Laura and Charan interviewed Riya Al'Sanah about the general strike in Palestine. This interview was first published by Notes From Below.
LC = Laura & Charan
R = Riya Al’Sanah
LC As far as we’ve been able to find out, this is the first general strike to take place across Palestine since the 1930s. Could you say a little bit about what made it possible?
R Firstly, this is not the first strike since the 1930s. In 1987, there was a general strike across historic Palestine, which was the strike that ignited the first Intifada.
With the strike that took place on 18 May, it’s important to understand that this was a political strike that had economic implications. It was a strike called from below and led from below. It came from the streets before the various political representatives called for it. The Higher Follow-up Committee of Arab Citizens in Israel1 eventually called for the strike, but before they did so, the demand for the strike was very popular. It was people on the streets saying that the next step needs to be a general strike.
By that time, Palestinians everywhere were resisting, and they were resisting using any means that were available to them. The whole of historic Palestine was engulfed in struggle. It wasn’t that Palestinians in Israel were going out on demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians being attacked in Gaza, it was asserting that we are part of the same struggle, and we have a fight to fight. In particular Palestinian communities in Palestine ‘482 were facing organised settler colonial violence (police) and non-organised violence carried out by Jewish Israeli citizens who were protected by the state’s security agents. An official strike was called for in Palestine ‘48, then in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine. The call for the strike and the eagerness to participate in it crystalised the sense of unity that has re-emerged amongst us as Palestinians during this uprising, but also the desire to disconnect from colonial structures.
The fact that the strike took place within this context of struggle is what gave it a different feeling and shape. It was called for by established bodies, and in the West Bank unions only joined the call at a later stage, however, it was grassroots organising that shaped the narrative around it and how it unfolded on the day. Dissatisfaction with political representatives and established organisations meant that the street naturally gravitated to organising on a collective and autonomous basis from these structures. The fact that political parties and established NGOs were not the ones organising on the ground prior to the strike meant that a different political discourse could shape the event.
Official structures had long lost connection with people’s lived realities and this made them unable to respond to the unfolding realities on the ground.
LC In the UK and US when we think of strikes we usually think of these being organised by trade unions - but you mentioned the general strike was called by the High Follow-up Committee rather than by labour unions. What role did trade unions play in the strike, if any?
R In Palestine ‘48, there are no trade unions for the Palestinian community, all Palestinian workers are either non-unionised, or if they are in unionised sectors, they would be part of the Israeli Histadrut.3 So there are no Palestinian workers’ representative bodies. In the West Bank, the situation is different, there are unions, but even there the strike wasn’t called for by the trade union movement. The trade union movement was forced to join the strike because of the strong popular demand.
The Higher Follow-up Committee of Arab Citizens in Israel often calls for strikes, but it’s strikes for the Palestinian community in Israel only. They often call for these strikes, but with very little politicisation and minimal participation. This has led many to not engage in such strikes, because they have minimal impact on the Israeli economy and thus have minimal political impact. The huge number of Palestinians that work in the Israeli sector are usually left out.
Usually, nothing happens on those days, no politics in the streets, no mobilising. It’s heavily centered around intracommunity [Palestinian-owned] establishments, and so people don’t see the power of it, or the economic effects of it. You also don’t see politics happening on the ground.
I think this strike was different. It will shape what happens in the future. Similar to Land Day in 1976, when Israel tried to confiscate huge amounts of land in Palestine ‘48, and actually did in the end. Land day was a massive strike in the Palestinian community in Israel. Six people were shot dead by the Israeli police that day.
LC We have seen Palestinians organising in their communities and neighbourhoods to protest and defend against settler attacks over the last couple of weeks. What was the relationship of these local community organisations/neighbourhood defence organisations to the strike?
