EDEditors of Notes From Below

RRiya Al’Sanah

EDWhat is Workers In Palestine, and why did it start?

RThe Workers in Palestine initiative emerged from Palestinian trade union activists committed to amplifying the demands and voices of Palestinian workers on the international stage. The aim is to build solidarity with Palestine through worker-to-worker solidarity.

This specific project originated as a collective response to the call issued by Palestinian trade unions on October 16th, 2023. As Israel was “rolling out the Gaza Nakba”, in the words of Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Avi Dichter, and in the context of unwavering Western governmental support for Israel, Palestinian workers placed their hope on concrete solidarity from the labour movement and people of consciousness globally. They called for immediate action to stop arming Israel and to end all forms of complicity with Israeli settler-colonialism. Beyond working towards ending the arms trade, Workers in Palestine works to strengthen rank and file organising across trade union sectors, including solidarity with Palestinian health sector workers.

This call for solidarity is built on previous experiences of internationalist workers-led organising. In particular, solidarity with the South African struggle against apartheid, and injustice in Ethiopia and Chile, and actions in solidarity with Palestine. If you remember, in 2010, during yet another attack on Gaza, port workers in the San Francisco Bay area, Sweden, in the Port of Cochin, India, Turkish dockworkers, and in Durban, South Africa, engaged in various forms of work stoppage in solidarity with Palestine. There was the 2014, “Block the Boat” initiative in Oakland, California targeting Israel’s Zim ships. And again, in May 2021, Italian dockworkers members of the USB union refused to handle arms shipments destined for Israel, and members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to unload Israeli ships.

In the immediate term, Workers in Palestine is mainly focused on advancing the campaign to Stop Arming Israel and to broaden solidarity with Palestinian healthcare workers within the trade union movement. However, the broader goal is to emerge out of this moment with more sustained rank-and-file solidarity for Palestine within the labour movement.

EDWhat was the state of the Palestine solidarity movement before Oct 7th? Are there lessons we can learn from previous solidarity struggles?

RSince the colonisation of Palestine in 1948, Palestinians have been engaging in consistent and multifaceted forms of resistance against Israeli dispossession. For over a year in 2018-19, people in Gaza held mass demonstrations demanding to exercise their right of return to their lands, known as the Great March of Return. In May 2021, there was a cross-historic Palestine general strike, boycotts, everyday community resilience, and armed resistance.

Regionally, October 7th came in the context of counter-revolutionary forces pushing back against the just demands of the uprisings of 2011/2012 with greater repression and normalisation with Israel. We can’t really understand the current genocide in isolation from these broader regional defeats. Internationally, solidarity efforts were under sustained and intensified attacks. Aggressive and institutionally rooted campaigns to silence and criminalise solidarity with Palestine have increased in the past decade as has the deliberate, calculated conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It was an extremely hostile environment. This caused confusion about the nature of Zionism as the ideological underpinning of Palestinian dispossession and Israel’s racist settler colonial project’s relationship to imperialism. Here in the UK, it was tragic to see some around the Corbyn project abandon solidarity with Palestine and argue that it was a distraction from ‘core issues’. In doing so, they weakened the movement itself and effectively set back Palestine solidarity.

These broader shifts had an impact on the Palestine Solidarity movement itself. The movement was pushed to take a more defensive stance and shift towards acceptable professional activism. Palestine was discussed through the prism of human rights violations – house demolitions, incarceration of children etc. While of course there is a litany of Israeli human rights violations, this led to a hollowing out of the politics of our liberation struggle. The Palestinian struggle for liberation and justice was framed as isolated and exceptional, disconnected from global and regional dynamics, and Israel’s specific place in Western imperialism more broadly.

In the trade union movement, it has historically been difficult to address Zionism and move away from the movement’s close relationship with the Histadrut - the General Federation of Labour in Israel. Established in 1920, the Histadrut worked to expand Jewish employment through the active exclusion of Palestinian workers, to facilitate the colonisation of Palestine.

Yet despite close official relations with the Histadrut, rank-and-file members’ organising has achieved significant successes for Palestine solidarity particularly passing important motions, including the endorsement of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). But these have been hard to implement. Take Unite the Union, it has a BDS policy. But this has not been acted upon. Here we see the importance of policy implementation beyond motions and the need to build rank-and-file power from below that can work to enforce these policies.

Since October 7th we have been trying to shift towards long-term rank-and-file organising to ensure we move beyond motions to concrete action. Past experiences taught us that to do so effectively, we must ground our solidarity in solid politics, where we understand Palestine as part of broader anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, feminist and environmental struggles. This will enable us to build sustained solidarity during and between moments of rupture, between the upturn and the downturn.

