Israel out of Lebanon!

Demonstrations against Israeli aggression were the largest Arabic-Australian mobilisation for years, writes Caine Grennets.

Demonstrations were held in Australia's state capital cities on July 22 against Israel’s war on Lebanon and on the occupied Palestinian territories. The largest by far was in Sydney, called by more than 50 groups under the umbrella of the Australian-Arabic Committee for Solidarity with Palestinian & Lebanese People. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people assembled at Town Hall, spilling out to fill not only the square, but across all lanes of George Street.

The march was spirited and densely packed, with all Lebanese communities present, but with greater participation by shia and sunni Muslims and secular nationalists, than by Christian Maronites. Most of those taking part came in family groups, anxious about the fate of relatives and friends in Lebanon. The organising committee’s marshalls moved women and children to the front of the march, removed anti-semitic slogans and promoted Vietnam-war-era style chants such as “Israel, USA, how many kids did you kill to day?” This was a welcome development after previous demonstrations, such as in Lakemba on July 2, had used Muslim religious slogans.

Andrew Ferguson, the NSW leader of the CFMEU construction workers’ union, and Linda Burney, Labor member for Canterbury in the NSW parliament, and one of Australia’s few indigenous state parliamentarians, were key speakers. Burney’s role was significant in face of the Labor leadership’s partisanship in favour of Israel and the US. Labor leader Kim Beazley and foreign affairs spokesperson Kevin Rudd have substantively backed the Howard government’s shift from “even-handedness” towards uncritical support for Tel Aviv’s aggression.

There were Palestinian flags, but these were overwhelmed by a sea of Lebanese and Australian flags, the latter an assertion of equal citizenship in the face of the anti-Arab racism that generated the Cronulla riot. The anti-Arab chauvinism has been fuelled by mass-media ideologues claiming that those with both Lebanese and Australian citizenship should be abandoned to the bombing in south Lebanon and Beirut. Alan Jones, attack dog of reactionary thinking in Australia, welcomed callers to his radio show calling Lebanese Australians "citizens of convenience".

The Howard government finds itself in a terrible contradiction, having for years excoriated Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organisations that have killed Australian citizens (settlers in Israel or the occupied territories), it now has to recognise and provide services to thousands of citizens who are victims of Israel’s war. It has done so grudgingly.

Last week after backing Israel, Howard attended meetings of the Lebanese community in an attempt to stop the leakage of votes in marginal seats with a large Arab population. An electoral backlash from Liberal-voting Arabs is a real possibility.

Demonstrators were angered by the July 17 statement by John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, who said there was no moral equivalence between the civilian casualties from the Israeli raids in Lebanon and those killed in Israel from "malicious terrorist acts". Corroborating statements by the Howard government and Labor leaders also claimed that the underlying cause of the war is Hezbollah terrorism and support for it from the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Such statements shift focus away from Israel’s occupation since 1967 of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, of the Syrian Golan Heights, of the Shebaa farms, of repeated bombing of targets in Lebanon since their defeat by Hezbollah six years ago, by the refusal to release the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners and by Israel’s refusal to co-operate in UN de-mining operations in south Lebanon.

Many Jewish anti-occupation activists took part, although there was no specific contingent. Even though the Green Party's response to the war has been watered down, Green placards and stickers were evident. The CPA, Socialist Alliance and most of the other small socialist groups were present, however their participation was not central. Few unions had flags or banners, with only a scattered presence of CFMEU, RTBU transport union and AMWU manufacturing union. Unfortunately Labor Party members did not have an organised presence.

The march ended by packing Martin Place outside the US consulate, with a tight line of police guarding the Cenotaph from perceived potential desecrators.


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