Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Fire Brigade Union

After I’d had dinner with Nicola and Samar (we’d eaten tabouleh, Arabic salad and lamb shish), we then went out to meet a group of solidarity travellers who’d come to Palestine from the UK. Nicola knew them as she had been hired by their organisation to put together a solidarity exhibition in London with Palestinian artists. The organisation is called the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) (http://www.palestinecampaign.org/index2b.asp). The exhibition is to raise money for both the PSC and the Palestinian artists.

It was quite a big group that was sitting and eating in the little park by Ramallah’s Town Hall. The park is really half park and half amusement ground, with a bouncy castle, a playground and plenty of coloured lights and candles. There are also restaurants to eat in, to have a Palestinian beer or a cup of Arabic coffee. The group turned out to be a mixed group of people from the campaign plus trade unionists from both the UK and Palestine. Nicola introduced me to Mike, the coordinator from the PSC, who told me about the group and their study trip. There were, among others, two representatives from the British Fire Brigade Union who had been travelling around with the group in Palestine. Today they’d visited Hebron where they’d got up close to the Israelis settlers who were living in a settlement in the middle of the city. They’d spotted a piece of graffiti that said ‘Death to the Arabs’, or something like that, and had gone up to have a closer look at it. While they were there a group of very aggressive and armed settlers had shown up and this experience had been very intense — and quite depressing.

Back in Ramallah, the group had met with some people from the Stop the Wall campaign (http://www.stopthewall.org), which is a Palestinian research group that is mapping the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land in connection with the construction of the Wall. They are following the process closely through a multitude of local groups that are based in villages along the Wall. Over the next few days, the group of solidarity travellers were going to travel a bit more through Palestine to Nablus and to Jenin, and then finally to Israel where they would visit some of the Palestinian villages that are still in ruins after the cleansing of 1948.

Before I had travelled here, one of my questions had been — what does solidarity with the Palestinian people mean and how it can be practised in a way that truly supports them? Many of the numerous initiatives that exist around here are made up of people from all over the world who come to create what they call ‘peace’ and ‘dialogue’. In reality, this often seems more like self-therapy for the visitors than offering any genuine support which the Palestinian people would actually gain something from. It’s obvious that the Palestinian people will not benefit from people coming here to encourage a dialogue with the Israelis whilst, on a daily basis, the occupation forces are extending an almost unhindered land grab from the Palestinian farmers and making their lives unbearable. For the Palestinian people, as far as I can see, the situation is about fundamental rights and so ‘encouraging dialogue’ is pretty useless: why should they speak when their voices are clearly not heard?

One of the people from the Fire Brigade Union got up to the table and made a very nice speech about the issue of solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to independence. He told us, with his very Scottish accent, about how The Fire Brigade Union had been the first union in the UK to support the ANC in South Africa and had actively worked for a boycott of the apartheid regime in the 1980s. That boycott had worked as planned, and from there he drew a straight line to what was happening in Palestine and Israel today except, he said, that the conditions here are even worse than what you could have seen in South Africa then. He had been touched by all the people he had met and also all the stories that he’d heard during his travels and when he got back home, he wanted to do everything he could to support the Palestinian cause by speaking out about their conditions. Not only would he work actively for a British boycott of Israel but he also wanted to give financial support although, he said, when it came down to it, it was the Palestinians themselves who would have to settle with the Israelis and achieve their independence. He didn’t want to try and give lectures on how exactly they should do that, so the only thing he could say to his Palestinian friends around the table was “Good luck”. In respect to the Palestinian’s right to self-determination, he didn’t want to offer up any solutions on their behalf about how to end the occupation; instead he would work to expand the international awareness of the atrocities that he had witnessed — and in this way, build support and solidarity for their struggle for independence on an international level. The fireman’s thoughtful grasp of international solidarity and his good humoured compassion for the Palestinians ended with some magic tricks. Among other things, he put out a burning cigarette with a Palestinian scarf without burning a hole in it. He explained that they had a lot of time at the fire station to learn those kinds of tricks.

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