Marking international solidarity with the Palestinian people, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, brought together black, Latino, refugee and migrant rights, labor, anti-Zionism and indigenous self-determination activists to create a global movement for justice.
The World Social Forum - Free Palestine (WSF-FP) convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the end of November on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a UN-recognized day that commemorates the 1947 partition of Palestine by the UN - and the occupation, dispossession and injustice that has ensued ever since. Emerging from the growing centrality of Palestine solidarity in international justice movements, as well as the active participation of Palestinians and their allies in the World Social Forum process for over a decade, the forum aimed to bring together global Palestine solidarity initiatives and broader social movements in an international gathering that would simultaneously highlight the role of the global South in solidarity with the Palestinian national liberation movement.
Over 125 workshops took place at the forum, directed at the wide spectrum of Palestine solidarity activities: labor and Palestine; boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns; the struggles of Palestinian political prisoners; Palestinian women's organizing; solidarity with Palestinian fishers and farmers; the growing queer anti-pinkwashing movement; the role of solidarity; refugees' right of return; and challenges facing the Palestinian Diaspora. Coordinated by a Brazilian committee, an international committee and a Palestinian committee, the forum reflected, simultaneously, the role of Palestine in Brazilian politics, varying visions of statehood, liberation and solidarity, and at its core, a global drive to build and coordinate international solidarity with Palestine across borders. Gathering as it did, one week after Israel's latest assault on Gaza, questions about the international accountability of Israeli officials rang large in the forum, as did questions of how international social movements can lead in creating that accountability - legally, politically and practically - through struggle, including legal struggle in national and international courts.
Political Climate Sharply Different
The forum, while being held in a sharply different political climate than that of the US and Canada - a distinction that was highlighted in the emphasis placed on the Brazilian government's support of the Palestinian leadership's "observer state" bid at the United Nations and the heavy involvement of major labor unions in the mass rally that marched through Porto Alegre on November 29 as part of the forum - faced significant pressure from Zionist organizations and the Israeli embassy in Brazil. For weeks prior, access to the Porto Alegre municipal buildings, where a significant number of forum events occurred, remained precarious as repeated demands - to cancel certain speakers, rescind invitations, drop BDS or the right of return from the forum's program - rained down on the organizing committee, both from Zionist organizations and from local and regional officials.
Many delegations from various regions of the world participated in the WSF-FP, among them the US - Canada Joint Struggle Delegation, a broad-based team of activists representing various social movements that highlighted the importance of "joint struggle" among those in the Americas supporting and participating in the Palestinian liberation movement.
More than 30 organizations endorsed and participated in the development of this delegation, and over 25 organizers traveled to Brazil, including the three of us who participated on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild. Activists involved in this effort represent movements such as immigrants' rights, indigenous rights, anti-war, anti-racism, anti-prison industrial complex (PIC) and police violence, political prisoners, civil and human rights, environmental justice, labor, anti-Zionist and Palestine liberation.
The delegation views the Palestinian movement not only as a critical struggle for global justice in its own right, but also as a focal point in the collaboration between the United States, Israel and other Zionist institutions. That collaboration encompasses issues including global arms trade, perpetual war, ecological destruction and exploitation of resources, population control, mass incarceration and suppression of popular movements, all of which have profound implications for communities in the United States and Canada.
A Crucial Point of Unity
Because all of these struggles for justice are intimately linked and demand a high level of cross-movement work to succeed, supporting Palestinian self-determination and challenging the US government's support for Israel creates a crucial point of unity for our movements.
Important shared interests between the Palestinian liberation movement and the social movements of the United States include the grossly disproportionate military spending of the US government, its support for occupying powers such as Israel and the repressive role that it plays in Southwest Asia – also known as the Middle East and North Africa regions more broadly.
A Congressional Research Service Report and other sources show the US provides $3 billion in military aid to Israel annually, nearly a fifth of Israel's military budget, to support its ongoing occupation of Palestine and the military role it plays in the region. Ending US aid to Israel is not only critical for our solidarity with Palestinian and other popular struggles in the region, but is part of redirecting the US military budget to meet the needs of people in the United States. Furthermore, this aid is used by Israel in its repression of Palestinians in developing weapons, tactics and training that are sold back to the US and around the world and used in controlling and policing communities of color and suppressing organizing and resistance.
