“Sometimes you have to run very fast to remain in the same place. But experience shows that when you’re active you build something, and if you don’t stop in the middle and leave in despair, it will bring results. Even if you won’t live to see them, at least you know you’re doing something that’s needed.” Michal Shwartz, Israeli activist.
For almost a month now, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have poured into the streets for massive, unprecedented protests against their government, whose ruthless neo-liberal policies systematically enrich a tiny elite at the expense of the vast majority.
To avoid being dismissed as ‘leftists’ (which PM Netanyahu did anyway), protest leaders disallowed any mention of the colossal, toxic elephant in the room: the ever-expanding matrix of extravagantly subsidized settlements built illegally on Palestinian land, and the massive military apparatus that’s required to back them.
Several Israeli commentators like Uri Avnery worry that this bizarre denial of reality could fatally compromise the protests, and then all it would take to unravel them is a ‘security’ scare. This tactic has always worked in Israel.
On Thursday August 18, several attacks were launched by unknown assailants near the southern Israeli town of Eilat: gunfire hit a bus carrying soldiers, an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) detonated under an army patrol vehicle, an antitank shell hit a civilian car, and shots were fired at Israeli soldiers. One Israeli soldier, one border guard sniper and six Israeli civilians were killed. (More detail here, from JNews, “alternative Jewish perspectives on Israel-Palestine”.)
Immediately, protest leaders in Tel Aviv called off their protests. Instead they organized a “mass march for the dead.” Israeli dead, that is. Palestinians in Gaza killed by the most intense Israeli attacks since the 2008-09 invasion will not be mourned by the protesters in Tel Aviv. (The current Israeli military escalation started on Thursday, despite the absence of any clear evidence that the perpetrators originated in Gaza.) Nor will the Israeli marchers mourn the Egyptian soldiers killed on Thursday by Israeli rockets on the border between Gaza and Sinai. (In response, Egypt has made a formal protest, and has threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Israel.)
None of this is new, except in the details. From its inception, the Israeli state has been built on territorial expansion, military occupation and war. The only ‘peace’ such a regime can allow – or even contemplate – is a dictated colonial peace, of the sort imposed on indigenous people in the Americas, Australia and other European colonies. This is peace without justice, the deathly stillness of tyranny triumphant. By contrast, a just peace is alive, mutually beneficial, democratic, and vibrant with possibilities. Such a peace sidelines the military and is thus intolerable to a military state.
Still, defying impossible odds, ‘ordinary’ people in Palestine and Israel continue to search for traces of common ground, and in that rocky ground they determinedly plant seeds for a just peace. It is to explore and honour this steady, grueling, sometimes dangerous work that I wrote Our Way to Fight.
So then, what is new? Boycott, divestment and sanctions, at least in the Israel-Palestine context. Despite escalating attacks by Israel and its backers, the international BDS movement continues to grow, slowly but surely. Its impact can be measured in many ways, including the recent Israeli law outlawing support for boycott. (A shocking threat to democracy which, ironically, some Israeli commentators suggest may have been one of the sparks for the tent protests!)
The Salit quarry strike is also a new phenomenon. On the surface it is not such a big thing, but its implications are enormous, both for authentic democracy and for a just peace.
A little background:
When I travelled in Israel with Michal Shwartz and Dani Ben-Simhon of the Workers Advice Centre, they had just experienced a breakthrough at the Salit quarries. For two years WAC-MAAN (MAAN is the Arabic translation of the acronym WAC) had been trying to organize diggers, manual labourers who work in archeological sites and stone quarries. As in agriculture and trucking within Israel, in the excavation business bosses collaborate with manpower companies to create a virtual slave market, picking and choosing from the most excluded, and thus most desperate for work – Palestinians, Ethiopians, the elderly, women. The official Israeli labour federation, the Histadrut, has no interest in such marginal workers.
In May 2010, after Salit management halted negotiations aimed at forming a union, the forty production workers at the quarries went on strike. They refused management’s offer to resume negotiations without WAC as their union. Three days into the strike, management agreed to marathon negotiations toward a collective agreement, the first in twenty-seven years at the quarry, and the first ever between Palestinian workers and an Israeli company. (The quarries are located in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli military control, so the Israeli owners naturally assumed that this gave then full control over the Palestinian workers.)
But what do workers’ rights have to do with peace? “In WAC,” Dani Ben-Simhon explained, “we are trying always to reinforce this idea of shared working class interest, regardless of nationality. This is different from other organizations that talk about peace and co-existence here. Either they talk and talk but say nothing about politics, or they eat hummus together and that’s it. We’re talking about something much bigger, mutual working class interest to make a change in our society.”
The way I read history, this would be a long, steep uphill battle. Since Michal Schwarz has been at this kind of struggle much longer than I have, I asked her how she reads history. She replied: “We are not people who lack patience, who think we can change history with our own hands. We look around, we see how things have gone in the past and how they are going now, and we work at the tempo that history forces on us. Sometimes you have to run very fast to remain in the same place. But experience shows that when you’re active you build something, and if you don’t stop in the middle and leave in despair, it will bring results. Even if you won’t live to see them, at least you know you’re doing something that’s needed.”
Which brings us to the strike. After a full year of negotiations, in April 2011 a collective agreement was drafted between the Workers Advice Center and Salit Quarries. The workers are seeking a gradual increase in wages, a pension plan, and safer, healthier working conditions. But then Salit management engaged in a series of delaying tactics to avoid signing the agreement. Finally on June 16 the workers voted to strike.
According to a WAC-MAAN update, “The strike has completely frozen the company’s activity. Trucks from outside contractors which arrived in the first days of the strike to load up with sand and gravel no longer come. Traffic which on a regular working day constitutes some 100 trucks has stopped. Damage to the quarry so far is estimated at about NIS 2 million [MR: currently about $555,000 Cdn].”
Two months into their strike, the quarry workers are surviving on a small support fund contributed by unions and individual donors in several countries. WAC-MAAN has now set up a public strike fund to receive contributions via PayPal.
The appeal page includes reports on the strike from mainstream Israeli and Palestinian media, and a fascinating interview with Muhammad Fukara, who has worked in the quarries for 27 of his 52 years.
Many people are watching to see how this struggle develops.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports: “Most Palestinians working for Israelis in the West Bank suffer from poor working conditions. Spontaneous strikes have broken out against such companies in the past, but this is the first time workers have organized and gone on strike to demand a collective wage agreement.”
The quarry workers’ appeal concludes: “Be part of this historic achievement!”
It will bring results.