Site Navigation

The Decline of the Anti-war Movement, the Issue of Palestine & Arab Resistance to Occupation

4. April 2008

Six Delegates of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign to the Cairo Conference on US & Zionist Ocupation presented following paper.

Any response to the crisis in the Middle East, and the need for more effective international solidarity with the Arab, Muslim and other victims of imperialist barbarism has to start from the failure of the people of the western democracies to prevent the despatch of Western armies to devastate Iraq and Afghanistan. US-armed Israel is praised while it commits genocide against the people of Palestine, another part of what George W. Bush termed a ‘crusade’, namely the US drive to control a major part of the world’s oil. The only appropriate response to this failure is to rededicate ourselves to work more effectively against the western militarism that blights our planet.

• “The huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet, the United States and world public opinion.” New York Times, Feb 17, 2003
• “The anti-war movement is almost coming to a standstill. It needs more development, it has to move forward. Maybe civil disobedience.” Haifa Zangana, Iraqi anti-war campaigner, March 2008

Between September 2001 and February 2003, the UK Stop the War Coalition managed to lead and build a massive campaign of active opposition to the predictably disastrous ‘war on terror’. 15 months of regular and vibrant Stop the War meetings and protests all over the country provided a forum that could facilitate the search for answers of a massive and growing section of society.

Although we came together with the common aim of preventing a specific war, naturally, the debate would broaden out to discuss and learn from other wars, and to consider their imperialist roots. Those who had signed up initially to prevent the bombing of Afghanistan and later Iraq soon discovered that the task was bigger than they had imagined. Many began to see their state not as benign, but belligerent, and began to be motivated by a desire not just to prevent a specific war, but to develop the understanding that would enable them to prevent war in general. That anger and enthusiasm was channelled into mobilising an effective opposition to UK participation in the invasion of Iraq that would provoke the political crisis necessary to force the UK government to pull its support. On February 15th 2003, the Stop the War Coalition had mobilised a multiple of the numbers necessary to do just that.
The mobilisation was a massive achievement and for that the coalition should be congratulated.

But clearly that in itself was not enough; the political crisis didn’t materialise, and after that unprecedented peaceful march around London, the government felt able to carry through with its part in the carnage that has since led to the death of around a million Iraqis.

The demoralisation that followed led to shrinkage first in the enthusiasm within the movement, and with that, the size. The radical forum that had provided such a steep learning curve seemed to stagnate and decline, and in a desperate attempt to maintain a broad-based support, positions were taken by the leadership that would lead to an unnatural and unnecessary stifling of the very debate necessary to critically analyse any failings.

By 2008, the Brown Government was able to seamlessly follow on from the much-despised Blair. It can continue even with an absence of support for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the virtual absence of active opposition. The anti-war movement that was once a real threat to this unpopular government, has evolved into little more than an irrelevance. How can this be changed, and widespread sullen resignation to foreign adventures be ignited into active rage against the UK’s military machine?

The anti-war movement suffers from four major weaknesses:

1. It is not committed politically to solidarity with those who resist US-UK-Israeli aggression
2. It failed the test of February 15th, 2003 and, in denial, cannot learn from this failure and take forward the struggle against British participation in the US’ wars
3. The US and UK anti-war movements downplay the issue of Palestine and refuse to actively support the call from Palestine for a campaign of boycott of Israeli and Zionist institutions
4. Undemocratic methods and exclusion of key activists

1. We need a campaign of solidarity

The commitment to solidarity with the victims of US-British aggressive wars derives from the murderous destruction these governments are visiting on the people of the Middle East. It is the determined resistance to invasion, however, that makes building a solidarity movement a practical task. But a solidarity campaign is more than a movement to protect imperial soldiers from their incompetent generals, or the fate that ultimately awaits invading armies on Iraqi or Afghan soil; it must reach out to the people occupied and violated by the US and British military. We have to stand in solidarity with them in their resistance to US-British invasion and domination. There can be no fudge or resort to pacifist abstention if we are to build a movement that can force our criminal rulers into disgorging their prey and retreating from Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. It is not enough to say that Bush and Blair are acting ‘Not in Our Name’; the struggles against the attacks on Vietnam, Cuba, Angola or Nicaragua, and the opposition to the White racist regime in South Africa were all politically committed to the victory of the resistance forces.

This had nothing to do with the sophistication, unity or any revolutionary nature of the leaderships of these movements. The violence of the resistance was as great, the tactics as ‘terroristic’ in part, involving the killing of locally-recruited pro-occupation forces. There was, and is today, a choice; a movement aiming to build support in Britain against this imperial aggression can restrict itself to campaigning for ‘peace’ or it can go beyond that pacifist position in favour of political ‘solidarity’ with the resistance.

