditions and a serious decline in services and infrastructure for education, healthcare, water and sanitation. Gaza is littered with rubbish dumps. The municipality does not have enough sanitation vehicles nor the fuel to run the ones they have. The Israeli lists of “acceptable items” ensure that they cannot import them.

A collective punishment is being imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. It should not be treated as a question of providing humanitarian aid. It is a political question. Israel is in breach of international law. It is up to the international community to enforce that law.

If we have heard it once, we have heard it one hundred times since arriving here earlier this week.  “We do not need humanitarian aid. We need our rights! Give us back our rights and we will provide for ourselves.”

On the first day of our visit to Gaza there were two Israeli attacks injuring seven people. Israeli encroachments in the border area are far from unusual. With their military actions and economic sanctions they are trying to kill Palestine by strangling Gaza.

This is not the Palestine we see on TV

The trip over to Gaza went smoother than expected.  We had been prepared for sweaty queues and a certain amount of unnecessary questioning, especially given our experience at Ben Gurion Airport, but we crossed through the Erez checkpoint without any great difficulty or delay.

The crossing at Erez

Gaza is a place that grabs your attention. The hectic drive from the Palestinian side of the checkpoint through one of the most densely populated areas in the world, in streets scarred by many years of bombing raids, leaves its mark. Bombed out buildings, the hustle and bustle on the streets, the bright colors breaking through the gray, the sand and the abundant, unfamiliar street sounds all combine to leave an immediate and lasting impression.

At the hotel smiling faces and warm handshakes welcomed us as the new guests. We just had time to check in before heading off to our first meeting with the local staff at the Norwegian People’s Aid office and a full day packed with meetings with out various project partners.

I made my way quickly up the hotel stairs and into a nicely sized room where the curtains had been drawn to provide some protection from the heat. More than anything the room needed some air, so I quickly opened the curtains. The view from my window was almost overwhelming.

Our hosts had chosen well. The hotel backed right onto the beach and the window afforded a magnificent sea view with a natural beauty that stood in stark contrast to the sights and sounds of the town we had just driven through. Fathers, mothers and children were basking in the sunshine. The school holidays have already started for most of the children and a trip to the beach was obviously the order of the day.

Families enjoy a day at the beach

Beached right alongside the people enjoying their day out were a couple of small fishing boats with Palestinian flags fluttering in the breeze. This is not the Palestine we see on television.

Of course, this part of Palestine is a coastal community. The Gazeans have a strong relationship to the sea and many of them also depend on it for their livelihood. As it turns out, the fishing boats were preparing for the night shift.

Fishing boat waiting for night to fall

The occupation has taken its toll on Palestinian society and in addition an economic war is now being inflicted on them. The fishing industry is a special target for Israeli aggression. Our delegation will be meeting with local projects working on this specific area and it deserves much more attention so I save that for another time.

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