Struggle opens up opportunities. It is our responsibility to take this task seriously; to engage with these moments of crisis not just momentarily but to lay the groundwork towards what we want to see continue. We must build connections between different emancipatory projects and raise the political imagination of what is possible.

EDWhat conditions are workers in Palestine facing? How have they responded?

RPalestinian workers are at the forefront of the struggle against Israeli colonial violence. Across Palestine, and particularly in Gaza today, doctors, nurses, civil defence, teachers, transport workers, carers etc. are working in unfathomable conditions to save lives and to sustain our people’s steadfastness in our land.

It is important that when we talk about Palestinian workers to understand that the term ‘Palestinian workers’ is a unified term for a fragmented workforce. I mean this in the sense that there are Palestinian workers who are refugees - in historic Palestine and outside of it. There are over 6 million Palestinian refugees – the biggest refugee community in the world. There are 48’ Palestinian workers (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, often referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel). There are Palestinian workers from the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip – what is referred to as the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Palestinian workers are a group of workers who are geographically fragmented and are subjected to different legal frameworks that shape access to work and working conditions. For those who remained within historic Palestine (in the oPt and 48’) their integration into the Israeli labour market and proximity to Israeli capital differs significantly.

We tend to talk of settler colonialism in terms of its relationship to ongoing dispossession and the continued seizure of Palestinian land. However, the conversation often does not address the implications of these processes on workers and the Palestinian economy. Ongoing dispossession and land expropriation coupled with military regulations and various agreements such as the Paris Protocol, and the economic annexe of the Oslo Accords of 1993, led to the systematic de-industrialisation of the Palestinian economy and the elimination of much of its agricultural base. These processes have produced a captive and dependent economy and a Palestinian labour market that is closely tied to the needs of Israeli capital. This is the case for Palestinians in the oPt and 48’. These policies have also increased the PA’s dependency on external flows of capital, which in turn pressured it to adopt neoliberal development policies.

These processes led to high levels of unemployment and poverty. The oPt has some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world: 24-30%. These aggregated figures hide enormous geographical disparities between the West Bank and Gaza, but also between men, women, youth, and cities versus refugee communities. At the beginning of 2023, 17 years after an Israeli-Egyptian enforced siege of Gaza, over 50% of the population was out of work and 80% were aid-dependent. The situation is much more horrific now.

Palestinian workers who are in work suffer from low wages and extremely precarious and unsafe working conditions. The hollowing out of the economy, de-industrialisation, de-agriculturalisation and a cobweb of colonial infrastructure and military regulations, led to the concentration of work in the private sector, particularly the service sector. 65% of Palestinians in the occupied territories are employed in the private sector, and like the majority of workers across the world working in the private sector, they have horrible working conditions, lack contracts, low wages, etc.

The public sector is the second biggest employer. Here, I think, people can get confused. It is correct that since 2006 there have been different governing bodies in Gaza and the West Bank, with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) governing the West Bank and Hamas- the Gaza Strip. However, the PA is the main public sector employer in both the West Bank and Gaza. And while West Bank and Gazan public sector workers have the same employer, their conditions are very different. For example, since 2017, the PA has been imposing punitive measures against public sector workers in Gaza, including subjecting them to a 50-60% pay reduction. Many of them have not received their already exploitative salaries since Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, including the incredible healthcare and civil defence workers.

Public sector salaries are low, but they are also regularly delayed or arbitrarily cut. The PA’s budget is primarily derived from international aid and Israeli-controlled taxes. Under the Paris Protocol, which I mentioned earlier, Israel collects taxes on imports and exports to and from the oPt, as well as from oPt workers employed in the Israeli economy. These are meant to be transferred to the PA monthly. Any delay in transfers or reduction in aid has an immediate and direct effect on the wages of public sector workers. Israel routinely delays the transfer of taxes and/or does not transfer them in full, and international aid has sharply declined over the past decade. The impact of the PA’s precarious income and adoption of neoliberal development policies since the mid-2000s does not unfold evenly. While teachers and nurses are subjected to regular wage cuts and delays due to declining income, PA ministers are rarely affected.

Lack of jobs in the oPt and higher wages push workers to seek employment in the Israeli economy. In October 2023, around 13% of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza worked in the Israeli economy. Access to these jobs is controlled like a tap that Israel can turn on and off and is structured through an elaborate checkpoint and a permit system. While Israel depends on these workers in particular sectors, like construction, it can still close the tap whenever it wants. Cutting off access to jobs is used to exert political pressure in the same way as not transferring money from taxes.

While under Israeli law Palestinian workers employed in the Israeli economy should have access to the same rights as Israeli workers, this is only ink on paper. Conditions are precarious and dangerous, and their wages are lower than their Israeli peers. Since October 7th Israel has denied the majority of West Bank workers and all workers from Gaza access to their jobs. This means zero income. Capitalising on large levels of unemployment in India, Israel has recently struck a deal to import Indian workers to replace Palestinians.

