In November 2007 the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) sent a very senior delegation of trade union leaders including the President of ICTU and several General Secretaries of major trade unions on a seven-day fact-finding mission to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The express aim of the delegation was to produce a report that was as impartial and as objective as possible. The delegation met therefore not only with Palestinian representatives but also spent several days in Israel and met with a wide range of Israeli spokespeople from the business, trade union and political sectors. A stormy meeting took place with the leadership of Histadrut and the Israeli business community. The delegation also met with Yitzhak Herzog, the Israeli Minister of Welfare and Labour Party member who blithely informed them that “Israel is the realization of biblical prophecies.”
On the Palestine side they met with a number of senior figures in both the West Bank and Gaza, including the leadership of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions; with Rafiq Husseini, the Chief of Staff of the Palestinian Authority; and in Gaza with Dr. Basem Naim, deputy leader of the Hamas government and Minister of Health. The delegation also met with a number of human rights groups including in Ramallah with Al-Haq, in Gaza City with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and in Hebron with Yehuda Shaul, an orthodox Jew and founding member of Breaking the Silence, the movement of ex-Israeli soldiers who are determined to highlight the injustices of the occupation.
After much reflection and deliberation the official delegation report has now finally been authorized for publication by the ICTU National Executive. The report, now carrying the weight of the entire Irish trade union movement, reflects the strong sense of shock and outrage experienced by the delegation and is unequivocal in its condemnation of the inhumanity of the occupation. It is extremely critical of the Israeli government, accusing it of crimes against humanity and characterizing its treatment of the Palestinians as apartheid. This has completely shattered any hopes held by Histadrut and by the Israeli political leadership that their meetings with ICTU would lead it to rethink its stance on Palestine and withdraw its call for boycott and divestment.
In the conclusions to this very detailed report of the visit ICTU severely criticized the Israeli government for its breaches of international law, for its war crimes and for ignoring countless UN resolutions. The report also criticized the Irish government and the European Union for not taking action to confront Israeli oppressive practices. It called on the Irish government to develop its own independent foreign policy and to challenge the pro-Israeli position of the Quartet. Amongst its recommendations the report specifically called for the policy of boycott and divestment to be implemented, and for Congress to use its influence in the international trade union movement to encourage similar expressions of support. It also called on the Irish Government to put pressure on the EU to restore financial support to the Palestinian Authority and also to help to bring about the ending of the preferential trading status afforded Israel under the Euro-Med Agreement. It finally recommended that ICTU should host a high level conference in order to develop trade union solidarity.
Although Ireland as a country has two separate jurisdictions, relating to the two separate states of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there is a single trade union congress representing trade unions across the whole island. When they speak on the issue of Palestine the ICTU therefore speaks for the whole movement. During their visit to the region the ICTU delegation received a very strong message from both Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations that national and international governments and political institutions are not capable of changing the situation in Palestine today — that they are not willing to seriously challenge the slow, planned destruction of a people.
International humanitarian law, the Geneva Convention and dozens of UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions are simply ignored — not just by Israel, which is simply acting in its own interest, but also by all the major industrial and military powers. The human rights organizations in the region, as well as all the major organizations of Palestinian civil society, have decided to look instead at trying to mobilize support and solidarity action from international civil society. This was a call that was heard again and again.
The trade union movement is the largest and the most organized of all civil society organizations. It is therefore of fundamental importance that Palestinian solidarity work be grounded in the trade unions, particularly if a major international campaign of boycott and divestment similar to the boycott of apartheid South Africa is to take place. Recent years have seen some very positive developments in terms of trade union demands for a boycott of apartheid Israel, including by COSATU in South Africa, UNISON in the UK, and the Canadian public sector and post office workers to name but a few. In Ireland a number of powerful trade unions and the ICTU itself have adopted a strong boycott policy position and the scene is now set for the building of an effective BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. ICTU is committed to circulating this report widely throughout the international trade union movement — it will hopefully go a long way to encourage other trade unions and trade union congresses worldwide take a similar stand.
Download the full report [PDF - 3.7MB]
Eamon Mc Mahon is the secretary of Trade Union Friends of Palestine (ICTU).