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Report on Palestine solidarity rally in Belfast

21 June 2014

An ICTU-IPSC sponsored rally in opposition to Israel’s assault on Gaza took place at Belfast City Hall last Saturday (19th July). It attracted a crowd of around fifteen hundred people and was addressed by a number of speakers.   

Probably the most significant part of the rally occurred before it had even gotten underway when a section of the crowd confronted a pro-Israel counter demo by loyalists. The loyalists, who had been part of the weekly flag protest, had set up just across the road from the City Hall and were shouting abuse and waving Israeli flags as people gathered. The organisers of the rally appealed for people to ignore them, to “turn their backs” to them and focus their attention on the stage. However, many in the crowd weren’t accepting this, and soon dozens and then hundreds of people were surging towards the loyalists shouting “Free, Free Palestine”.  While there was no violence involved, aside from some minor scuffles, it was made very clear to the loyalists their presence was unwelcome. Faced with force of numbers they quickly withdrew. While those involved in the confrontation were a minority of the demonstrators, the removal of the loyalists did meet with general approval.  The notable element that did not approve was the trade union officials. They were visibly panicked during the brief confrontation and were making frantic appeals for people to ignore what was going on and to move back towards the stage.  

When the rally got under-way it was addressed by a number of speakers. First up was Michelle Garrett from the Irish Friends of Palestine. She said that the rally in Belfast was one of hundreds taking across the world that were condemning the actions of Israel. She described Israel as an apartheid sate that was breaking international law by deliberately targeting civilians in its assault on Gaza. Michelle claimed that the media was siding with Israel and giving its spokesperson a platform to justify slaughter. Western governments were also giving support to Israel and there was no condemnation or consequences for its action.  It had to be made clear there this was not being done “in our name”. Michelle said she had been in direct contact with people in Gaza and they had told her of the horrific scenes that were unfolding there as whole families were being wiped out by bombing from the Israeli military.  In conclusion she urged people in Ireland to be a voice for the people of Palestine   

The next speaker was peace activist Mairaid McGuire. She said that it was appropriate the rally in support of Gaza was taking place in Ballast because the people on the city knew of the consequences of violence and war. They also knew that conflict could only be solved through negotiation. For her the problem in the Middle East was that successive Israeli governments had shown no will for peace, and while they talked peace their assaults on the Palestinians were ongoing. Mairaid said that Palestinians needed people to tell the truth of what was happening – that the apartheid/racist/Zionist state was committing genocide.  She condemned the US, EU and Arab world for not defending the innocents, for colluding in genocide rather than defending human rights and international law. Mairaid concluded by calling on people to demand that the international community take a stand, do what is right, and lift the siege of Gaza. 

The third speaker was Muhammad Samarra – a Palestinian living in Belfast – and a member of the IPSC.  He said that the assault on Gaza had been ongoing for 11 days and that many of the attacks had deliberately targeting Palestinian children. Muhammad referred to the killing of a Palestinian teenager by settlers in the West Bank.  He said that though it was not widely reported the body of the teenager was dumped in a forest near the ruins of the village of Deir Yassin – the site of an infamous massacre in 1948, and a powerful symbol of the oppression of the Palestinians. For him the assault on Gaza was the latest episode in the genocide of the Palestinian people. Muhammad Samarra said that the lie put forward by the media was that the Palestinian’s had brought this current attack on themselves – but there was no justification for the bombing of Gaza. He said that Israel’s aim was to destroy the Palestinian unity government and that various ceasefire offers were no more than demands for surrender.. Muhammad claimed that the assault on Gaza was an assault on humanity. But while Israel could kill Palestinians it could not kill the determination of the Palestinian people to fight for justice and freedom. He concluded by declaring that “enough is enough” and urged people to demand the lifting of the blockade and the dismantling of the apartheid wall. 

The final speaker was Sue Pentel of Jews for Justice for Palestine.  She said that it was not the case that the Israeli government spoke for all Jews and that many Jews, including citizens of Israel, had condemned the slaughter in Gaza and called for a halt to attacks.  For Sue this growing world wide movement of anti-Zionist Jews was important because it exposed the lie that opposition to Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism. The role played by a number of Holocaust survivors was also challenging efforts by the Israeli state to use the memory of the Holocaust as a cover for aggression. Sue said it was ironic that in Gaza the Israeli state had created the largest ghetto in the world. For her the racist policies of Israel were even worse than those of apartheid South Africa. She concluded by saying that as a Jewish person she could declare that what was Israel was doing in Gaza was not being done in her name.          

The extent to which the disturbance at start of the rally had shaken the organisers was seen at the end when one of them spoke to the crowd to condemn the “sectarian 
element” that had spoiled the event.  It was not clear whether they were referring to the loyalists, those that confronted them, or both. They also wanted to emphasise that Palestine was a humanitarian not a sectarian issue. 

The trade union apology to the loyalists was made more explicit by ICTU’s Brian Campfield.  In an interview with UTV he conceded that the organisers had   “consciously called the rally for a time after the normal flag protest would be finished”(as they have done with recent anti-racist demos) in order to avoid conflict.  He said that everyone had the “right to protest” and that if people respected each other there was no reason why they couldn’t “protest side-by-side”.  While he acknowledged that Palestine could be divisive issue it didn’t have to be and in any case it “didn’t have any resonance in the Northern Ireland context."  Campfield also made it clear that those involved in the confrontation with loyalists were not affiliated to the trade union movement in any way.

Of course these claims fly in the face of reality.  Clearly the issue of Palestine does have a resonance in the north of Ireland.  The loyalists haven’t latched on to support for Israel after intensive study of the politics of the Middle East. While they don't know much they know oppression when they see it; they know discrimination when they see it; and they know imperialism/colonialism when they see it. This is why they have an affinity with Israel, just in the same way they have an affinity with apartheid South Africa or the Confederate States of America. For what sectarian, Zionism and racism have as a common root is the denial of equality. This is the reason why the issue of Palestine does have such a resonance in the north of Ireland. 
It is also not the case that loyalists were exercising their right to protest - their sole purpose on Saturday was to harass those demonstrating in support of the Palestinians.  Also, why should their pro-Zionist views be respected? As if there there is an equivalence between national oppression and the struggle for national liberation. That the trade union leadership can’t express a preference for one over the other only serves to expose their insincerity.  How can they possibility offer leadership to a campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians when they are pandering to the main agitators for sectarianism in Ireland?

Given the confrontation with loyalists on Saturday the trade union leadership will be very wary of sponsoring such events in the future.  Fortunately what Saturday also showed is that the campaign of solidarity with Palestine is not dependant on support from ICTU.  The demonstration would likely have been of a similar size without them. Indeed, the large demo outside the BBC the following evening went ahead without support from trade union officialdom. 

Similar to the anti-racist rallies earlier in the year the strong support for Palestine shows that that there is a layer, particularly amongst the youth, that could potentiality form the basis of an anti-sectarian, anti-racist and anti-imperialist movement.  At the very least there is dissatisfaction with the political direction being offered by the trade unions and also by Sinn Fein.

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