Marrickville madness over BDS but Palestine rights aren’t forgotten

I was present at last night’s Marrickville council meeting over BDS. It was a circus. Hundreds of people attended. Protesters, Zionists, students, unionists, Palestinians, Arabs, citizens. Countless numbers of people couldn’t fit into the council chambers (luckily I was inside for proceedings). In the end, the BDS didn’t succeed but in many ways this wasn’t the only issue at hand; raising the question of Palestine in a way that was being noticed locally and globally. There was passion in the room. Mayor Fiona Byrne kept her cool and has spent months bravely trying to defend BDS against a barrage of hate and lies from the Murdoch press.

Predictably, most of the anti-BDS speakers – there were around 17 speakers and the meeting lasted for over three hours – talked in motherhood statements. Peace. Harmony. Two equal sides (Israel and Palestine). Little about occupation.

At the last minute I was asked to speak. I focused on the realities in Palestine and Israel’s racial discrimination. This is something that impacts us all, the lack of dignity of the indigenous peoples of the land. One side is the occupier and the other is occupied. It’s not really all that complicated. This is what Zionism is.

I spent my allotted three minutes detailing how the West props up Israel and it is our responsibility to speak up for human rights. Jewish-only roads in the West Bank. The siege on Gaza and ever-increasing settlements in the West Bank. Nearly universal backing in the UN for Palestinian rights (except Nauru, Marshall Islands, Australia, Israel and the US). As BDS takes off in countless places, the arguments against it become even further removed from Palestine itself. If you can’t argue on the facts, change the subject. Talk about local politics, or “balance” or “peace”.

Last night BDS was defeated in Sydney but the message I’m hearing from countless activists is that this has galvanised people to step up the campaign for Palestinian rights. The politicians who last night didn’t vote on principle but for partisan, political reasons (also known as selling out) will not be so easily forgotten. Isn’t it about time the corporate press looked seriously into the role of the Zionist lobby in this country and how it influences public and political debate?

It’s just beginning.

Here’s the Sydney Morning Herald report:

Marrickville Council’s controversial push for a boycott of Israel was quashed at a tempestuous, crowded meeting last night.

Gallery members reported being spat on, accusations of cowardice were screamed at councillors and flags and banners were waved as police looked on.

Labor councillors and two Greens who had supported the initial push to support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, voted with two independent councillors against it.

The council’s support for the movement has drawn unprecedented ire, including from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Premier, Barry O’Farrell, and messages of support from figures such as John Pilger and Julian Burnside.

The Greens councillor Max Phillips denounced the attacks on the council but said: ”I do not believe there is sufficient understanding or support to justify council [supporting] a boycott of Israel ”¦ It must not be imposed.”

He was jeered with calls of ”there goes your preselection.” The Labor councillors Mary O’Sullivan and Sam Iskander spoke passionately about their trips to Bethlehem and their support for Palestinian human rights, but said ultimately they could not continue to support the boycott. Cr O’Sullivan moved the motion which brought the boycott down.

A separate motion by the mayor, Fiona Byrne, to retain in-principle support for the boycott was rejected. The only councillors who continued their support were the mayor, the independent Dimitrios Thanos and Greens pair Marika Kontellis and Cathy Peters.

Hundreds of people attended the passionate meeting, which was filled with shouting, flag waving and jeers. Many could not find a seat in the chamber and stood in corridors and on the street.

A Jewish blogger and pro-Palestinian rights activist, Antony Loewenstein, said he was spat on on his way in and called a pig. Proceedings were repeatedly interrupted. One woman called Arab councillors who did not support the boycott ”f—ing cowards”, first in Arabic, then in English, before storming out.

Cr Byrne said she shocked by the vitriol the issue had attracted. ”I personally don’t understand why we’ve had a sledgehammer used to crack the egg that is Marrickville Council on this issue,” she said.

Though the boycott was voted down, the council formally registered that it remained ”concerned about Palestinian human rights and calls on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian lands”.

Twelve councillors and 18 members of the public addressed the three-hour debate.

And here’s the Australian story (thank God the paper didn’t include any Arabs voices; they don’t want to pollute their pages):

A Greens-dominated Sydney council was last night forced to abandon its bid to implement a boycott of goods and services from Israel, after a fiery meeting that lasted more than three hours.

Two of the five Greens on Marrickville Council repeatedly split from their colleagues by refusing to back motions to water down the original proposal to support the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

The council finally passed a motion that resolved not to pursue the BDS “in any form” with the support of the same Greens councillors, Peter Olive and Max Phillips, four Labor councillors and two independents.

A report by council staff that put the cost of the boycott to ratepayers at more than $3.7 million was repeatedly cited as a reason to dump the BDS campaign, passed by 10 votes to two last December. Last night, only four councillors – three Greens including mayor Fiona Byrne and an independent, Dimitrios Thanos – sought to maintain the boycott.

Labor councillor Mary O’Sullivan, who put forward the motion to dump the boycott, accepted a last-minute amendment by Greens councillor Peter Olive that stated the council remained concerned about Palestinian human rights and called on Israel to end the occupation of Arab lands.

The decision to dump the boycott followed three hours of robust debate during which 17 members of the public and all 12 councillors of the inner-western Sydney council exchanged views.

Several members of the public were ejected from the gallery; on more than one occasion tempers flared and it appeared fights might break out.

The Israel boycott has plagued Marrickville Council and the Greens since the campaign for last month’s NSW election. Ms Byrne, who supported the boycott, failed in a bid to snatch the state seat of Marrickville from former Labor deputy premier Carmel Tebbutt after it was revealed she had proposed to introduce a motion for a statewide boycott of Israel if she entered parliament.

Ms Byrne was greeted upon entrance to the council chambers last night by raucous boos and cheers from about 70 banner-wielding locals – a mixture of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian supporters.

Resident Leslie Marsh began the meeting with an impassioned rejection of the global BDS campaign, pointing out it counted among its supporters Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. “The division in this room is the perfect example of what the BDS does: it takes moderate people and moves them to extremes,” he said.

The boycott had become an umbrella for a “whole range of extreme viewpoints”.

Another local, a church minister who identified himself as Father Dave, spoke in support of the boycott, pointing out that the movement aimed to challenge the military occupation of Palestine by non-violent means.

He blamed “months of lies, threats and political intrigue” for the controversy.

Independent Morris Hanna, who has consistently opposed the boycott, said he felt “ashamed” to be a Marrickville councillor. He said numerous residents had approached him with their concerns since the boycott had drawn widespread scrutiny.

“I hope for the Palestinians and for the Israelis that they live in peace in the future without Marrickville Council trying to interfere,” he said.

Greens councillor Cathy Peters spoke most forcefully in support of the boycott, claiming the campaign against it had created an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation, and had threatened democracy.

Ms Byrne spoke briefly at the start of the meeting, to commend a watered-down version of the original motion that expressed support for the BDS movement in principal.

At the end of the debate she quipped: “We have certainly put the BDS on the national agenda, whatever that means”.

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