R What was so vividly different in this uprising was the level of self-organising among Palestinian communities in ‘48. We found ourselves in a place where we had to self-organise and discovered that we can actually do it. Local committees being developed. Local groups and autonomous kinds of political organising away from established structures that were taking place on the ground. So in Haifa, for example, we had a neighbourhood defence committee, a legal support committee, a medical care committee and a mental health care committee. There were different forms of local, independent, and collective committees that were working as part of this uprising and Haifa wasn’t the only case. This is the scenario that we saw in many different areas.
The sense of solidarity between different Palestinian communities was high. For example, Lydd was one of the epicentres of the struggle. At some point, the Israeli police could not deal with Lydd and could not control it. The Israeli state announced a state of emergency in that city, and a military curfew was imposed. There were military personnel walking around the city and trying to take control. People were scared to go and buy produce, people weren’t going to work, and so on. What happened is truckloads of food, vegetables, meat, dairy products, nappies for children, everything that you needed to survive under military curfew was sent to Lydd by people just organising, getting stuff sent there.
So you saw a return back to what it means to organise independently and autonomously as a colonised community within the settler-colonial structure. Israel has consistently attempted to bring Palestinian communities into Israel, into the orbits of the state and shed their national identiy, or what is called Isralization. This has been the strategy since the defeat of Oslo, and aggressively persued since the second Intidafa and the killing of 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel at the hands of Israeli police. Oslo was a defeat for the Palestinian people that entrenched our fragmentation, it entrenched this idea of ‘each section of the Palestinian people has a different destiny and a different struggle to fight’, but what we saw in those two weeks, and continuing until today, is a complete rejection of that. It was a return to a sense of collective and independent care, community care, and collective community and political struggle.
So I think that’s what was different about what was happening, and that made it possible, made it natural for people to demand the general strike and take an active role in mobilising and participating in it. People are already thinking about themselves in a collective way that hasn’t happened for a really long time. That’s what made it powerful, because then you had the political representatives calling for it, giving it that legitimacy, but you already had structures on the ground that were able to mobilise for it and work to make it a different kind of general strike to what we have seen in the past.
Work was done by activists everywhere to politicise the strike. It was called for by the general committee, but then it produced nothing to support it. Work had to be done on the ground, to push for the strike, politicising it and giving it a political narrative. To also make sure it’s an active and confrontational strike, that it wasn’t a strike where people sit at home, which is often what would happen. So organising groups everywhere started campaigning for the strike and developing a narrative that this should not just be an intra-community strike, what we’re looking for is those who work in Israeli industries to be on strike, as well as kind of shutting down our own communities, but not just shutting it down and staying at home. The aim was to go on strike, be emboldened and empowered by a collective act of defiance and claim our space.
LC Can you tell us how the strike went?
R This was a strike that was organised in less than two days. Self-organising that developed prior to the strike, spilled over and shaped the strike itself. What was amazing and I think really powerful was that everybody had something to do. Everybody was involved, writers were writing about it, musicians were making songs that could raise people’s morale. Graphic designers were making materials. It gave you a sense of what a healthy society could be like, where everybody has something that they can contribute. People were making their own literature and texts, giving each other bullet points of how you can mobilise for a strike, what you can do on the day of the strike, what you should do after the strike, just sharing loads of tips. Everybody that had a good idea was putting them on paper, or sharing them on a screen. There were no titles or taglines that this is the political party of whatever, people were just producing these things and putting them out en masse. Of course, the better written or more politically sound ones would get the most attention. It was important, because it put politics up there and began to narrate the strike.
In Haifa on the day of the strike, there were activities in all the Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city. It wasn’t one centralised event that was happening, but in all of the communities that over the past 10 days have been brutalised by the Israeli police, where hundreds of people have been arrested, where doors to homes have been shattered, where people have been attacked, and so on. The strike day was our day, we are taking the space, we’re not conducting events in private institutions, we are going to do them on the streets, in public, in the parks, and so on. In all of those different localities, things were planned, like painting for children, storytelling, workshops, educating people about their rights, what to do when they get arrested. There were tours and histories of that particular neighborhood, before the Nakba and after. At the end of the day, there was a demonstration that everybody came to. It was a beautiful day, seeing emerging relationships between people that have been brutalised, but yet empowered. Rediscovering that sense of collective power, making the streets a safe space for people to be in and relating to the different needs of the community.