The integration of workers from Gaza into the Israeli economy re-emerged in 2020 and slowly increased. Since 2006 and Hamas’s rise to power, Israel has prevented Gazans from accessing jobs in the Israeli economy. Netanyahu advanced access to jobs in recent years as part of the broader strategy of economic pacification.

And we all saw what happened to the some 20,000 workers from Gaza who were on the job on October 7th. They were rounded up, interrogated, imprisoned for months, robbed, and tortured. All of this while not having any communication with their families in the Gaza Strip. Some died, and some were dumped at the Beit Hanoun checkpoint (north of Gaza) and had to walk for miles under bullets to reach Gaza.

EDWhy is it important to relate to Palestinian workers as workers? How do you see this developing in solidarity movements?

REffective solidarity is grounded in an understanding of the living conditions and struggles of those we are in solidarity with. Relating to Palestinians as workers enables us to be attentive to these complexities - unpacking class and political differences and the multitude of forces which shape them, beyond “the occupation”.

Understanding that workers’ conditions have been horrific way before this moment enables us to grapple with the mechanisms of colonial dispossession. It enables us to better identify points of connection and build effective solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions. It keeps us in check, sharpens our politics and ensures the centring of critical demands such as the release of our over 9,000 political prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails, and the right of return. Both are core demands of the Palestinian liberation struggle and core to conceptualising our liberation.

Worker-to-worker solidarity also enables us to see Palestinian colleagues as agents and comrades in struggle, rather than framing them as one large, undifferentiated group needing humanitarian aid.

EDWhat has happened after the invasion of Gaza? Are there particular initiatives (in Britain or internationally) that you think have been important?

RIt’s clear that we are in the midst of a global social movement, and justice for Palestine is at the heart of it. Palestinians’ determination to free ourselves, refusing to die in silence and holding tight to an unwavering belief in our cause’s justness has inspired millions worldwide. The vulgarness of Israel’s genocidal intentions has clarified for many, I think, the true nature of Zionism. And the West’s complicity and unconditional cheerleading of Israeli criminality have gone a long way in explaining to people the relationship between Israeli settler-colonialism and imperialism.

We have seen extremely inspiring and widespread organising. New organising spaces have opened up that were not sufficiently tapped into before by the Palestine solidarity movement. One clear example is the labour movement. This is surprising in a way. Persistent assaults on the labour movement had led to conservative shifts, diminishing its organisational capacity and gradually side-lining internationalism as a core value, yet, rank-and-file union members have taken up the urgent calls for solidarity by Palestinian trade unions.

Dockworkers in Barcelona have refused to handle military cargo destined for Israel, the same in Italy with dock workers coming out in solidarity, transport workers in Belgium also refused to move weapons. The European Dockworkers Council, a coalition of 14 national dock workers unions from 12 European countries, engaged in coordinated action in solidarity with Palestine on 30 November 2023. Recently the Indian Water Transport Workers Federation, representing workers at 11 ports in India announced it will not be handling arms to Israel. All the major unions in the Spanish State have joined a campaign calling on the government to impose a military embargo on Israel. The Italian port workers union S.I.Cobas held a one-day strike for Palestine. Pressure from Japanese unions and protestors forced the Japanese giant Itochu to end cooperation with Israel’s largest private military company, Elbit Systems.

We’ve also seen mass blockades of arms factories led by rank-and-file workers of various unions. They have said: “We as workers, even if we’re not directly involved in this industry, we have something to say about what is happening here” and have committed to building links with workers in the industry. Students and academics have launched campaigns to end partnerships with and/or divest from military companies and break ties with Israeli universities. We’ve seen some impressive victories. This month, Norwegian universities suspended ties with all complicit Israeli universities and students at the University of California passed a bill divesting $19 million in student government funds from companies and institutions complicit in Israeli crimes.

The developments in the US labour movement are unprecedented. There is a general upsurge in unionisation and labour-led organising for Palestine. In December 2023, the United Auto Workers union called for a ceasefire and committed to inquiring into the transition from military to peace-making industries. This critical shift came on the back of years of consistent rank-and-file campaigning within the union. Recently the National Labour Network for Ceasefire was launched. The network includes seven national unions and over 200 local unions and labour organisations. Together they represent some 9 million union members, around 60% of all unionised workers. While this coalition doesn’t go as far as calling for a military embargo on Israel, it is an incredibly important development, particularly considering the unions’ close relationship with Zionism.

Palestinian workers have long been putting forward the necessity of picking up Palestine as a worker issue. In the last five months, we’ve really seen this move forward with medical workers, journalists and publishers, filmmakers, teachers, and academics, coming together with others in their sector, identifying themselves as workers in solidarity with their colleagues in Palestine.

