When it comes to Israel/Palestine and the Middle East more generally, as with so many international issues, much of the revolutionary left prefers to compete to see who can be the shrillest “anti-imperialist” rather than seriously analysing the politics of the region from a class-struggle perspective and identifying working class forces with which they can make practical solidarity.
The current leaders in the “anti-imperialist” stakes are the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) who are in fact so anti-imperialist that they have become positive supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah — religious fundamentalists funded by Iran, a major sub-imperialist power in the region. Their blind, classless “anti-imperialism” — which has nothing to do with the working class, democratic anti-imperialism of a genuine socialist tradition — has led them into more-or-less open support for a major capitalist power with imperialist ambitions of its own. For socialists who do not want to make the same mistake, the question of locating working class elements on the political terrain in Israel/Palestine becomes all the more important.
It is important too because of debates currently taking place within the British labour movement. The movement to launch various forms of boycotts of Israeli goods, Israeli academia, Israeli culture or simply Israel itself has gained some currency in British trade unions, with Unison, Unite (TGWU), UCU and the NUJ all passing some variation of boycott policy.
Although the AWL has characterised the boycott project as a counterproductive dead-end with an anti-semitic logic, we by no means wish to suggest that all of the rank-and-file members of those unions who voted for those policies are somehow unconscious anti-semites. Many if not most will have voted for the policy because it seemed like the only immediately positive, practical, explicit thing they could do to express some kind of solidarity for the Palestinian people — atomised, terrorised and brutally oppressed by the full military might of the Israeli state in its own sub-imperialist project in the Occupied Territories.
The instinct to “do something” to help them is right. It is the beginning of much of socialist wisdom and common-sense. It is, therefore, the job of thinking revolutionaries to provide those trade unionists with something real, something progressive and something practical to “do” that is not a counterproductive dead end but that will help them support the only forces in the region capable of precipitating any kind of progressive social change; that is, working class and democratic forces.
There is currently an official trade union movement in both Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) is historically politically dominated by supporters of Fatah, the secular-nationalist party which has been discredited among large numbers of former supporters and is engaged in a bitter civil war with Hamas. Nonetheless the union federation represents a real working class formation despite its bureaucratic leadership.1 It has a membership of around 380,000 workers in 15 affiliated unions. It also organises amongst Palestinians who are migrant workers within Israel itself, as well as making inroads into organising the women workers who typically make up some of the most highly exploited sections of the workforce.2,3
In September 2006, the PGFTU protested at the failure of the Hamas government to pay public sector workers such as teachers and civil servants.4 Although Fatah politicking against Hamas played a role in the initiation of the strike, it still represented a mass workers’ mobilisation against their bosses and paymasters. Despite its bureaucracy and politically compromised leadership, the PGFTU still represents the principal centre of workers’ organisation in Palestine and as such its members deserve solidarity.
Beyond the PGFTU, there are several smaller, more independent initiatives such as the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre.5 In summer 2007, the DWRC called a “conference of independent trade unions”. Its leader Hassan Barghouti commented “currently, there are four competing labour federations in Palestine — three controlled by Fatah and one by Hamas. None of these federations have had genuine democratic elections of their leadership in recent years and appointments and distribution of positions in the executive boards are made on a political basis. This situation will considerably weaken the trade union movement and it has become necessary to create a movement independent of political factions in order to truly represent Palestinian workers.”6
The DWRC runs campaigns around freedom of association and the right to organise, as well as social programmes targeting poverty and unemployment. It also holds training and education courses to provide Palestinian workers with basis organising skills.
As well as these workers’ organisations, there are organisations struggling for the rights of other oppressed groups in Palestine. The economic chaos brought on by forty years of Israeli occupation, coupled with the influence of clerical-fascist forces such as Hamas, mean that Palestine is not a safe place to be an LGBT person. Although many of the organisations fighting for LGBT rights (such as Al-Qaws7) are based on mainstream, NGO-style political and organisational forms, they too need support in their struggle for the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups in Palestinian society.
Beyond the Occupied Territories, there are some initiatives attempting to build links between Palestinian and Israeli workers, such as the Workers’ Advice Centre (WAC — Ma’an in Arabic).8 If there is to be any peaceful and democratic solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Israeli workers will have to be key agents in its achievement. They suffer economically from their state’s colonial adventure in Palestine, as well as being exploited by liberalisations in the Israeli economy which have led to wage-cuts, job losses and increases in precariousness.