Everywhere that was on strike, and particularly in the big towns and the big cities, you had people mobilising for the strike on the ground. The adherence to this general strike that was called with such short notice really shows you the power of the moment, and the feeling that was engulfing everybody.
Ramallah and other cities in the West Bank saw their biggest demonstration in years on that day. In Ramallah the demonstration was humongous. Some people say it’s the biggest demonstration that Ramallah has ever seen. Not just going on strike and staying home, going on strike and coming out to the streets, going on strike and confronting Israeli military checkpoints. And at crossings on that day, people were shot dead while resisting at intersection points and checkpoints. So all over, it wasn’t a passive strike, in the sense that it wasn’t just in the level of adherence to the strike and not going to work. But it was also a game changer in the sense of what we do on a strike day and how to organise for a strike.
It was really powerful and it’s a lesson for us all about how to do politics. It’s both about the clash, but it’s also about how you empower people to be able to continue being involved in the clash. By that time, every demonstration was being attacked, hundreds of people had been imprisoned, we all had eyes that were watering from the tear gas. By the time of the strike, we were tired of being in confrontation after confrontation and not being able to collectively be together and acknowledge our ability, to harness that and cherish the beauty of and the power of who we are and what we have been able to create despite it all. Alongside its economic impact, it was it’s ability to overcome this that made the strike so powerful.
LC You’ve said a lot about the political significance of the strike, but you just mentioned that it also had an economic impact. Can you tell us more about this?
R The Israeli construction sector is heavily reliant on Palestinian workers, both from Palestine ‘48, but also from the West Bank. Over 65,000 Palestinian workers cross into Israel on a daily basis to work in the construction sector. So these people have to go through checkpoints in and out of work every day to then work for low wages, in horrible conditions, and so on. And there’s about 90,000 Palestinians from Palestine ‘48 that also work in the construction sector. On the day of the strike, only between 110 and 150 people from the West Bank crossed the checkpoints to work in construction. That’s just taking the construction sector alone. It shows you the power of the strike. According to Israeli estimates, the strike cost the construction sector 130 million shekels (£28m) just on that day. Other specific sectors, like the medical sector, are also heavily reliant on Palestinian labour. It is not clear yet the level of participation in that specific sector, but it is said that there was a big participation.
A lot of people in Palestine ‘48 also asked for sick leave days and things like that, because for Palestinians in Israel to take part in a strike, and especially a political strike, is illegal. A lot of people have lost their jobs as a result of doing that, so it is not like in the West Bank where every sector is on strike, everybody’s on strike, and all the unions are involved and behind the strike. It’s a different kind of scenario. It’s about getting people to believe in the strike. Then they participate, which in this case they did.
A lot of employers told the workers, if you don’t come and go on strike, don’t come back into work. Even some people that then said they would not participate in the strike anymore, employers continued to punish them saying it was now too late. Taking part in an ‘illegal’ strike isn’t a trivial matter. The Palestinian community in Israel is already heavily impoverished, already massively unemployed. So people losing their jobs is not a side issue. In many families, there’s only one worker or bread winner, so that person losing the job, even if it’s at a petrol station, it’s significant. It will have a significant influence on the family’s day to day living.
LC You talked about the protests taking place all across Palestine ‘48 prior to the strike, and about young protesters being arrested. Can you tell us what the situation was like for Palestinian workers in Palestine ‘48 prior to the strike?
