Independent workers’ action need to stop Israeli state’s war machine

Protest against war on Gaza. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Outrage at the massive death toll, destruction and famine in Gaza rose even further worldwide at the start of April when seven charity workers from World Central Kitchen were added to the victims of the Israeli military brutality.

A certain tipping point was reached for a layer of people within the structures of the UK establishment, alarmed at the consequences for their system at such brazen flouting of all humanitarian considerations. More than 600 people associated with the legal profession, including three former high court justices, argued in a letter that the government is breaking international law by continuing to allow arms exports to Israel.

A number of Tory and Labour MPs, including some associated with the New Labour Mark II leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, also called for arms exports to be suspended. They included Alicia Kearns, Tory chair of parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, who was reported as stating that the exports are breaching international law.

Governments in several other countries have suspended arms transfers to Israel, though notably not the two countries supplying 99% of Israel’s arms imports, the US and Germany. In Britain, the debate on arms supplies that has now broken out is a marked departure, as it comes after six months of a virtual taboo in the mainstream media of anything other than the Tory and New Labour narrative of refusal to condemn the terrible bloodshed inflicted on Gaza.

Huge discontent

Lying behind the debate is neither a change in the material facts of the war, nor a sudden awakening of moral consciousness, but the growing awareness by a layer at the top of society of the huge disconnect between the stance on the war of Tory prime minister Sunak, oppostion Labout leader Starmer and Co, and that of working people – a majority of whom supported banning arms to Israel in a recent poll. They also no doubt fear that their own capitalist institutions and professions are becoming discredited in the eyes of the working class, through association with inaction regarding the war.

Sunak and Starmer have partially shifted their stance under the pressure from below, echoing Biden in the US – last month the US abstained on a UN ‘immediate ceasefire’ motion rather than vetoing it as before – but they haven’t yet threatened weapons sanctions. Rather, they have maintained the sickening hypocrisy of approving the deadly weaponry while at the same time pledging to increase the grossly inadequate aid being sent to the victims of those same weapons.

In the face of government ministers holding back from castigating the calls for an arms embargo, the role of doing so was taken up by former Tory prime minister Boris Johnson, who wrote: “If the west continues to crumble… then the Israelis will be prevented from achieving their objective”, and this would be “a total moral repudiation of Israel”. In previous years, opposition to right-wing governments in Israel was equated with antisemitism as an ideological tool used against Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour lefts, an accusation that has ceased to hold weight due to the widespread anger over the Israeli military’s mass killing of civilians in Gaza. But this doesn’t stop the likes of Johnson from trying to portray anti-war positions as opposition to the existence of Israel, and in the process obscuring the class nature of Israel, which has a ruling capitalist class that oppresses the Palestinians and that can’t meet the security and financial needs of Israeli workers.

Israel has a large domestic arms industry so sanctions against sending weapons exports wouldn’t necessarily on their own entirely stop the war. But overall, Israel can’t detach itself from the world economy and would face a cumulative effect from sanctions, which would apply additional pressure against the war.

However, for socialists, a crucial question is who is applying sanctions: pro-capitalist governments or workers’ movements – and for what purpose? The Tories are resisting introducing any sanctions, and even if they move to, or if Labour introduces some after the general election, they won’t be motivated by the interests of ordinary people in Gaza, Britain, or Israel, but by the interests of British imperialism.

The Tory government inflicts poverty on British workers, Starmer’s Labour will do the same in government, as it does now in local authorities, and both refused to call for an immediate ceasefire in the war on Gaza for many months while tens of thousands of Palestinians were being killed. Regarding Israel, they will never support strike action by Israeli workers for decent living standards, just as they don’t in Britain.

No confidence can be placed in those parties implementing sanctions in the interests of ordinary people; only sanctions applied by the workers’ movement can be trusted and reliable. Socialist Party members in the trade union Unite have called for a national meeting to be convened of all Unite reps in companies that supply or transport goods used by Israel in the war to discuss applying workers’ sanctions against those supplies. Crucial to such a stance would also be preparation for being ready to organise action against any disciplinary threats faced by any workers involved in implementing sanctions, and to combat any attempts by the bosses to attack the pay and conditions of workers in Britain, blaming the consequences of sanctions.

Workers’ sanctions

Examples of previous workers’ sanctions can be pointed to, including when dockworkers at the Stanlow Oil Refinery near Liverpool refused to unload Russian oil after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, action that was backed by Unite’s general secretary. Contrast that to the Tories’ long history of taking money from oligarchs in Russia and elsewhere. Just last month Sunak gave a knighthood to Tory donor Mohamed Mansour, whose company only disinvested from Russia in May 2023!

Leading reps in the PCS and FDA civil service unions are looking into taking legal action to potentially enable their members to legally refuse to work on arms licences regarding Israel. This type of recourse to the capitalist justice system needs to be accompanied and backed up by democratic discussion among the trade union members directly involved about what steps they might decide to take independently of both their employers and any court processes. Democratic discussion involving all sectors of those unions is also necessary – as in every union – on the role the entire union can play in the anti-war movement, including on boosting the turnout on demonstrations, and on how to support and defend any section of workers who carry out specific anti-war actions.

One important question is to what extent can deliberations in the international justice system be used in the anti-war movements? In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held open the possibility that the Israeli military is committing – or might commit – genocidal acts in Gaza. Millions of people globally hoped that the ICJ case might lead to an end to the war. However, the ICJ didn’t rule that the war should stop and its ongoing investigations into it could take years. Also, even if the ICJ had declared the war illegal, Israel’s leaders wouldn’t have recognised that decision and neither necessarily would their main international backer have done so, the US, the predominate military power on the planet.

The global framework of international treaties are important to the different national capitalist classes as a way to negotiate potential conflicts via diplomatic rather than military means. But of course, all the international treaties on war are subject to how the capitalist powers decide to interpret and use them at any one time – on the basis of self-interest – and they can decide to exclude themselves, as the US does from the International Criminal Court.

Workers and the poor across the world can have no trust in those international treaties and legal institutions, any more than they can in their own capitalist state’s justice system. The lack of regard by capitalist governments for human rights and fundamental freedoms is clearly revealed in their willingness to ally and trade with authoritarian, highly repressive regimes, like Saudi Arabia.

In Britain, last year new legislation was enacted to further erode trade union rights, the right to protest and the right to asylum. The working class has the real power in society, as it is the class that keeps production, services and the entire economy functioning, and it is precisely its potential to use that power that lies behind the government’s attempts to strengthen the hand of the police and judiciary. The more the workers’ movement moves to act for itself, independently of capitalist interests, the more it will be able to aid workers’ interests both in Britain and internationally, including those of the Palestinians.

The Socialist Party is fighting for:

  • End the siege – for the permanent withdrawal of the Israeli military from the occupied territories
  • For a mass struggle of the Palestinians, under their own democratic control, to fight for liberation
  • For the building of independent workers’ parties in Palestine and Israel, and links between them
  • For an independent, socialist Palestinian state, alongside a socialist Israel, with guaranteed rights for all minorities, as part of the struggle for a socialist Middle East
  • No trust in the capitalist politicians, internationally or in Britain. Fight to build a workers’ party in Britain that fights for socialism and internationalism

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April 2024