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Global unions’ mission pledges support for Palestinian statehood

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14 June, 2024Tim Dawson, deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, shares his observations from the global union mission to Palestine in May.

History crowds in as you approach the Allenby crossing. It spans the Jordan river, linking the Kingdom of Jordan with the occupied West Bank. Suspended across domed concrete abutments, it resembles a space craft marooned in the desert. The Dead Sea is close by, and Jericho (possibly the world’s oldest city) is the nearest settlement. It is not remnants of bible times that are most striking, however, but marks of the last century.

The crossing takes its name from General Allenby. As Imperial governor, he built a predecessor structure in 1922. Zionist insurgents destroyed that crossing in 1948’s ’night of the bridges’, as they attacked strategic resources and started to drive Palestinians from large parts of what was then a British protectorate.

Today it serves as the West Bank’s only point of exit to a country other than Israel. It is not in Palestinian control, however. Immediately over the bridge, Israel operates a check point – effectively passport control for the land beyond. It is the first, grim sign that this is occupied territory.

Israel issues a ticket upon entry - for a cost. I also paid $133 for ‘VIP’ passage over the bridge. As a result, it took only a couple of hours to travel 500m. A colleague who entered the the previously day was detained for a further two hours and subjected to what he called ‘allegations and senseless questions’ – despite his hefty payment.This is a common experience, I am told.

The road from the border traverses dramatic sandy mountains. Israeli settlements line many of their ridges. Nearer the road, a few houses are ringed with tall, barbed-wire fences, lending their spare, concrete structures the look of prisons.

Ramallah, the aspirant capital of Palestine, is unusually quiet, and has been since 7 October. On a mid-evening stroll back to my central hotel, I pass no one. The evening coffee shops aren’t empty, but repeat visitors tell me that street life has shrunk dramatically since the start of the war.

It is a dramatically hilly city, predominantly comprising geometric concrete buildings built in recent decades. Modern cars fill the streets, although donkey wagons and hand carts are also a common site.

With leaders from eight other global unions, I am here on a solidarity mission to meet Palestinian trades unionists. It is the first visit of this kind organised by global unions, and a response to the unique horrors of this conflict.

Our first engagement is with Shaher Saed, general secretary of the General Federation of Palestinian Trades Unions. He greets us with bleak news. Immediately after 7 October, 200,000 workers from the West Bank who were employed in Israel were barred from their jobs. “They have not been allowed to work for eight months with terrible consequences,” Saed told us. Understandably, he is seeking the help of the international labour movement to recover lost wages, and restore Palestinians’ work permits. We promised whatever support, legal and moral, we could muster.

The West Bank’s population is slightly less than three million. The sudden unemployment of such a large portion of the workforce has dealt a predictable blow to a fragile economy. This situation is exacerbated by the extreme limitations on movement. A day earlier one of our party travelled 60km to Nablus – a journey that passed through four military checkpoints, adding several hours to what is normally a 90-minute drive. And more than 500 people have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers or settlers since 7 October – twice the number during the previous year.

Luc Triangle, general secretary of the International Trades Union Congress spoke for us all when he told Palestinian government officials:

“I feel the daily humiliation in the air that you experience. I can see the disregard and aggression that you feel on a daily basis and the anger that  inevitably stokes. The lives of Palestinian workers are clearly intolerable.”

Government in the West Bank is provided by the Palestinian Authority, the body created as a result of the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. Since the elections of 2006, it has been run by Fatah, while Gaza has been controlled by Hamas.

In February, the Palestinian government resigned in protest at the on-going war in Gaza, and new ministers were appointed. Among those we met, technocratic ability and optimistic vim appeared abundant. For example, social development minister Samah Abdelrahim told us:

“What is happening in Gaza is beyond out minds – nothing will bring back the dead. But Palestinian people want to live, even as the war is ongoing. They want to work for food. This did not start on 7 Oct. This has gone on for  is generations, but it did not cause people to lose hope, it made them hard workers.”

Like many of her colleagues, she received some of her education in the west – in her case the University of Manchester in England. She concluded her address saying:

“Having such a number of unions from around the world makes an enormous difference to Palestine”.

Our mission to Ramallah coincided with a celebration of the centenary of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, which represents media workers in Gaza and the West Bank. We joined its president, Nasser Abu Baker as he unveiled a monument to those journalists killed while doing their jobs.

The tally since 7 October is grim – well over 100 have been killed. There is nothing new, however, about Israeli soldiers targeting Palestinian journalists. The best known before the current war was Al Jazeera anchor, Shrine Abu Akleh, but there were plenty of others.

“This monument is to the soldiers who carry no weapons who carry the truth to the world, and sacrifice their lives in the process”,

Abu Baker told a crowd of several hundred at the ceremony to unveil the memorial.

Our mission concluded with an audience with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas – incumbent since 2005. He said to us:

“You can see for yourselves the injustices that Palestinians have to face, due to the continued Israeli aggression against our land and people in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We are proud of your solidarity with our people and workers against the unprecedented injustice and aggression they are facing.”

He determinedly differentiates himself from Hamas:

“We are against killing civilians, whatever their background”, he told us. “We are against the killing that happened on 7 October, that does not represent us, and we do not accept it And we do not accept what happened since; the death toll has reached more than 100 a day.”

He argues that his government is the best-placed body to oversee the reconstruction of all Palestine.

“Gaza is part of Palestine, and should be run by the Palestinian government, as should East Jerusalem. We are moving towards real statehood. This is all in line with UN resolutions.”

Abbas paints the State of Palestine (a title used by the PA since 2013) as the solution to the current conflict.

“We are part of the international community and abide by our obligations. We want more countries to recognise the two-state solution. Hereby I extend gratitude to Spain, Norway and Ireland. We call on all countries to recognise the state of Palestine, including EU countries.”

In policy and conviction the global unions broadly share Abbas’ aspirations, as was clear from the mission’s concluding statement. Mapping a clear route from the situation today to genuine statehood, however, is the challenge of the ages. If trades union solidarity is able to contribute to its accomplishment, it will surely be a crowning achievement of our movement?

Our return to the river crossing was no less jarring than arrival. As I submitted to fresh scrutiny by occupying guards I craned for a glimpse of the river itself. The site where Christ was baptised is just 3 km from the crossing. Alas, from the vantage of the bridge, no water whatsoever is visible. Indeed, 95 per cent of its flow is diverted by surrounding countries, much of what little remains, evaporates.

Peace, if it is to be achieved, will clearly require a more careful, collaborative effort than has been applied to the watercourse, if its beneficial flow is to be restored and enjoyed by all.