R The strike happened in a context where all communities were engulfed in struggle. It wasn’t just communities engulfed in struggle vis-a-vis the police or representatives of the state. There were normal Israeli citizens, everybody calls them ultranationalists, buy they are just normal Israeli citizens, marching into Palestinian neighborhoods with batons and guns, protected by the police and attacking people in their homes and in their communities. Palestinian homes were marked during the daytime in order for these mobs to come and attack them at night. And so the feeling of being attacked and having to defend yourself was something that was already present, a lot of people were not going to work because of fear for their lives. Why would you go in and work at a restaurant when you know that at any moment as a waiter in that restaurant you might be attacked? The fear of being a Palestinian in Israeli establishments was already present and that really pushed a lot of people to call for the strike. They were like “woah I can’t be a waiter anymore like you know, I am waiting but I’m fearful to be attacked.”
A lot of the workers in the petrol stations on the highways are Palestinians and these workers were being attacked at the workplace. So what happened was that the petrol stations and shops would close so you would only have self service if you wanted to fill up your petrol and there would only be a small little window where you can order stuff because people were being attacked at their workplaces. When your ability to live and livelihood is on the line a lot of people are fearful, so some people were not going to work anyway.
People were avoiding Israeli establishments and not going into Israeli cities and towns. In Bat Yam someone was lynched and he was almost beaten to death. It was all filmed. Palestinians driving in cars were stopped and attacked while going to work or coming back from the supermarket. So already before the strike, the situation was that people were going back into their own communities. If I’m a student living in dorms in Tel Aviv, I am going back to my home. At Ben Gurion University, the student halls were attacked. Mobs were going into the student halls, looking for Palestinians, obviously protected by the police and the university security services. Some of these students are still, in fact, in prison now, and they will face charges.
So the situation before the general strike was already one of fracture, that was already happening. It was really apparent, both the fracture of communities being attacked, but also communities rising up, both in the sense of defending themselves, but also participating in resistance. So it wasn’t just a one sided attack. I think that it is important to understand that it wasn’t just a community under attack, it was a community that was resisting and defending itself from these attacks. It created a huge level of resistance within the community that then continues to translate today to collective work or calling for boycotting Israeli establishments, and so on.
LCNow the strike has completed, what are the possible next steps for the resistance in Palestine? What are the key things that workers in Britain can do to support the Palestinians?
R There is a sense of unity that has been created amongst Palestinians that is a whole game changer on the political landscape. For Palestinians, especially in Israel, the strike pushed us to rediscover our economic power. The idea of us as a collective of 2 million people having economic power has reemerged as something that is in people’s consciousness. There are movements now emerging for people to boycott Israeli establishments or not to buy from Israeli businesses, to focus on Palestinian-made products and so on, especially because also the Israeli society is running a boycott campaign against Palestinians as a punishment tool. So what do we do to confront that?
For me, it was mesmerizing, because I’ve participated in strikes before, mainly in the UK, where it’s purely economic demands, wages and so on. Political strikes are different. Political strikes that have economic implications are so different from demand-based strikes that are one workplace or sector. These strikes happened because of pressure from below and it’s genuinely a popular demand. It is not something that you need to start now convincing people of and those in power had to adhere to that demand. It was a fundamentally different experience. I think for a lot of those who participated in the strike and saw how a strike could be, we’re not gonna go back to ‘narrow’ strikes. It has reinserted the politics of striking in collective consciousness in the way that I think we haven’t seen since the first Intifada in 1987.
The strike was just one part of a longer process of resistance that is developing on the ground. It primarily revolves around the question of self-organising. That will continue beyond the strike. There is a question for us, for Palestinians in ‘48, of how we establish institutions that do represent Palestinian workers, knowing that they would probably not be recognised by the settler colony. We haven’t changed the balance of forces in two weeks. That will take years, but the question that will preoccupy a lot of us in the coming days, weeks and months is how do we build on where we are now.
The settler colony is already in motion. It is trying to crush our collective agency, specifically through mass and violent arrests. Since the 9th of May, over 1,500 people have been arrested. Detainees have mainly been part of two groups: children and younger working class people. They are targeted because they were the people leading the uprising on the streets. That this was the class of people that erupted in Palestine is very, very significant. This was not an elite-led uprising. It was predominantly the uprising of the Palestinian working classes in Palestine ‘48 and other areas.
