Nora Barrows-Friedman, Senior Producer and co-host of the excellent Flashpoints Radio, on direct action across the international spectrum (I am one of the people mentioned in this article). This article first published in Arabic in al-Haq al-Awda.
Linking arms through metal tubes and jamming the doorways with steel bicycle locks, dozens of pro-justice activists blocked the entrance to the Israeli consulate in downtown San Francisco on January 15th — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — at the height of Israel’s siege on Gaza, on a day when its military killed at least forty Palestinian men, women and children in a series of attacks that also decimated several mosques, schools and an UNRWA building. 24 hours before, in Los Angeles, protesters chained themselves to their local Israeli consulate and unfurled a banner reading “The Israeli consulate has been closed for war crimes.”
As Israel’s destruction of Gaza raged on, carried out by the Middle East’s only nuclear superpower against an entrapped, occupied and virtually defenseless population, so did countless actions across the world. Protests, marches and demonstrations were called by the usual peace and justice organizations — hundreds of thousands came to express their dissent in major international cities — but smaller, more direct actions were being taken with little to no media fanfare. And some of these quieter operations, activists say, have begun to make an impact.
From San Francisco to New York, Durban to London, Stockholm to Montreal, Nairobi to Berlin, a groundswell of dissent and disruption of “business as usual” by everyday people — enraged and sickened by the massacres in Gaza — erupted in tactful and targeted direct actions aimed at Israeli embassies, consulates and corporations, institutions of education, lectures by Israeli officials and academics, and even Israeli sports teams.
A week before California activists locked down at the consulates, protesters in Montreal, Canada, had set the stage by occupying their Israeli consulate building, serving the officials inside with a detailed eviction notice in protest against the Gaza siege. “Whereby the tenant of this premise is responsible for war crimes under the fourth Geneva Convention,” the notice read, detailing specific instances of Israel’s wanton brutality on civilian infrastructure and lethal attacks, “we as concerned residents of Montreal demand…The eviction of the Consulate of Israel, the expulsion of the Consular General, and an immediate end to the Israeli assault on Gaza.” A similar, fierce occupation took place at the Israeli consulate offices by Jewish women in Toronto, Canada, just days before.
In cities across the world, the level of outrage and frustration rose against Israel’s criminal attacks. In London, an estimated 50,000 protesters marched to the Israeli embassy and many were beaten back by hundreds of police in riot-gear as shoes, rocks, eggs, and red paint were hurled over the police barricades. And in Paris, protesters burned tires in the street, a common protest tactic usually witnessed in the occupied West Bank.
On January 21st in Brighton, England, nine activists gained entry to the ITT/EDO MBM arms factory, where they reportedly caused extensive damage to the offices and to industrial manufacturing equipment used to make weapons.
According to the Smash EDO/ITT campaign that organized and carried out the action, this factory produces weapons components including the Paveway precision guided bombs, Hellfire missiles, and bomb release clips for F15 and F16 fighter aircraft which are supplied directly to the Israeli military. Speaking from inside the factory to the media, the self-proclaimed “decommisioners” said they were “acting in solidarity with the people of Gaza, who have recently been on the receiving end of the factory’s products.”
British media had reported that their action may have shut down the weapons manufacturer for some time. Brighton police were quoted as saying that the action was carried out “with machinery and equipment so targeted that it could have been done with a view of bringing business to a standstill…The damage is significant and the value substantial.” Nine of the “decommisioners” remain in jail awaiting trial.
Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, nearly twenty universities have been turned into ground zero for pro-justice student activists who demand an urgent and public action from their educational institutions to take a stand against Israeli war crimes.
Since the day after Israel launched its lethal operations against Palestinians in Gaza, these British students have occupied chancellors’ offices, lecture halls, and administrative buildings inside campuses across the UK. “Motivated by the escalating crisis in Gaza,” University of Nottingham students state on their activism website, occupationnottingham.wordpress.com, “[we] have occupied space on campus and issued a set of demands to the University management calling for immediate action.
The students’ statement goes on to read, “There is now prima facie evidence that these attacks constituted war crimes as defined under international humanitarian law…Our university maintains strong ties with arms manufacturers, for example through research funding received from weapons companies such as BAE Systems and the Smiths Group, who supply military equipment to Israel. Collaboration with companies complicit in war crimes and the systematic denial of fundamental rights is unacceptable, as is their access to our careers events.
“We feel that our university’s perceived economic and political support for Israel’s aggression is irreconcilable with our deep concern for the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, in the absence of tangible and meaningful change.”
