Palestine protest outside Palestine Palestine protest outside Palestine. Photo: Steve Eason / CC BY-NC 2.0

As we have another trade union day of action over Palestine, James Taylor looks at the power of protest and how we can take it further

The role of global protest since Israel’s most recent attack on Palestine cannot be underestimated. Co-ordinated, international shows of solidarity have kept the issue relevant and on the front pages. Without feet on the ground in cities across the world there would likely not have been an ICJ hearing or investigation into the ongoing Israeli genocide. Subsequently, Westminster has found itself reluctantly debating a subject it ordinarily avoids.

It feels trite to say, but seemingly on loop, Britain’s Middle Eastern interventions since the fall of the Ottoman Empire have endeavoured only to advance British imperial interests. More recently in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, Britain’s role in destabilising the area has come at a cost of many lives and lined the pockets of western business. You wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that recent ceasefire discussions in the commons will be shadowed by opportunistic colonial fervour.

Imperial overhang aside, parliament has failed us again. Two weeks ago Keir Starmer et al opted for point scoring and gamesmanship rather than pushing for the lasting and unconditional ceasefire that two thirds of Britons favour. The long road to the ceasefire conversation in the Commons, although a credit to the power of protest, is now tainted by cynical political tactics. Considering this, could an escalation beyond the protests that have flooded the country since October be necessary to push our leaders toward supporting lasting peace in Palestine?

Beyond the symbolism of global protest marches lies industrial action on the same coordinated international scale. A novel concept indeed, but there is precedent. Successful independence campaigns in Egypt and Syria incentivised the 1936 Arab General Strike in Palestine. A response to Zionist  militias systematically displacing Palestinians from their homes, the mass action was met with solidarity campaigns in Damascus, Bagdhad, Cairo and Beirut. The result: British Mandate Palestine leaders could no longer ignore the cries of the native people and were forced to adapt policy to consider their needs, albeit temporarily.

Forward to 1976 and what became Land Day. Not 10 years since the inception of Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Palestinian residents in Israel faced off heroically against state powers intent on confiscating yet more Arab land in Galilee. Again, civil disobedience, protest and general strike was the strategy du jour. As one domino hits another, solidarity strikes took place across Gaza, The West Bank and Lebanon.

In response, the Israeli’s murdered 6 unarmed Palestinians, with hundreds more injured or detained. March 30th has since been a marked day in the calendar of Palestinian struggle. Annual international demonstrations continue on, particularly in countries populated by the exiled Palestinian diaspora. Like a yearly alarm clock, Land Day serves to remind the leaders of neighbouring Arab nations to continue their third-party-state duties, to denounce Israeli occupation and to support the Palestinian right of return.

Arguably, the most important Palestinian mass movement came in the form of the First Intifada. Between 1987 and 1993, civil disobedience across historic Palestine rocked the Israeli regime, harrying them into peace and land negotiations, leading the way for the United States’ formal recognition of the PLO’s representative legitimacy. Without the First Intifada, there are no Oslo Accords. Although the ‘agreements’ fell apart shortly after, Palestinian sovereignty since 1948 had never been closer. The Intifada catalysed uprisings in neighbouring countries, North Africa and the Gulf nations, injecting life into Arab anti-imperialist movements and was used as template for the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.

The correlation between all these examples is clear. Successful direct action must be targeted, coordinated and, most importantly, widespread in order for governments to take action. Why else would our own leaders have passed laws restricting our ability to publicly protest? We know the days of ‘sympathy strikes’ in Britain went out with the Rubik’s cube, with legislation disarming that weapon from the worker’s arsenal in 1992. But as towns across the West Bank protested recently, how would Westminster respond, in all its filibustering failure, if British workers downed-tools in coordinated solidarity? If that sounds like the hopeful wishes of a first year sociology undergrad, know that similar action has taken place in recent years across Europe and the USA. Following the Israeli sinking of a Gaza-bound aid ship in 2010, dock workers from Sweden to San Francisco refused to unload boats carrying Israeli goods. This is not a new idea, only a forgotten one.

There are many questions that make British strikes in solidarity with Palestine feel far away. What would it look like? Where would it start? Who would be willing to take the lead? Perhaps industries with the highest trade union membership, particularly in shipping and transport could spearhead a movement.

However, from the Civil Rights movement that ended US Jim Crow Laws to the fall of South African apartheid, all mass movements begin as just a seedling, unlikely idea. Hundreds of thousands in the UK have marched and stood and barricaded and chanted and called for the end of Palestinian occupation since October 2023. The base of the next phase of action already exists.

As mentioned, the law may not be kind to those who take part, but sourcing inspiration from UK climate activists who have risked their liberties to bring to their message to the fore, we must consider the role, and our position on, the British justice system. To reluctantly pay reference to Mark Twain’s ‘if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it’, we must assume that legal restrictions on solidarity strikes are in direct correlation to their likely success. Ultimately, the question British pro-Palestinian activists should be asking is not: ‘what will Westminster do next’. The question can only be: ‘what can we, the people, do next’?

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