The American Resistance to Israel

The movement to prevent Israeli cargo ships from being unloaded or loaded is potentially one of the greatest challenges that Israel faces from ordinary citizens around the world. Amazingly, it doesn’t even require huge numbers or even very much unity of organization, only of purpose.

The August, 2014 picket of the Zim Piraeus in Oakland, California, is a case in point.  It began with a massive demonstration of thousands that responded to a call from the Block the Boat coalition to picket the port on August 16 and 17.  During that time, the ship chose to remain in a stationary position more than 100 miles away.  The organizers then declared victory on the basis that the ship had been delayed more than 24 hours, and the ship came into port.

For some of the picketers, however, this was not enough.  They chose to continue the picket after the ship had docked and was ready to be worked.  This required maintaining the picket line on a sustained basis and eliciting the cooperation of the workers in not crossing the line. Because of these efforts, there was no one to work the ship for another three days.

Finally, the employer, Ports America, tried to trick both the picketers and the workers by reassigning workers from another ship (an illegal practice).  This was only partly successful, and the ship left on August 20 for Russia with most of its Oakland-bound cargo still on board and without taking on any of the cargo that it was to pick up.

One of the volunteers did follow-up research, even calling Zim’s clients.  What she discovered was that the extra cargo on board created problems for the loading operations in Russia and had to be off loaded without a clear picture of when it would reach Oakland.  At least two of the clients also decided to stop using Zim because of uncertain delivery.  The cost of delays, fuel, berthing fees and additional transport must have been staggering.

The following month brought even worse news to Zim.  This time, a group calling itself the Stop Zim Action Committee succeeded in completely blocking the Zim Shanghai from unloading or loading any cargo at all in the port of Oakland.  After trying for only 24 hours, it left for Los Angeles, where it had apparently made alternate arrangements for the cargo to be offloaded and transported to Oakland by other carriers (possibly by truck).  Again, the result was extra cost and delay.

Unfortunately for Zim, Los Angeles and other cities decided to follow the Oakland example.  On August 26, Block the Boat – LA held its first protest against the Zim Haifa.  Then, on October 18, the Zim Savannah remained at anchor for two days while picketers stayed at the port, calling on workers not to work the ship.  In the end the workers agreed to cross the picket lines with police herding the protesters away, and the ship came in.

Protests and pickets were also held against Zim ships in Seattle/Tacoma, Washington and Tampa, Florida, but officials claimed that there were no delays.  In Vancouver, Canada, an informational picket was held in order to initiate a dialog with the workers.

Indeed, workers were the key to the degree of success or failure at each port.  Oakland has an activist union tradition with a keen socio-political conscience.  In 1984 ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 10 refused to unload a South African ship for eleven days, and in 2010 it refused to cross 24 hours of picket lines set up to block another Zim ship from unloading.  That tradition may be less strong in other ports, but it argues for a partnership that may empower both labor and activist communities in ways that we have not seen in decades.

But what about other countries?  Palestinians and others were quite frankly astonished that the first successful denial of service to an Israeli ship would happen in a U.S. city, to say nothing of demonstrations in at least five different North American ports.  The American resistance surprised everyone.  Why, then, do we not see similar actions in other parts of the world?

Part of the reason is that Zim doesn’t operate everywhere.  It has no ports of call on the west coast of South America, for example, or in Scandinavia.  Nevertheless, its ships sail to Barcelona, whose dockworkers union sent a message of congratulations and solidarity to the Oakland workers.  Why are no Zim ships being turned away in Barcelona?

South Africa also seems a likely location.  COSATU, the giant South African union, has repeatedly declared its solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.  Why is it not participating? What about Cuba and Venezuela?  Other possibilities might be Malaysia, Brazil, Greece and even Liverpool in the UK.

Until now, Zim and the Israeli government have been very cool about the potential impact of a movement that ought to terrify them to the depths of their souls.  It takes only a small amount of disruption to cause shipping customers to take their business elsewhere.  As noted, this has already happened, starting with the first picket in August.  We can only guess at the effect when a second Zim ship had to leave Oakland untouched.

In October, a third Zim ship, the Zim Beijing, was scheduled to arrive in Oakland, and another picket was planned.  This time, however, the ship kept delaying its arrival date until it was de-listed from the port arrival schedule.  There are no Zim ships currently scheduled to arrive in Oakland for the foreseeable future, although Zim bravely refuses to declare this as a policy.

Zim and the Israeli government dare not reveal how vulnerable they are.  It will take only a few major ports around the world to sound the death knell for an Israeli shipping giant that is the tenth largest cargo carrier in the world (more than $3 billion in annual revenue).  The loss of a few million in Oakland may not seem like much to them, but uncertain and unreliable delivery can put them at a huge disadvantage – perhaps even out of business. This is why we saw no counter-demonstrators at the port (actually one): they have to pretend it means nothing to them.

On the other hand, the Oakland victory cannot be sustained alone.  If it does not spread to other countries, it will wither.  Israel knows that, but all their power and influence may be insufficient to prevent the movement from happening.  We have been looking for a way to strike a blow for Palestine.  Now is our chance.

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.