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Report on ICTU organised protest in Belfast against Israel’s attack on Gaza 

JM Thorn

14 January 2009

Last Saturday (10th) saw another protest in Belfast against Israel’s assault on Gaza.  Organised by ITCU it attracted around two thousand people and took the form of a march from the Arts College to the City Hall. 

At the City Hall the protest was addressed by a number of speakers. First up was John Corey of ICTU.    He said that the thousands of people at the protest were there to show their opposition to what was going on In Gaza and to call for an immediate ceasefire.   John said that people were dismayed by the deathd and injuries caused by Israel’s assault on Gaza; though he also expressed opposition to the firing of rockets by Hamas.  He said that trade unions were for human rights and peace.   Their message to the Israeli Government was that there was no justification for military action that resulted in death and injuries to thousands of civilians.  John said it was disgraceful that the US didn’t support the UN ceasefire resolution even when the Red Cross had confirmed that situation in Gaza was an humanitarian crisis.   His own union (NIPSA) had donated £10,000 to Medical Aids for Palestine as a response.  He said that the number at the protest demonstrated that people did care about what was going on in Gaza, and that their message to Israel was clear – “you are wrong, you must stop”.  John urged people to support ICTU’s sanctions and boycott policy. He concluded by stating that ICTU supported the Palestinians right to self-determination, and believed that this could be achieved through a two state solution. 

The next speaker was the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Tom Hartley.  He said that there was dismay over the killing of Palestinians in Gaza, and that people on the protest were adding their voices to others throughout the world in opposition to the violence.  The killing of women and children, the attacks on schools, mosques and hospitals had to end.  Tom said that the international community had to work for a ceasefire and a peace settlement.  The blockade of Gaza, which was depriving people of their basic human needs, had to be ended.  The siege had to be lifted and the borders opened.  Tom called for humanitarian organisations to be allowed operate freely.  He concluded by stating that in the longer term there had to be a political solution to the conflict in Palestine.  The Lord Mayor’s address was followed by contributions form the representatives of the four main church leaders.  While these took up the bulk of the speaking time they contained nothing of substance.  The presence of the church representatives seemed designed primarily to give the protest a veneer of cross community support. 

They were followed by Patricia McKeown of ICTU.  She said that the people of Gaza had nothing left but their resistance and through this they were affirming their need for human rights in the face of oppression.  Patricia also drew attention top the lies and myths being perpetuated by the media – such as Hamas not being the elected representatives of the Palestinians.  For her the humanitarian disaster in Gaza was a form of genocide  - there had to be an immediate ceasefire.     She also revealed that ICTU was in contact with humanitarian organisations and was providing financial support for medical aid.   ICTU was also standing by its boycott and sanctions policy despite the criticism it had received.  Patricia said that the calls from the British and Irish governments for a ceasefire needed to be backed up by action.  This action had to include the ending of Euro Med trade agreements and the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Israel.  Its ambassadors were no more than mouthpieces for a war machine.  Patricia pleaded “in the name of humanity” for an end to the attack on Gaza.   She said that a lasting peace would only come about through the righting of the historic wrongs against the Palestinians. 

Next up was as speaker from the Muslim Family Association.  He said that people needed to express their anger not just at Israel but also the US, citing its abstention on the UN ceasefire resolution.    Like Patricia Mckeown he highlighted the distortions of western media in their coverage of Gaza – they were not showing the truth.  He also attacked Arab governments for doing nothing for Palestinians.  Talking about the conditions in Gaza he noted that 75 per cent of Gazans are refugees from Palestine and that 1.5 million people crammed into tiny area.  He said that the so-called humanitarian truce was perverse – amounting to feeding people for three hours and bombing them for twenty-one.  Finally, he thanked people for turning out and assured them that governments would eventually take heed of their voice.  He was followed by Sue Pentel of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC).  She told the protest that she was a Jewish member of IPSC, and that it was necessary to challenge to myth that is was anti-Semitic to criticise Israel.   She then read out a statement from Jewish Friends of Palestine that called for and end to attacks and the opening of talks with Hamas.   Sue ended by appealing to members of the Jewish community to oppose the destruction of Palestinian people. 

She was followed by veteran peace campaigner Mairead Maguire.  Mairead said that the world couldn’t stand by and allow Israeli aggression to go on.  She revealed that she had recently received an e-mail from doctors in Gaza which told of their struggle to cope with causalities, particularly those who had been burned by phosphorus.   Mairead spoke of her visit to Gaza last year as of the Free Gaza Boat, and of visiting a hospital that was running short of medical supplies.  She said that Israel was subjecting Gazans to collective punishment.  This was a crime against humanity for which the Israeli government had to be made accountable.  Mairead called for Israel to be expelled from the UN and for its goods to be boycotted.  She also accused the US of colluding with Israel in the oppression Palestinians.  She concluded by saying that there were people within Israel who were opposed to the polices of their government and that opposition to Israel was not anti-Jewish but pro human rights.  The final speaker was Peter Bunting of ICTU.   He started of by thanking people for turning out for the protest, saying that Palestinian people deserved support.  He then made a reference to opposition to the protest from some local politicians – this was presumably the DUP although he did not specify any particular party. Peter said that attempts to put a local sectarian framework on the events in Gaza should be rejected.  He said that the protest was not just against government of Israel, but also the western governments that were complicit in its actions.  He rejected the idea that Israel’s assault on Gaza was part of a struggle to uphold western civilisation - it wasn’t – and neither was the separation wall, the building of settlements or the blockade.  Peter said that ICTU was for a mass peaceful campaign, citing the boycott of Israeli goods as an example of people acting as “ethnical consumers for justice”.  He concluded by calling for an immediate ceasefire and the commencement of talks as the only way to achieve the desired two state solution. 

Although the turnout at this protest was impressive it politics were quite poor. Much of what was said seemed to be an attempt by ICTU to deflect charges from unionism that they were one-sided.  Yet, given the overwhelming power being used by Israel to suppress the Palestinians, and the visit disparities in deaths and injuries between Israelis and Palestinians, how could you be anything other than one-sided?  ICTU was also pushing the two-sate solution that has been the basis a peace process that has put Palestinians into a worst condition than they were in when it started.  Another notable point was the absence of any Palestinian speakers from the platform.  It was also disappointing that there was no follow on from the demonstration.  For example, speakers had mentioned the role of the US in the slaughter and the distortions of the mainstream media - so why not a picket of the US consulate or the BBC?  The protest demonstrated that significant numbers of people could still be mobilised in opposition to war, but if the organisers of such protests are bending over backwards to appease the most reactionary element within local politics, then the prospects for the development of an effective solidarity movement is very limited. 


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