While by no means enough, we cannot understate the significance of these rank-and-file-led experiences of self-organising driven by a call from Palestinian workers. They bring broader layers of people into the Palestine solidarity movement and plant the seeds for the revival of the labour movement more broadly.

EDWhat are the political and strategic challenges we face? And what can we do collectively to overcome them?

RFor almost five months, people in the Gaza Strip and across Palestine have been at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism. Globally, masses have taken to the streets, day in and day out, moved into action by their rage and disbelief at the scale of Israel’s colonial violence. However, this has not shifted the situation on the ground, Israel’s brutality is being televised daily. This has forced us to collectively confront serious questions about where our power lies and how we go about building it to force the change we want to see.

We are all learning on the go as we fight to stop a genocide. Here in the UK, many trade unions have policies on Palestine, including supporting BDS, however, we need them to go further, to enact it. I mentioned the case of Unite, but this applies to other unions: the RMT, the UCU etc. The examples of the rank-and-file organising that I pointed to earlier are small, yes, but they point to critical openings. It is important to harness this energy and direct it towards organising in workplaces, and in trade unions. These experiences can build workers’ self-organising confidence. They can also reinject anti-racist and internationalist politics as a core value of the labour movement and embolden efforts to transform unions into non-alienating structures that work in our interest.

In Workers in Palestine, we have been trying to support this work. We’ve produced simple guides and toolkits for workers who want to organise in their workplace or union in solidarity with Palestine. We held a day school in January to put forward political analysis, situating Palestine within broader anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, feminist, and environmentalist politics. We have also produced material and information about the military relations between Israel and other countries. We have tried to identify targets for campaigns, tracing the companies that workers could be targeting in their workplaces, and identifying military production sites which can be targeted.

There is also the model of working with mass pickets as part of a broader strategy to shift workers in arms factories. This is an interesting model that organisers have been thinking through, including here in the UK, and we should build on and learn from it. We should be mindful that the same organising methods and/or demands won’t be transferable or relevant in all cases. For example, tactics that are useful when targeting a factory with a high unionisation level and in which a small part of its production is linked to Israel may not be the most strategic when targeting an Israeli company with no union presence, such as Elbit Systems. It’s important to think about what we can build together if we use different tactics in our organising that can feed into a broader strategy of developing long-term meaningful Palestine solidarity.

It is extremely difficult during times of deep crisis and unmeasurable human suffering not to be paralysed by the gravity of the challenges we face. The answers are not written on the wall. We have to accept that we might do well in some areas and not so well in others. But, it is our collective responsibility to recognise the potential that this moment offers, to learn and to urgently harness these developments to deepen and strengthen solidarity with Palestine.

EDWhat do you think will happen next? Are there initiatives or medium and longer-term objectives to work towards?

RIsrael’s intent is clear. It wants to expel as many Palestinians as possible and obliterate life-making possibilities for those who remain in Gaza, but also across the whole of Palestine. This has long been the aim of the Zionist project. What will happen next in Palestine is determined by dynamics on the ground but also, and importantly, by what we do here.

With this in mind, we must continue fighting like hell to impose a ceasefire and to stop arms from being transported to Israel and delivering support to workers on the front line. As a matter of urgency, we must also build the foundations for long-term sustained solidarity with Palestine that can deliver decisive change. Both tasks are urgent, and crushingly, the former is impossible without the latter.

There are many ways in which we can start to build towards long-term solidarity. Can you develop a campaign to end an agreement between your workplace and/or union with a military company or complicit institutions? Can you organise meetings with other trade unionists around Palestine and workers in your sector? Can you organise a delegation from your workplace to a demonstration? Can you put forward solidarity motions in your union, not for the sake of having a motion, but to have the conversations to build an understanding of what’s happening in Palestine and identify other people who want to organise around it? Changing union policy isn’t the end goal, it’s because it enables us to do other things. Across lots of activities, it’s about the process. I think if we start doing these steps, even if they’re small, and they are insignificant in comparison to what we are facing now with the genocide, and what we urgently need, nonetheless, they will be critical building blocks.

The current moment will change, and we will stop seeing dead Palestinians on our screens, and/or people might become sanitised to them, but that doesn’t mean that the struggle for Palestinian Liberation is over. We need to think about the challenge of what happens next and make the case for the relationship between the Palestinian struggle and other struggles.

Going forward, Palestine needs to be central to how we conceptualise building a more solid and more concrete politics of emancipation. We need to deepen our organising in ways that bridge between what unfolds in Palestine and the struggles we face here at the heart of the empire. It’s internalising and organising around the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all and that no one of us is free until everybody is free!

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Riya Al’Sanah

Riya is a Palestinian researcher and organiser with the Workers in Palestine initiative.