By Sai Englert
16 October, 2023
SIDECAR, New Left Review
In Gaza, Israel is gearing up to commit genocide. It is not doing so quietly. It is repeating its intent every day, announcing it to the world in both its words and actions. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant described those in Gaza as ‘human animals’ while declaring that Israel was cutting off water, fuel, electricity and food to the entire blockaded strip. Likud officials have called for nuclear strikes as well as a second Nakba. Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, has rejected the distinction between civilians and combatants, asserting that ‘it is an entire nation out there that is responsible’. Israeli military officials have made clear that their aim is ‘damage, not precision’. All the while, Israel has subjected the 365-square-kilometre area to relentless shelling, dropping the same number of bombs on its 2.3 million inhabitants as the United States unleashed on Afghanistan in an entire year at the height of its murderous invasion. Hospitals, mosques, schools and homes – all have been deemed adequate military targets. At least 2,750 people have died so far, over one million have been displaced, nearly ten thousand are wounded.
Half of Gaza’s inhabitants were told to relocate to the south of the strip via military-approved ‘safe routes’. Israel then bombed these routes while people were doing just that. Many other Palestinians refused to follow the order. They know better than anyone that this is a straightforward attempt at ethnic cleansing. Nearly 80% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, expelled from their lands in 1948 and refused their right to return by their colonial rulers. In the south, the situation is dire too, thanks to continual aerial bombardment, shortages of water, food and electricity, and the influx of new arrivals. Israel continues to block the entry of humanitarian aid through the Rafah crossing, which has been hit repeatedly by air raids.
Israeli officials, including Netanyahu himself, have announced that this is ‘only the beginning’. More than three hundred thousand troops have been mobilized and are awaiting orders to launch a ground offensive which could, we are told, last months. The resultant death and destruction would be unimaginable. There is a high likelihood that the entire northern Gaza Strip would be razed to the ground, and that the inhabitants of the enclave would be corralled into an even smaller area – forcing them to choose between death, unbearable captivity, or exile. Israel justifies this indiscriminate bloodshed as a response to the killing of 1,300 Israelis in the days following the Palestinian break-out on 7 October, and the need to prevent Hamas from carrying out further operations. Its current assault must be understood, first and foremost, as a response to the political humiliation it suffered at the hands of the most isolated section of the Palestinian population.
After eighteen years of siege by land, air and water, during which Israel’s stated policy was to ‘put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger’ by severely restricting food access, while regularly ‘mowing the grass’ – i.e., carrying out campaigns of assassination and mass killing – Palestinians in Gaza finally managed to tear down the barbed wire that kept them captive. Through that act alone, they endangered the political future of Netanyahu and his coalition, along with the process of normalization between Israel and the region’s most autocratic and repressive regimes. In addition, they punctured Israel’s illusion of omnipotence, exposing its vulnerability for the whole world – and, more importantly, for all Palestinians – to see. Retribution will now be conducted by all available means – including forced displacement or outright annihilation.
The question facing all of us in the West is how to stop the impending genocide. Our rulers have made it clear that they will allow Israel to carry out its plans – invoking the country’s ‘right to defend itself’ by carpet bombing a civilian population. The US and the UK have sent battleships to demonstrate their unflinching support. Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Tel Aviv to give Netanyahu the EU’s backing. Keir Starmer insisted that Israel had a right to cut off vital supplies to the entire blockaded population. Simultaneously, our governments have tried their best to repress Palestine solidarity movements on the domestic front: France banned pro-Palestine demonstrations altogether, Berlin followed suit, and the UK considered joining in. Of course, this follows a years-long attempt to criminalize the Palestinian cause and stamp out the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, under the guise of ‘countering terrorism’ or ‘fighting antisemitism’. Why is our political class so invested in suppressing criticism of the apartheid regime? The answer is obvious. Western states support Israel in order to maintain their power at a crucial crossroads of world trade. Challenging that power is impermissible, because any attempt to hold Israel accountable for its crimes is – by definition – an attempt to hold our own states accountable for their involvement in them. Not only are our rulers prepared to let Israel level Gaza; they will even provide it with diplomatic cover and military supplies.
What is standing between Gaza and genocide, then, is political pressure – an internationalist movement whose aim is to force Western governments to backtrack and restrain the Israeli killing machine. Last weekend we saw the first stirrings of this movement in its current phase. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – turned out to march. Sana’a, Baghdad, Rabat, and Amman were filled with protesters as far as the eye could see, bringing cold sweats to the rulers of the region, who see the connection between their populations’ demands for Palestinian liberation and demands for their own. In London, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin, in New York, Brussels and Rome, in Cape Town, Tunis, and Nairobi, in Sydney and Santiago, people took to the street to demand an end to the onslaught, an end to the siege, and a free Palestine.
These scenes were extraordinary – but they alone will not be enough. In the US, activists have targeted the offices of key policymakers, staging protests and sit-ins, demanding that they drop their support for Israel’s crimes and take action to end the assault. Shaming politicians in this way will be an important tactic in the days and weeks to come. The recent history of the solidarity movement offers other methods that may also prove effective. In the UK, Palestine Action has spent years targeting armaments factories and stopping the production of weapons intended for use against Palestinians. Dockers in Italy, South Africa and the US have refused to handle Israeli cargo during previous military assaults on Gaza, disrupting the flow of goods and weapons to the country. During the winter of 2008-9, as Israel launched its first massive assault on the strip following the imposition of the blockade three years earlier, students across the UK occupied their campuses, calling for their universities to show concrete solidarity with Palestinians and for their government to cut diplomatic ties. They used the occupied spaces to host lectures, discussions and debates. Amid growing repression against the Palestine solidarity movement, such spaces could once again play a crucial role in enabling street-level organization.
It is up to activists themselves to decide which methods are most suited to their local and national contexts. Yet, across the board, there can be no return to business as usual. We have a collective obligation to ratchet up the pressure on our governments, and on Israel itself, to stop the genocide and mass displacement. In the UK, several trade unions expressed support for the demonstration last weekend, as well as their concern about the situation in Gaza. Can such concern be translated into meaningful interventions? Can union militants move from making solidarity statements to taking solidarity industrial action? If lecturers and teachers, dockers and train drivers – to name but a few of those who turned out at the rally in London – could organize work stoppages, demanding that the government reverse its position and stop the ongoing mass murder, then Britain’s leaders would not have the political space to give Israel a carte blanche.
Today, Palestinian unions have called on trade unionists across the world to show their solidarity by refusing to continue with the provision of arms to Israel. They have asked that workers in relevant industries make the following commitments:
To refuse to build weapons destined for Israel.
To refuse to transport weapons to Israel.
To pass motions in their trade union to this effect.
To take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege, especially if they have contracts with your institution.
Pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel, and, in the case of the US, funding to it.
These demands must now be brought to workplaces and unions across the West, where they will find important allies among existing campaigns against the arms trade. Points four and five are not industry-specific, and can have a much wider application across the labour movement.
The task ahead of us is clear. Genocide, ethnic cleansing and a second Nakba are not acts of God. They can be prevented. Our governments have so far refused to raise objections. Let us remind them of the costs of their complicity.
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