In the case of Vietnam the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (BCPV), set up in 1965, competed with the larger and more radical Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) set up a year later.
The VSC in Britain adopted slogans of ‘Victory to the National Liberation Front’, chanted ‘Ho!,Ho!.Ho Chi Minh!’ on demonstrations, waved Vietnamese flags and worked to win political support for the struggle, including the military struggle, of the Vietnamese people against a murderous occupation. The BCPV remained on the margins, increasingly marginalised by the growth of the militant VSC. In the event, the Liberation forces in Vietnam, in alliance with civilian solidarity movements in the US and around the world, as well as significant numbers of conscripted US soldiers hostile to the war effort, succeeded in defeating the US Military.

The result was the so-called ‘Vietnam syndrome’, a widespread domestic resistance to foreign wars that made it impossible for the US to mount overt invasions of other countries. The victory of the Vietnamese resistance was hastened, even made possible, by the US anti-war movement making it impossible for Johnson or Nixon to use nuclear weapons in the way they would have wished.
Similarly, a decisive defeat today for the US-British-Israeli war machines will sap the aggressive energies of Washington, London and Tel Aviv, and make the world a safer place. If this desirable state of affairs is achieved with a significant contribution from a movement in open solidarity with those who resist the aggression of our government, then a basis will be laid for a better future.
The mainstream of the anti-war organisations in the US and Britain, however, are today very much in the nature of a ‘campaign for peace’ and opposed to open solidarity with those resisting occupation and the imposition of client regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Lebanon. Even when a unified popular resistance movement, Hezbollah, successfully defied the overwhelming military might of Israel in Lebanon in 2006, the SWP-led UK Stop the War Coalition fought off attempts to include “Support the Arab Resistance” in the slogans of the demonstration.

Why? An Iraqi, an Afghan, a Palestinian or a Lebanese who takes up arms against invaders has blood no less valuable than a British soldier and, moreover, is acting in defence of life, family, and freedom from foreign domination. Why, then, should the anti-war movement refuse solidarity to such resistance fighters? If French people’s Resistance (usually capitalised) has a claim on our emotions, why do we deny this dignity to brown-skinned, mainly Muslim people? If it is not racism, it is a concession to racism.

The failure to commit to open solidarity with the resistance to British invasion and occupation may be a fear of colliding with Britain’s so-called ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, which declares Hamas and Hezbollah to be ‘terrorist organisations’. The aim of this legislation is to illegalise solidarity with opponents of apartheid Israel. It is necessary to defy it; the act of political defiance involved in open solidarity with Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s in their resistance to Israeli aggression will drag the issue into the domestic political arena at a time when Israel has virtually no popular support and Israeli generals have to beware arrest by British legal authorities.

Some voices on the left oppose committing the anti-war movement to open solidarity with the anti-occupation resistance by arguing that it will mean a narrow campaign instead of a ‘broad’, ‘vibrant’ mass movement that can really be effective in delivering the real prize, withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is no question of posing a ‘narrow’ principled solidarity to a ‘broad’ movement for peace; the UK anti-war movement is, in the words of Haifa Zangana, ‘almost at a standstill’, with very modest numbers turning out for increasingly formulaic demonstrations, and tiny numbers of activists involved in each locality. There is no sign of an upturn in the short term.

2. Five years on, defeat, and no strategy for advance

Getting on for 2 million people marched in London on Feb 15, 2003 against the impending attack on Iraq. Tony Blair had instructed officials to prepare for his resignation. He didn’t need to send the letter, for the anti-war movement was unwilling to produce the political crisis that such numbers on the streets of London and Glasgow made a real possibility. The ‘revolutionaries’ who were the most prominent leadership voices for the anti-war movement ensured that the march was uneventful and that the streets of the capital that night were no threat to Blair’s government bent on genocidal war in Iraq. A million Iraqis died in the ensuing carnage that might have been prevented by determined action to escalate the opposition to war on that and following days.

This is not criticism after the event: voices were raised at the time urging that a determined minority of marchers should occupy key buildings, invite unrest and hold open-ended teach-ins. The important thing was that the Government be made to fear the unpredictability, the potential power of militant mass mobilisation against their war plans. It wasn’t necessary for all the demonstrators to actively participate in the more militant actions (it’s hardly revolutionary to occupy buildings when there aren’t enough police to even think about preventing it), only that they should endorse the actions of those ready to do so.

Having failed to go beyond a ‘peace march’, the movement against the British attack on Iraq went into decline. Sadly, this was denied by the left leaders of the Stop the war Coalition at the time and the denial has led to a situation today where a weird triumphalism seems to pervade a movement that is increasingly enfeebled. The continued existence of the Stop the War Coalition is seen as a great achievement, even if it is currently unable to mobilise a significant percentage of those opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq. After all, most people believe that if huge demonstrations couldn’t do the trick, what is the point of much smaller ones?