Detainee support is important and fundamental. It’s not just a question of legal support, but it’s fundamentally a question of how you maintain people’s resilience. This is about how we maintain our collective ability to resist, because arrests are used as a way to fragment, intimidate, and crush people’s willingness to transform the life that they live. We see this very clearly and it is declared by Israeli security officials launching a law and order operation, painting all of those who are being arrested as criminals. We will be launching a fund for legal detainee support and will be sharing the link soon so people can donate.
Whatever we do in the next steps will have to build on what has been created through the strike. What has been created is a sense of community and a connection between the different forms of struggles and sections of the Palestinian people. We’re calling this the unity and dignity uprising, because the element of unity has been so strong. It’s not a trivial matter because the Israel settler colonial project has always worked on fragmenting Palestinians. Fragmentation is not just a geographical fragmentation, but also in our different lived experiences. What has happened recently has negated this and shown the failure of this project. If we want to do anything in the future, it comes from the understanding that we have broken that and their project has failed.
Anyone who is part of the traditional political landscape is in a big turmoil, because what’s happening now is different to what they’ve been doing for the past 73 years. It’s a good challenge to have! In terms of the trade union movement, the international trade union movement has showed clear and strong solidarity with what’s taking place. We saw dock workers in South Africa, Italy, and other places refusing to handle Israeli shipments. In Italy this was a cargo of actual weapons that were going to Israel.
In the UK, the Fire Brigades Union refused to bring down protesters that were occupying the roof of a subsidiary of an Israeli military company, Elbit Systems. The company manufactures drones that are regularly used by the Israeli military in attacks. I think in these events we can see a model of concrete, direct trade union solidarity and action that transform realities on the ground. It’s important for trade unions to take note and then to act on the Palestinian call for BDS.4 This means taking action to boycott, divest, or sanction any entity, whether public or private, that supports the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
A lot of trade unionists have their pension funds investing in either in Israeli companies that are directly involved in sustaining a system of oppression, or in international companies that are involved in that same process. So there is plenty that trade unionists can do. An important element is education on the Palestinian struggle, what is happening in Palestine, and its nature as an anti-racist, anti-colonial struggles. This is not about humanitarian assistance but as a struggle against a system of oppression.
In the UK context, this also means acknowledging and fighting the role of British colonialism.
The particular form of settler colonialism that we live under started in 1948. However, Palestine was colonised before this by the British Empire. Part of the predicament that we find ourselves in today is the direct result of British colonial endeavours and imperialism in the region and across the world. Therefore we need political education that allows us to form campaigns that are solid and not to waiver when we get attacked - because we will.
For readers in the UK, you can join the BDS movement, take this into your trade union organising, join the Palestine solidarity groups5 , integrate our struggles into your own and those that are already taking place, particularly anti-racist struggles. BDS can be part of transforming your own workplace and being in control of decisions about your own work and pension scheme. This will lead to change in Palestine, but it’s also about a fight to democratise your own work. Workers should have a say over their workplace, what it produces, what it is involved in, and where the money goes - whether in Palestine or across the world.
Laura is a researcher.
Charan is a tech worker.
Riya is a research coordinator at Who Profits from the occupation economy research center and a Palestinian activist based in Haifa.
- 1The Higher Follow-up Committee of Arab Citizens in Israel is an extra-parliamentary national organization that represents Arab citizens of Israel.
- 2Palestine ‘48 refers to the borders established in 1948 after the Nakba and the establishment of the Israeli state. Palestinian Arab who remained in their homes within these boundaries were granted citizenship, but are not treated as equal citizens.
- 3The Histadrut is an Israeli trade union that is subject to boycott as part of the BDS campaign for its role in Israeli apartheid.
- 4Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. More information here
- 5For example, The Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK.