Our last few days as a delegation

The delegation has spent the last few days of our time together traveling around the region, hence the lack of blog posts. We said goodbye to Justin this morning, and Kate will leave tonight. Julianne, Nathaniel, and Rob will be staying in the region to travel, learn more about the situation in Palestine, and participate in demonstrations against the Apartheid Wall.

It should be noted that Sunday and Monday were spent engaged in activities that do not directly relate to the labor aspects of this delegation, but are worth recording in order to provide a full picture of our witness as a group, as well as a political context to understand the labor and economic situation in Israel/Palestine.

Sunday was spent immersed in the history and politics of Jerusalem, beginning with a stop at an ever expanding Jewish settlement in a largely Arab section of East Jerusalem. Palestinians had recently been forcefully evicted from their homes by settlers and hired guards, and are living in tents on the street while the settlers occupy their homes. This area had been granted to 1948 Palestinians by the Jordanian government in 1956, and has long been an area populated by Arabs. At the time of our visit, the residents of the homes, as well as a handful of activists, were anxiously awaiting an Israeli Supreme Court decision that would determine the owners of the land. Throughout our delegation, we've listened as Palestinians cite Jerusalem as central to any peace negotiations, and this experience certainly brought those conversations to life.

Monday we had the excellent opportunity, thanks to our guide Mitri, to ride a chartered bus to the Golan Heights, in commemoration of the release of 4 political prisoners, some of whom had been in jail for as many as 25 years. The Golan Heights is Israeli-occupied Syrian territory, whose beauty is marred by fields pocked with landmines, some of which wash down the hills to the residential areas when it rains. We shared an impressive feast with the released prisoners and a group of about 50 Palestinians, many of whom were members of the FIDA party. The bus ride, while long, was a lot of fun, with dancing, singing and clapping all the way up the mountains. On the way back, the music of Umm Kulthoum paired with the sight of the sun setting into the Sea of Galilee offered a pensive and relaxing trip, and the delegation parted ways with Mitri and the others in Tiberias. The group had one minor scare at a checkpoint; two of our delegation members were pulled off the bus and interrogated. The questioning, however, was thankfully short-lived.

The last day of the delegation was spent in Nazareth, where we met with two labor organizations: Sawt Al-Amal [Voice of Labor] and Ma'an, or the Workers Advice Center. For readers who are not familiar with the area, Nazareth is one of the largest Arab cities inside Israel, and the conditions of workers inside Israel, while equally problematic, are somewhat different than those in the occupied territories.

Sawt Al-Amal was formed as an alternative to Histradut, the Israeli union that is closely aligned with the Israeli government, in part because, post 1948, there were no organizations representing Palestinian workers inside Israel. Palestinians inside Israel face institutionalized racism and systematic economic disempowerment, and Sawt Al-Amal works to ameliorate these problems through organizing and advocacy.

The visits to unions in Nazareth lent insight into the dynamics between working class Jews and Arabs, and the situation of Palestinians inside Israel. Sawt Al-Amal as an organization tries very hard to unite Jewish and Arab workers, however, the group finds it very difficult because of the segregation inside Israel. Everything inside Israeli public life is separated between Arabs and Jews. Of all the cities in Israel, only 5 are considered to be officially "mixed". There are 2 school systems, one for Arabs and one for Jews, and the mandatory military service, of which Palestinians are exempt, offers educational and financial benefits to Israelis and not Palestinians.

In terms of labor, there are many Israeli employers that refuse to hire Palestinians, and there are some sectors of the economy where Palestinians are completely barred: the electricity company, the telecommunications industry, the airports and seaports are largely off limits to Arabs. Sawt Al-Amal considers the struggle of Palestinian workers to be the same struggle as workers all over the globe, but unique because of the conflict. They not only face problems of privatization and globalization, but suffer from institutionalized racism as well.
There are efforts to unite Jewish and Arab workers. Sawt-Al Amal works with some of the smaller Jewish unions, who are organizing immigrant workers, as well as the service industry. They frequently engage in political discussion with these organizations, stating that "If discrimination exists, all workers are hurt". Occasionally, Arabs and Jews will take to the streets together, demonstrating for rights within a specific workplace. However, as soon as the conversation turns to the root causes of economic exploitation among the Palestinians, mutually supportive work is divided along ethnic lines. Political tensions run deep, and organizing Jews and Arabs together proves difficult.
A line from the preamble of the IWW Constitution, " the working class and the employing class have nothing in common", sparked an interesting discussion about Palestinian employers. According to our hosts at Sawt Al-Amal, Palestinian employers are not necessarily more sympathetic to Palestinian workers, readily play the "nationalist" card in response to organizing, and are just as likely to break a union as Israeli employers. It is a difficult situation, in part because there is little awareness in the Palestinian community about the rights of workers and the obligations of employers. In general, there is a lack of organizing infrastructure, as Palestinian institutions were either destroyed or exiled in 1948, as well as a general suspicion of unions, as Palestinians had to join the zionist-oriented Histradut in order to obtain a work permit. Sometimes, Palestinians think of unions as the oppressor.

Ma'an unionists had some interesting things to say about foreign workers, especially in the construction sector. Many immigrants are brought to Israel, not on their own volition, but as part of economic agreements between governments. For example, in an agreement between Israel and Turkey, low-wage workers are traded for a guarantee that Israeli tanks will be repaired inside Turkey. These worker's passports are captured, and they work for wages amounting to slave labor. Ma'an has set up committees at construction sites to assist in the organizing of these workers, as well as working on an advocacy level, with, in particular, Thai workers who flood Israeli farms, apparently in violation of international labor laws. One of the more mind-boggling statistics of the afternoon is that there are 300,000 foreign workers and 300,000 unemployed Palestinians inside Israel.

Ma'an is organizing truck drivers, archaeological diggers, freelance television and education workers, and temporary laborers. They also have an extensive women's empowerment campaign, that works to draw women into the agricultural sector. Their primary mode of operations is to assist in the development of the Palestinian job market, and they were first recognized as a union that represents workers as a result of a campaign inside the West Bank. Palestinians inside the West Bank were working for an Israeli-owned quarry, and the employer was not abiding by Israeli laws or Palestinian laws. Ma'an fought for the rights of those workers, and helped improve their conditions. Aside from this campaign, however, Ma'an leaves organizing within the territories to the Palestinian unions, and focuses their efforts inside Israel. The group produced a documentary called 6 Floors to Hell that details the lives of Palestinians working illegally inside Israel.

Ma'an has an explicitly political mission, and believes that organizing the working class is necessary if you want to be a force for social change. They see the building of a union to be the beginning of an internationalist workers party, that would unite workers beyond religion and ethnicity.

It's worth noting that we spoke with both organizations about the Israeli boycott effort that is supported by unions in the West Bank and around the world, and while neither had signed on to the international BDS call , they had very different responses. Sawt Al-Amal did not sign on because the boycott is fairly specific to the occupied territories, and their focus is on the situation for workers inside Israel. As an organization with limited capacity, focus is key. The group endorses the boycott informally, and will support any of their allies with information and statistics in their boycott efforts. Ma'an, however, takes the position that outside countries should prioritize taking action against the wrongdoings of their own governments [using the example of the US occupation of Iraq], and that boycotting Israel is not in line with the Palestinian Authority. Ma'an believes that boycotting the settlement goods is ok, but boycotting everything else is challenging.

And now, the delegation is signing off. We've had a really wonderful trip, have met some truly wonderful people, have been inspired, enlightened and energized by all that we have seen and heard. There may be more posts from individual delegation members in the next several days, but the official delegation is over. Time to get to work in the US!


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