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The General Strike in Haifa was a defiant display of unity across all sectors of the Palestinian community, even as ongoing governmental repression intensifies.

(The following is the 3rd dispatch from the Intifada in Haifa that was published in Mondoweiss)

While many around the world are aware of Israel’s ethnic cleansing in al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the massacre of innocents in Gaza, little is known about the fate of Palestinians in the areas that were occupied by Israel since 1948. Yet, for the Palestinian struggle, the uprising in what is called for short “48” is one of the most important developments over the past two weeks. In this third dispatch from Haifa for Mondoweiss, I try to describe the events as they developed day by day (you can find the previous reports here).

Events in Haifa took a sharp turn on Sunday, May 9, when police attacked a Palestinian demonstration in the German Colony in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah. The Palestinian protests and clashes with the police in the German Colony continued for three days. On Tuesday there was a fascist mobilization to confront the Palestinian protest, and they were encouraged by the police to attack Palestinian in the neighborhood. The same day Palestinian youth took control of many streets far beyond the original center of the clashes.

The fascist attacks continued for three consecutive days, until Thursday. They were looking mostly for Arab residents that live outside the Arab neighborhoods. At the same time Palestinians all over the city were urgently organizing self-defense. The fascist didn’t dare attack the Arab neighborhoods, but the police, reinforced by the military “border guards”, launched a campaign of terror against the population at large: roadblocks, detentions, beatings, throwing stun grenades and teargas at homes and bystanders, and patrolling the streets in a provocative way.

The call for a general strike

The daily bombing in Gaza and the images from al-Quds aroused strong feelings in the local Palestinian population, but it was the need to mobilize a defense against fascist attacks that moved many people to action who would normally sympathize with the struggle but choose not to take part. 

One sign of the deep impact of this threat was the news that many Arab soldiers and policemen (30 of them, according to some commentators) announced their resignation from the army and the police. One of them, in an interview (here, in Hebrew), described how he passed by our demonstration in Haifa and heard the slogan “Why are we quiet about Arabs serving in the army?”, before hearing the voice of his conscience and quitting the service.

POSTERS ALERTING PEOPLE TO THE STRIKE FILLED THE WALLS

By the end of the week, the question among the activists was how we go on from here. How do we utilize mass mobilization not only for self-defense, but also to stop the daily massacre in Gaza? The idea of a general strike started circulating in the networks. On Sunday, The High Follow-Up Committee, the united leadership of the ‘48 Palestinian population, declared a general strike for Tuesday, May 18. In the same meeting they also issued an unprecedented call for the international community to take responsibility for the protection of the Palestinian population, including in the ‘48 territories.  (The committee’s announcement is here in Arabic.)

The activists are used to distrusting the leadership of the Follow-Up Committee, and some thought that a one-day general strike was not enough. But, soon, in the spirit of unity and empowerment that enabled the current uprising, all energies were united for the success of the strike. Politically, the strike was a great opportunity to involve many more people in the struggle and show that Palestinian society is united beyond a common goal.

Organizing

During the last couple of weeks, we witnessed the almost total disappearance of the traditional political parties and a surge of new initiatives organized by the youth through social networks. There are multiple groups in WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal where people connect, share information, discuss and organize. From time to time there were last-minute calls for face-to-face meetings that were held in the street or in friendly spaces. After the activists decided what the next activity would be, the news was spread through Facebook and through personal, family, neighborhood and professional chat groups.

All of this frenzied organizational network was working throughout Monday to mobilize for the success of the strike. We thought that it would be necessary to stand by the entrance of local schools in order to ask the parents and pupils to strike, but soon we were informed that the parents and pupils were organizing the strike themselves! We were leafleting around the neighborhoods and everywhere we met shopkeepers that told us “yes, this time we will be on strike!”

After all the fear from fascist attacks and the terrorizing of the people by the police, it was important to revive the self-confidence of the people in the neighborhoods and to reclaim the public space. For this purpose, the activists organized cultural activities in six neighborhoods, including lectures, activities for children, musical programs and more.

Reclaiming the public space

On Tuesday morning all the networks were sharing images of closed shops from all around Arab Haifa, even areas that never participated in strikes before. But it was not only Arab shops and businesses that closed. Many people that work for Israeli companies and organizations were on strike also. So, there were also other types of images that were shared around: threats from managers to their workers, a picture of a chat where an Arab engineer told her boss that she would not come to work this day and his answer was “wishing her success” in finding new work, etc. There were also announcements from big Israeli companies telling their customers that because of the strike they would not be able to provide the expected services. Sharing all these gave a sense of the power of Palestinian workers to make an impact on the Israeli economy.