The potential for joint struggle is reflected in the parallels between this year's Palestinian prisoner strike, the uprising in the prisons of Georgia and the hunger strike in California that started in the Pelican Bay prison. The Palestinian prisoner hunger strike, the longest in history, joined by thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, has gained international attention, and for some prisoners, continues to this day. The demand for liberty of all those around the globe who are incarcerated as a result of racism, occupation and political repression is an inspiration and necessity in the fight for the liberation of all people.
The US - Canada delegation seeks to build joint struggle in communities for liberation. Specifically, the delegation hopes to strengthen resistance to mass incarceration, surveillance and targeting of communities, repression of popular movements and activists, militarized borders, land and resource appropriation and privatization, and promote indigenous self-determination, the rights of refugees, the sustainability of the land and natural resources and the creation of a people's economy.
One of the most talked-about events at the forum, sponsored by the US - Canada delegation, was the Popular Movement Assembly, providing testimony from United States, Canadian, Palestinian, Brazilian, South African and other activists pertaining to the role of Israel in repression worldwide and including discussion of strategies for global collaboration in challenging that repression.
Surveillance Training Reaps Billions
A significant issue that came up in the assembly, with strong implications for our movements in the United States, is that of policing and surveillance, and Israel's role in creating an international security regime. For decades, Palestine has been a testing ground for developing weapons and tactics of population control, which are then exported around the globe through Israel's multi-billion dollar Homeland Security industry. Israel's skills in population control, surveillance and military occupation have resulted in placing it at the forefront of an industry that develops, manufactures and markets technologies used by armies and police around the world for the purpose of repression and to maintain vastly unequal societies.
Israeli companies and the State receive billions of dollars each year for programs like the Law Enforcement Exchange Program, which sends police from around the United States to train in Israel. Through this program and others like it, the most repressive police tactics are exchanged between Israel and notorious police forces in the United States. For example, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana National Guard was trained by the Israeli military in crowd control. Similarly the Oakland Police Department trained in Israel prior to its violent crackdown on the Occupy movement.
Furthermore, the Israeli government and private corporations are contracted by the US government to build the US-Mexico Wall, provide surveillance technology and train border and security personnel. Elbit Systems Ltd., an Israeli "defense" corporation, is building both the Apartheid Wall in Palestine and the US-Mexico Wall.
Additionally, G4S, a British/Danish security corporation that is the second largest private employer in the world (after Walmart), operates privatized prisons in Israel and around the world and is also contracted by European governments to transport and deport undocumented immigrants. Among potential collaborative campaign ideas that came up in the forum is to join a growing global campaign against G4S, which was called for by Palestinians during the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike earlier this year, for that company's role in worldwide state repression.
One of the more inspirational and powerful aspects of the forum was the opportunity for international solidarity activists to be exposed to the voices, analyses and political vision of emerging Palestinian youth movements and activists, inside and outside Palestine. The Palestinian Youth Delegation, part of the delegation from Palestine, brought 5 youth from the West Bank, 5 youth from Gaza and 5 youth from Palestine '48 (Palestinian citizens of Israel) to develop collaborative workshops. Working hand-in-hand with Palestinian grassroots institutions like the Health Work Committees, the Palestinian Youth Delegation discussed the role of the international solidarity movement in supporting Palestinian youth, models of struggle developed by Palestinian youth and the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian youth.
Even while not part of the official youth delegation, young Palestinians made up a substantial number of the forum's Palestinian contingent. Young people traveled with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees and an array of grassroots movements to connect with partners in solidarity and struggle around the world. One of the more powerful connections to emerge strengthened from the forum was the ties between the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, a grassroots group that organizes farmers and agricultural workers in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as fishers in Gaza under siege and fire, the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), and the global Via Campesina campaign. Young BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) organizers like Rafeef Ziadeh of the Boycott National Committee brought fierce anti-Apartheid energy to the mass rally and panel discussions.
Significant Youth Presence, Voice
A significant Palestinian youth presence at the forum was also developed by the Palestinian Youth Movement, a "transnational, independent grassroots movement of young Palestinians in Palestine and in exile worldwide." PYM activists in the United States and Canada were part of the US-Canada Joint Struggle Delegation and played a significant role in shaping its political and organizational framework and references as well as developing workshops on settler colonialism and transnational youth organizing.
The forum's closing assembly was held in the events hall of the Universidade Federale do Rio Grande do Sul and brought together one of the largest numbers of people gathered at any one time at the forum, aside from the mass march on November 29. Following the Palestinian national committee's presentation of the formal final statement of the forum, a number of groups presented statements and resolutions to the gathered Social Movement Assembly, including the US-Canada Delegation, the Queer Visions assembly, and the Palestinian Youth Movement. PYM's statement presented sharp questions about, and problematized, the statehood bid, which had been spoken of in generally laudatory terms by a number of speakers from the main stage, highlighting the importance of Palestinian grassroots voices inside and outside Palestine.
The PYM delegates stated in the course of reading their statement that "some Palestinian voices remind us that this 'victory' tastes more like a bitter defeat. . . . It is evident that . . . dissenting voices that are critical to bid-for-statehood initiative have been unheard, disorganized and fragmented. This is not due to their irrelevance, but rather due to an absence of alternative options that are worthy of the efforts of those who have sacrificed with their blood for the struggle." As PYM members from the US - Canada Joint Struggle Delegation began reading the statement, they were joined on stage by a growing number of young Palestinians - members of the Youth Delegation, members of grassroots organizations and unaffiliated activists who heard both their own sentiments and the possibility of alternative options still to come in the voices of their fellow young Palestinians looking toward a future of "liberation of our land and the return of our people to Palestine," as the PYM statement concluded.
Important Questions for the Future
The forum, in all of its political complexity and potential, presents important questions for the future of the solidarity movement. First, it raises to the forefront the role of international solidarity in the global South, including the potential and power for universal jurisdiction and international actions not only in the courts of Europe, but also the courts of Latin America, Asia and Africa. It was clear in the mass rally, which included thousands of union workers who marched with Palestinian flags through the streets of Porto Alegre, that Palestine solidarity in labor has much room to develop in the United States and Canada, the Brazilian CUT and other international labor forces. The strong involvement of the Landless Workers' Movement in the forum, and in all areas of Palestine solidarity, presented promise for real and meaningful alliances between broad social movements of liberation.
Second, the forum provided an opportunity to reflect on the damaging impact of criminalization and mass repression of the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities in North America. The criminalization of Palestinian political parties and the attendant marginalization of Palestinian political discourse is a significant barrier to mobilizing in North America, both in the Palestinian community and in the broader solidarity movement. By criminalizing major Palestinian political parties and organizations of all stripes, the United States and Canadian governments have attempted to prevent both serious discussion of Palestinian politics as well as the strength of a solidarity movement like that which supported the ANC in South Africa, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the FMLN in El Salvador in earlier decades. The comparatively freer environment for discussion in Brazil allowed for more meaningful exchanges - and illustrated the necessity of challenging, both politically and legally, the criminalization of Palestinian liberation through the "designation" of Palestinian political parties and movements as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" and the threat of prosecution for "material support" that can include acts as simple as human rights education or advocacy campaigns.
Third, the forum compels us to continue to build on the connections of joint struggle explored at the forum in all of our Palestine solidarity work. In the National Lawyers Guild, our work against racism is connected to our immigrants' rights work, which is connected to our labor justice work and our international solidarity work, including Palestine solidarity. The joint struggle connections - linking Black liberation, Latino movements, refugee and migrant rights movements, labor struggle, anti-Zionism, and indigenous self determination and solidarity with Palestinian organizing - are critical to the future of any movement in solidarity with Palestine in North America, not just at the World Social Forum but in our daily practice as a movement for justice and against oppression.