The WAC functions as an organising centre for many low-paid and precarious workers (many of them Palestinian or from Israel’s oppressed Arab minority) who feel left out in the cold by the mainstream Israeli trade unions affiliated to Histadrut (the Israeli TUC). Its role in Israel is not dissimilar to that of the DWRC in Palestine in that both organisations attempt to build poles of working class organisation that are not compromised by the discredited, corrupt bureaucracies of the trade union establishment. The WAC is also politically sharp, issuing a principled statement of working class opposition to war during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in summer 2006.9
The criticisms that the WAC level at Histadrut are entirely legitimate; it has not done enough to organise the growing number of precarious and migrant workers in the Israeli labour force, many of whom are Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. As the WAC points out, “broad sectors of workers have been left without a union framework, especially temporary workers, Arabs, migrants, and those in personnel companies.”10
There is a tendency amongst some on the left — even those who understand the importance of supporting working class forces in Israel — to dismiss Histadrut out of hand, pointing to its historic accommodation to, and cooption into, the state apparatus, its position as one of the biggest employers in Israel and its historical support for racist “Jewish only” labour policies. But the attitude of its leaders to the state is not the only criterion for socialists when it comes to assessing a trade union formation; for example, many British trade unions have entirely bought into the capitalist notion of partnership and even within the last few weeks have helped Gordon Brown effectively disenfranchise the British working class by shutting down Labour Party democracy. But the appalling class collaborationism of a union’s leadership does not necessarily stop it from being a union and from mobilising workers in dispute against their bosses.
As recently as July 2007, the Israeli economy has been paralysed by general strikes led by the Histadrut.11 The last few years have seen sporadic explosions of industrial militancy, particularly by public sector workers, as well as widespread student strikes in protests at the government’s liberalisation and marketisation of education.12
There is also a significant peace movement in Israel, ranging from student activists protesting against anti-Arab racism13 to direct-action anarchists campaigning against the separation “fence”14 to established organisations with long histories of anti-occupation protest and agitation.15 Organisations representing refuseniks — heroic young men and women who face imprisonment for illegally refusing to serve in the Israeli army — also make up an important part of the peace movement in Israel, including those who identify (however wrong-headedly) with what they see as a social-justice tradition of Zionism.16
Although the Israel/Palestine conflict is undeniably a complex one, there is one simple aspect for socialists; that is the basic reality that only the working classes of both nations can bring about fundamental and democratic social change. The struggle for Palestinian liberation and independence is of the utmost importance in the region and indeed internationally. If it is fought in the name of religious bigotry and sectarianism it will be fatally hamstrung. In Israel, if the rights to self-determination and security that Israeli Jews, like all peoples, are entitled to are promoted on the basis of national chauvinism, then that can only serve the cause of reaction.
Please use the websites and email addresses to find out more about the Israeli and Palestinian organisations mentioned and, crucially, to contact them to find out what you, your union branch, your students’ union or campaigning group can do to support them and their work.
This article is not intended only a general overview of class-struggle organisation in the area but as a resource to aid socialists and trade unionists who want to act on their impulse to “do” something to help the Palestinians but who feel, as the AWL does, that boycotts are at best not enough and at worst positively counterproductive.
If working class and democratic forces in Palestine and Israel are currently weak, marginalised or politically misled then that is no argument for abandoning our faith in them as the agents of change and naively pinning our hopes on some other force. It is only an argument for doing whatever we can to help those democratic, working class forces become stronger.
2. Interview with Rasem al-Bayari, Deputy General Secretary of PGFTU:
3. Palestinian women fight back:
4. Civil servants declare a general strike in Palestine www.alternativenews.org/news/english/
6. Conference of independent trade unions in Palestine: http://libcom.org/forums/
9. “The working class has nothing to gain”: www.workersliberty.org/node/6752
10. The unmaking of the Histadrut:
11. General strike shuts down Israel: http://libcom.org/news/general-strike-shuts-down-israel-25072007
12. Students to strike at all colleges, universities beginning Tuesday: www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/846646.html
13. Solidarity with the Haifa Seven: