Thousands of protesters successfully blocked a commercial Israeli cargo vessel from docking and unloading goods in Oakland, California, late Saturday. The protest was staged in response to a call from Palestinian and South African unions to hold Israel accountable for what they allege are violations of Palestinians’ human rights — particularly during Israel’s latest offensive in the Gaza Strip, an operation that killed more than 1,900 Palestinians.
Saturday’s event, which drew between 3,000 to 5,000 protesters, was part of a series of actions planned by U.S. and Canadian activists across North America’s west coast.
“Palestine is calling us to action! Palestinian laborers [and the] Palestinian General Federation Trade Union have called on workers around the world to refuse to handle Israeli goods,” said a leaflet calling for the actions, collectively called “Block the Boat.”
Similar protests will take place in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, on Wednesday, and later in Vancouver.
The actions are part of a campaign launched by members of Palestinian civil society in 2005 for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands and to adhere to international law in its treatment of the Palestinian people. It is modeled after similar tactics that international activists used in the 1980s to pressure South Africa's former apartheid regime to accept majority rule.
Block the Boat targets Israel’s largest cargo shipping company, Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd. If the entire series of port blockades are successful, it would effectively lock out Israeli commercial shipping from the west coasts of both the United States and Canada, activists said.
Block the Boat organizers alleged that Zim has a history of supporting Israel’s occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.
“From its founding in 1945 by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Histradut, Zim has served Israeli settler-colonialism, bringing settlers to Palestine and serving as Israel’s only maritime connection during the 1948 war, supplying ‘food, freight, and military equipment’ used of course to carry out the Nakba. The worldwide commerce conducted by Zim today funds the occupation of Palestine with revenue generated on every continent,” a statement issued by the activist group read.
The Nakba, or catastrophe, is how Palestinians refer to the events that led to the founding of Israel, when attacks by armed groups led to the expulsion and fleeing of more than 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children.
“We will be answering this call by organizing community pickets at the Port of Oakland, asking the longshoremen to honor this request and to stand with the people of Palestine as they have done in the past,” the group’s statement read.
Organizers on Friday said they hoped to have union workers' support for the action, and cited a history of solidarity by The International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Unions (ILWU), who cooperated with a similar action in 2010 by refusing to unload a Zim cargo ship.
That action was in response to Israel’s deadly 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-led humanitarian flotilla that attempted to bring aid to Gaza, which has struggled with an Israeli-imposed economic blockade. Israeli Naval commandos killed 10 people on the ship, sparking international outrage.
The ILWU also has a long history of supporting human rights causes. In 1984, workers refused to unload cargo from an apartheid-era South African vessel.
However, an ILWU spokeswoman told Al Jazeera that they had no plans to participate in Saturday’s action in Oakland, or subsequent ones in Seattle and Vancouver.
“The ILWU is not involved with any actions regarding incoming Zim ships,” ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said.
Though ILWU is not endorsing or participating in the upcoming actions, Block the Boat organizers are hopeful that union members will honor their efforts.
"We trust that in line with their long legacy of political protests that they will honor our picket and not work the Israeli Zim ship,” said Mohamed Shehk, media and communications officer for Critical Resistance, one of the grassroots organizations planning the actions under the umbrella of Block the Boat.
The ILWU is currently in contract negotiations, according to industry sources, and union members have been without legal contracts since July 1 — which could make participation in such action complicated for members.
Shehk said that activists could still stop the unloading of the ship by gathering enough protesters at each port to create a “health and safety risk” that would prevent union workers from crossing the picket line and doing their jobs.
“It’s on us to ensure that the action is successful enough that they don’t have to make a choice,” Shehk said.
Shehk said this is what happened in 2010 when activists succeeded in preventing the Zim ship from unloading. Solidarity action with Palestine is now even more important, he said, because of escalating Israeli aggression against Palestinians.
“This latest attack on Gaza by Israeli forces has been one of the deadliest attacks that we’ve seen in recent years, and this action is just one in the larger boycott, divest, and sanction movement against the Israeli occupation,” Shehk said.