The activities in the neighborhoods were a great success. In ordinary days, Arab Haifa is pretty much a divided city, mostly along class lines, between marginalized workers and their families who live in poor neighborhoods and the middle class. The struggle, and especially the general strike, created a sense of unity. In my neighborhood, Halisa, the committee that organized the strike was half from local youth and half from volunteers from the activist community. At the designated hour people began to gather in the small commercial center, mostly women and children. Neighbors brought with them food and water and invited everybody.

Strike activities in Halisa

I didn’t want to bring the Palestinian flag with me – I thought that if it should be raised over the activity it should come from the “ordinary” people and not from the “political”. But the first round of activities for the children included “free painting”, so soon we had plenty of Palestinian flags drying in the sun as well as images of Sheikh Jarrakh, al-Aqsa, and the bombing of Gaza. 

In the middle of the activities, a heavily armed patrol of border guards stopped their car near us and came to check what we were doing. Seeing all the children around they went back to their car. They made some calls and apparently were told to leave us alone.

As we were gathering in the commercial center, we heard that there are police harassing the residents in Hussein St, just 200 meters away. I went there and found about a dozen policemen in civil, with completely unmarked cars, searching some homes. They also brought with them police dogs. I started filming them with my phone and they were very unhappy about it.

Back in the commercial center, there was a group of musicians that came to raise our spirits. Some of them fill concert halls in ordinary days, but now they were sitting on the bare ground with Halisa’s children and were singing and playing their instruments. In many songs the whole crowd was singing together. They even prepared a special satirical song for the event that criticized the Palestinian leadership for complacency and praised the unity of the masses all over Palestine in the general strike. (A video from the activity may be seen here).

Similar activities took part with mass participation in other neighborhoods, big and small.

Another demonstration

As I described in previous dispatches, after the attacks on the Herak demonstrations during the previous week, there was some fear of holding a new demonstration. On Saturday there were two demonstrations, one in Wadi Nisnas and the other near the court, but the numbers were smaller, about a hundred participants in each demonstration, and no streets were closed. Now, as the momentum started to accumulate again on our side, Tal’at (the feminist Palestinian movement) called for a new demonstration at 18:00 on Tuesday. It was labeled “The march of the dignity strike”, after the name of the general strike. The march had to start near “al-Midan Theater” – on the border between Wadi Nisnas (the center of Arab Haifa) and Hadar (the old commercial center with mixed population). There was at least one mindful consideration in this selection: if there was to be mayhem again, it wouldn’t hurt the same businesses that suffered with us the previous week.

At the designated hour hundreds of Palestinians, mostly youth, gathered with Palestinian flags on both sides of Khuri St., about the same number that was in the Herak demonstration a week ago. Spirits were high again and everybody was chanting slogans and singing freedom songs. The police also brought a big force for the event, but didn’t try to prevent us from gathering.

The Demonstration in Khuri St on the day of the General Strike

After about half an hour, the demonstrators started to march toward Wadi Nisnas. Because the police were concentrating in Khuri St. the demonstrators tried to reach the Wadi through a side-street, but soon their way was blocked by a cordon of mounted police. After standing for some time face-to-face in front of the police, the demonstrators returned to Khuri street, but now they occupied the street itself, blocking the main passage from the Wadi to Hadar.

While the previous Tuesday the police closed the whole area more than an hour before our demonstration, clearing the space for a battle, now they didn’t close the street for cars even as it was already closed by the demonstration. Some cars were stuck between us and the police and had to move slowly to cross through the crowd. During the event, all the people in those cars were making “V” signs and chanting with us to show their support for the demonstration…

Apparently, the Haifa police put in their mind that their task is to prevent the demonstrators from marching. So, while if we would have held a march in the small streets of Wadi Nisnas the “disturbance” to the city’s routine would be minimal, they actually let us occupy and block a central route in a much more visible location. The demonstration lasted for almost two hours and we left feeling that the message of our protest was heard loud and clear.

* * *

As I write these lines the clock is showing 2:00 am and the ceasefire is expected to take hold. I hope the current bloodshed will stop, but I know that the killing of Palestinians on a daily basis by the racist army and police, in the West Bank and “48”, is not going to stop. And the siege of Gaza, preventing medical supplies, electricity, clean water and all economic development is killing more people and causing more suffering than the bombing itself. In “48”, due to poverty and long social neglect, organized crime, encouraged by the Israeli police, became an epidemic that daunted Palestinian society. During the last two weeks violent crime fell sharply. We have a long struggle ahead until people here would be able to live safely in freedom, but the Palestinian people are now more united and self-confident than they have been for many years.

To my American audience I must say that even the Israeli leadership wanted the ceasefire for at least a week, as Netanyahu achieved his political goal to prevent the “pseudo-opposition” from creating a government without him. Netanyahu said he would continue the attacks until “the goals would be achieved”, but he couldn’t say what those goals are… The bloodshed continued just because Israeli leaders couldn’t let themselves seem soft on the Palestinians while the USA president avoided calling for a ceasefire and actually pushed them to continue bombing Gaza.