In response to Israel’s deadly attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla, more than 800 labor and community activists picketed America’s sixth largest port in Oakland last month. The result was a historic blockade of a large Israeli cargo ship for 24 hours. Across the world, dockworkers and activists engaged in similar actions. In Sweden, the Dockworkers Union completed a week-long boycott of Israeli ships and containers, resulting in the blocking of 500 tons of goods to and from Israel.
Turkish dockworkers’ union Liman-Is also announced that their workers would refuse to handle Israeli ships. In South Africa, Durban dockworkers blocked Israeli ships in February 2009 in response to Israel’s 22-day war of aggression on the Gaza Strip. The Union of South African Municipal workers announced last month their intention to declare all South African municipalities as “Israeli Apartheid-Free Zones.” The message behind all these courageous actions worldwide was clear: Israel should no longer be allowed to act with impunity. Israel should be held accountable to universal principles of human rights.
The worldwide wave of protests against Israel’s assault in international waters and the killing of at least nine activists, including one Turkish American, is accompanied with a growing sense of revulsion at the double standards the US government and its allies apply to Israel. Its persistent lawless actions are jeopardizing America’s public image, where it is becoming more difficult than ever to justify Israeli crimes without harming our relationships with other ally countries. More importantly, this blind support for Israel’s policies is creating vigorous grassroots opposition, largely expressed through the global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
This movement is taking upon itself what governments have failed to do: to hold Israel accountable for its crimes. The dockworkers’ refusal to deal with Israeli ships is part of this vibrant movement and comes in response to the appeal in 2005 from Palestinian civil society. Other initiatives include campaigns for the boycott of Israeli products, divestment from companies aiding Israeli war crimes, and cultural isolation, so as to not entertain Israeli apartheid, demonstrated by the cancellation of concerts in Israel by renowned artists like Elvis Costello and Gil Scott-Heron.
Israel’s latest massacre, sadly, does not come as a surprise, but rather constitutes a progression of Israel’s continued abuse of power as the world turns a blind eye to its aggression. In 2003, and again in 2007, I was ejected from the US Congress after being targeted by the pro-Israel lobby in this country for daring to veer from standard political operating practice by actually believing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all human beings, including Palestinians. It was this first experience that gave me a true picture of the ruthlessness of Israel’s supporters in this country and the silence of those in a position to object.
In December 2008, I joined activists aboard the pleasure boat, Dignity, in an attempt to break the siege of Gaza. We left Cyprus heading for Gaza, carrying with us badly needed medical supplies among other necessities. It was when we got to what Israel deemed a “closed military zone” that the Israeli navy attacked us. Our boat was rammed, disabled and forced to dock in Lebanon rather than deliver aid to those in need because of Israel’s violent onslaught against Gaza, the 22-day Operation Cast Lead. In late June 2009, I again attempted to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza by boat and the Israeli navy, in international waters, commandeered the boat, kidnapped 21 of us onboard and imprisoned us in an Israeli prison for seven days. Despite the parallels with the recent Freedom Flotilla attack, my own government completely disregarded these illegal actions, and the media deliberately misled the public, as is too often the case.
All of this has an undeniable historical parallel with the South African anti-apartheid struggle — one that we must all learn from. The apartheid regime enjoyed wide support from Western governments, and it was only in 2008 that the US begrudgingly removed travel restrictions on Nelson Mandela. He, too, had been vilified for standing up for the rights of black people. In 1963, just four years after the anti-apartheid movement was formed, Danish dockworkers refused to offload a ship with South African goods, and Swedish workers followed suit. Dockworkers in the San Francisco Bay Area and, later, in Liverpool also refused to offload South African goods.
The Palestinian BDS movement, which seeks to end discrimination in Palestine, is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle. The Palestinian civil society call for BDS has been answered by thousands of people of conscience around the world. The Oakland dockworkers’ boycott brings back memories of a time when we dared not to be silent and refused to be complicit with US human rights crimes in Vietnam, the segregated US south, and in apartheid South Africa.
The struggle for freedom and justice for the Palestinian people has become the litmus test of our time (Gaza today has become the test of our universal morality and our common humanity). The US Congress in 1986 imposed a comprehensive boycott of apartheid South Africa, at a time when the citizen-led boycott movement deemed US government collaboration with the racist regime impossible to sustain. As Israel continues to commit massacres, and citizens of conscience respond vigorously to isolate what is now a pariah state, the US government will be forced into a similar position.
I was targeted and kicked out of the Congress because I believe in justice and peace. It is only a matter of time before voters of conscience turn what happened to me on its head by making it clear that elected policy-makers who collaborate in America’s unconditional partnership with Israel will be exposed as shameful; and by making it clear to policy-makers that such shameful behavior is unsustainable because collaborators in injustice will be ejected from office by the people. When this moment comes, Palestinians will finally see justice and be allowed to live freely in their homeland.
Cynthia McKinney is a former member of the United States House of Representatives, 2008 Green Party presidential nominee, and a human rights activist.