Muhammed Idrees Ahmad, a graduate student at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and the co-founder of Pulsemedia.org, participated in direct actions at the university. Ahmad says he was surprised at the rapid global escalation of direct actions being taken during and after Israel’s massacres in Gaza. “Activism in the UK had been on the decline the past few years,” Ahmad tells al-Haq al-Awda. “The last big marches took place around the time of Israel’s Lebanon invasion, but nothing nearly as this big, and nothing nearly as this sustained. I think there were two factors behind all this: one, the undeniable injustice and the brutality of the assault itself; and two, the end of the dominance of Western mainstream media. [There was] Al Jazeera, Press TV, alternative media, and above all Youtube, where the differences could be juxtaposed.” Ahmad also mentions Facebook, which had become a valuable tool in organizing actions and disseminating up-to-the-minute information from Gaza and around the world.
Along with only about 40 students at the core of the Strathclyde action, which included overnight occupations in administrative offices and rallies, Ahmad explains how a committed group of activists were able to pressure the university to agree to their demands.
“The big victory was getting Eden Springs booted from campus. It is an Israeli-owned company which makes its profits extracting water from the [occupied] Golan Heights. In recent years it has become the single largest provider of water to the Scottish public sector. We are now the fourth university to boot them off campus, and it has encouraged many others, most notably people in the National Health Service to start demanding the same.”
Ahmad points out that serious planning is a key factor in these actions. “The action has to be strategic. It has to target the pressure points, such as the administrative areas…we decided there was no point to [the action] unless we were disrupting the daily flow of business. And we succeeded…the significance of these otherwise modest victories goes beyond the act itself; it is what it encourages others to do, and the symbolic meaning it carries.”
Direct actions like these against Israeli war crimes in Palestine are also intrinsically linked to the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which many activists and scholars say is the most effective strategy for ending the occupation and colonization of Palestine.
In early February, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU), a member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), announced that their dock workers would refuse to offload an Israeli ship that arrived in Durban on February 8th. The Palestinian-led One Democratic State Group saluted this direct action coordinated by SATAWU, responding, “We…have addressed civil society organizations and freedom loving people to join our BDS campaign, launched in 2005. The South African struggle was our inspiration. And now, our comrades in SATAWU have decided to translate their words of solidarity with Palestine into action. This sets a historic move reminiscent of the action taken by Danish dock workers in 1963 against apartheid South Africa.”
Following SATAWU’s initiative, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union submitted its own statement of support, comparing Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza to the Sharpeville massacres in South Africa in 1960.
Dr. Marcy Newman, an American professor at an-Najah University in Nablus, says that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement “plugged into this global outrage in ways that emboldened people to take steps.”
Muhammed Idrees Ahmad agrees. “The BDS campaign is on a roll. The time of symbolic protests is over. Everyone is looking for meaningful action, and everyone recognizes BDS is it.”
Even now, after the so-called ceasefire was announced, protesters have not quelled their actions against Israeli institutions. On January 29th, ten activists chained themselves to two entrances of the Marriot Marquis Hotel in New York City where a $1,300-a-plate fundraising dinner for the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, the 2nd-largest lobby group in Washington) was taking place.
Alana Smith, a graduate student at New York University, was one of the activists who chained herself to a hotel door. “I think activists, and even people who don’t identify as activists but feel something about what is happening, should do whatever they think they can and then try taking one small step further,” she says. “I think that justice in Palestine does require a change in public opinion, both here in America and in the Middle East, and that public opinion must grow into an organized mass movement to be effective.”
Dave Florey, also of the “AIPAC 10,” says that the global momentum is extremely significant. “A lot of actions are happening at the same time right now — the occupation of Senator Carl Levin’s office in Michigan, more than a dozen school occupations in the UK, the successful occupation at the University of Rochester demanding investment disclosure, and so on — and that’s giving people a sense that actions aren’t isolated, that they’re part of a movement to end Israeli apartheid.”
Asked whether getting arrested would thwart decisions to take future actions, Florey said it has only strengthened his resolve. “The most powerful feeling was knowing I was doing the right thing. Some of the AIPAC dinner guests yelled at us as they walked by, but I knew we were right to oppose the wanton destruction of Gaza and they were so wrong to support it….Hopefully many more people will decide that, even if they’ve never been to a protest or taken a political action in their lives, now is the time to take a stand.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints, an award-winning daily investigative news program on the Pacifica Radio Network in the US. She is also a correspondent for Inter Press Service and Electronic Intifada, and reports regularly from occupied Palestine.