Belfast demonstration against the war in Lebanon
31 July 2006
A demonstration against the war in Lebanon was held in Belfast last Saturday. It took the form of a march from the grounds of the Arts College to the City Hall. Organised by the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) and Belfast Anti-War Movement (BAWM) at relatively short notice (the posters just went up on Thursday), it attracted a modest crowd of around 150 people. This encompassed most of the Belfast left, from the SWP and Socialist Party to the anarchists. However, the biggest component was from Sinn Fein whose members dominate the IPSC. A number of the party’s leading members including Gerry Adams where present at the start of the demonstration, but departed promptly after being photographed.
The march itself was rather subdued with attempts to get chants going provoking little response. An effort by members of the IRSP to set the stars and stripes alight as the crowd gathered at the front of the City Hall was a damp squib. Of course this wasn’t helped by a heavy rain shower. At the City Hall a number a speakers addressed the crowd. The first was Kathleen McConnell of the IPSC. She said that the while attention was focused on the massive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, this had overshadowed the ongoing Israeli campaign against Gaza. Since its commencement on 25 June, 49 Palestinians had been killed and hundreds more wounded. There had been 30 air strikes in Gaza. Kathleen said that such attacks represented a form of collective punishment, and that it was an abdication of responsibility by governments around the world not to speak out on this. It was therefore up to ordinary people to do something. For the IPSC this meant a campaign of boycotts and sanctions. Israel had to be viewed in public opinion the same way South Africa was during the apartheid era. In terms of a boycott, it meant not buying, and persuading shops not to sell, Israeli goods. In terms of sanctions, it meant campaigning for the suspension of the European Mediterranean Trade Agreement, which gives preferential status to Israeli goods being imported into the EU. Kathleen noted that despite this agreement containing a human rights clause, and despite the European Parliament voting twice for it to be suspended, this had been ignored by governments and the agreement was still in place. She finished her speech by calling for Bush, Blair and Olmert to be put on trial for war crimes.
The next speaker was Sue Pental of the IPSC & Jews for Justice. She said that that it would be wrong to think that all Jews supported the war; many did not, and some were actively opposing it. As examples she cited Jews for Justice group in Britain, and the Woman for Peace, Gush Shalom and the Refuseniks movement which were all active within the Israeli state. The was also a movement among the Jewish Diaspora to renounce the “right of return” granted to all Jews by the state of Israel, which allows them to live in Palestine irrespective of where they where born or reside. At the same time Israel denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This was confirmed by an intervention from a Palestinian woman in the crowd who recounted her experience of visiting her family home near Ramallah to find it was occupied by American Jews. Sue finished off by saying that people should not be intimidated from speaking out against Israeli for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. Such accusations were an attempt by Zionists to intimidate critical voices. The final speaker was anarchist and anti-racist activist Davy Carlin. He said that that were a good turnout at the demonstration, and that people had to understand that the movement goes up and down. He gave notice of a vigil that was being organised by the Catholic charity Trocaire for the following Tuesday.
The overall impression of this demonstration was that it was subdued. However, was not down to the wet weather. The main problem was its political perspective, and the lack of a focus for the opposition to the war. Undoubtedly the influence of Sinn Fein is big factor in this. As the party believes that the US has and will continue to play a progressive role in the Irish peace process, it is not going to be involved in a movement that seriously challenges the policies of US imperialism.
The rape of Lebanon has generated a real shock. There is mass sympathy with the Lebanese people among Irish workers and a revulsion against US and British involvement in the war and the cheering on of Israeli aggression. However the experience of the Iraq war is that protest alone is not enough to change the actions of imperialist powers and the mass sympathy is far from mass mobilisation.
The Belfast demonstrations, and others around the country, indicate that the left groups have not been shaken out of their routine, and continue to settle for expressions of moral outrage rather than providing an anti-imperialist political platform or strategic goals outside of the tactic of individual boycott of Israeli goods. This despite the fact that the Irish government are to some extent vulnerable and have been forced already to call in the Israeli ambassador and to refuse further involvement in the US war effort.
The interests of Sinn Fein will continue to act as a barrier to a broad campaign. The Irish Palestinian Solidarity campaign reflects this in a campaign that focuses almost totally on Israel, rather its imperialist backers, and its proposals for action, such as boycotts, that put the onus on the individual. A political campaign would focus on the role of the Irish government in collaborating with the war, both in Iraq and Lebanon. It would also make political demands such as calling for the Israeli ambassador to be expelled from Ireland.
There is a lot of public anger over the war in Lebanon and the “War on terror” more generally. The situation in the Middle East is changing in dramatic ways, with imperialism aiming for a final offensive to redraw the map of Palestine yet again, but finding the limits of military terror that it believed would sweep all before it. There a growing resentment among Arab workers at the collaboration of the Arab governments.
Socialists should be to the forefront in building a new solidarity that expresses that reality