The spirits of the faithful are kept up by the often repeated claim that the “anti-war movement got rid of Tony Blair”, a dubious claim given that he was seamlessly replaced by equally pro-war Brown, and that Blair still swans around the Middle East as a ‘peace envoy’. There was no political crisis precipitated, nor is he in prison, on trial or, though much despised, official disgraced. Even if ‘we did get rid of Tony Blair’, up to a million Iraqi dead seems too high a price to pay for the replacement at the top of the British Government of one criminal by another.

As the British Military contributes to the genocide in Iraq, the main sense of all those who opposed the invasion is sullen resignation. Among those who were active in their opposition, there is today a widespread demoralisation and impotence at the inability to land a blow on such a discredited government, a lack of any sense of a way forward. The most recent demonstrations reflected this: very modest in size and steeped in a traditional ‘peace movement’ psychology of bearing witness devoid of real hope. “As long as they occupy Iraq and Afghanistan we will continue to demonstrate here,” pledged Lindsay German in Trafalgar Square on March 15; she then called for a minute’s silence later in the week.

The dominant focus on ‘Bring the Troops Home’ is undercut by Brown’s seeming commitment to reducing the troop levels. There is an over-emphasis on saving the lives of ‘our boys, i.e. occupation soldiers, that slides easily into calling for better equipment for British soldiers. This panders to the widespread popular feeling, consistently revealed in opinion polls, of mass opposition to the occupations, but also majority support for the British soldiers enforcing those same occupations. There is little focus on the horror of the lives of Iraqis under occupation, and the violence and divide-and-rule tactics inherent in colonial wars. As with the Vietnam war it is only when masses of people are helped to see the savagery of ‘their’ army in the field, the massacres and devastation, and the resistance that flows from this, that they can understand the necessity of resistance to aggression, and that this resistance has a claim on our support. We need to campaign for the withdrawal of British troops on the basis that this is the only way to end their crimes against the occupied people.

To get out of the current ‘virtual standstill’ the anti-war movement needs a critical reflection on past failures (as well as successes). The ‘triumphalism’ often heard from activists is not only inappropriate against a background of decline here and genocide in Iraq and Palestine, it is a barrier to building a movement of solidarity with the resistance to the colonial projects underway in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and beyond.

3. Palestine, Zionism and the anti-war movement

As in the US, the British anti-war movement consistently downplays the issue of Palestine and refuses to struggle openly against Zionism as a racist and genocidal ideology. Leading voices in both the US and British anti-war movements work to keep supporters of Israel, those who are critical only of post-1967 occupation, within the ‘wider anti-war movement’. Within this perspective, Palestine is seen as a ‘divisive’ issue. Thus, while there is opposition to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon or genocidal attacks on Gaza (how could it be otherwise?), there is a determination not to allow the Palestinian struggle into the core demands of the anti-war movement. When Israel’s ethnic cleansing is going on ‘at its normal’ rate, as Israel progresses its project to wipe out any Palestinian national existence, leaders of the anti-war movement defend the demotion of Palestine within the ‘wider anti-war movement’.

Instead of taking up the call from Palestine for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, prominent voices in the anti-war movement attempt to justify their refusal to campaign against Israel, and the bases of Zionist support for Israel in Britain.

Prominent Stop the War Coalition voices argue, firstly, that there are no British troops deployed in that theatre, and so there is no possibility of mobilising a broad opposition to Israel’s policies, and, secondly, that Palestine has to take second place in terms of time and resources to the ‘broader campaign against imperialism’.

Both arguments are wrong. There were no troops in Vietnam from many countries, including Britain, that saw a militant mass movement in support of the Vietnamese struggle. There were no British troops in apartheid South Africa either. There may be no British troops in Palestine/Israel, but the militant alignment of the US and Britain with apartheid Israel, as with apartheid South Africa earlier, has created a widespread hostility to British Government complicity in Israel’s crimes that makes Palestine a burning issue for many.

A second argument from the same source, starts from the obvious truth that Palestinians cannot defeat US-backed Israel unaided and that, consequently, there needs to be a radical change in the balance of power across the whole region. Following this truth, there comes the bizarre and shocking idea that “it is unlikely that the Palestinians will win a true end to the occupation without a victory of anti-imperialism in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan” and that activists should focus “time and resources on building Stop the War, the campaign against Islamophobia, and the broad campaign against imperialism.”

This position, it should be noted, again counter-poses solidarity with Palestine to involvement in ‘the wider anti-war movement’. It thus reinforces the conclusions of the ‘no British troops deployed there’ argument. This position also justifies downgrading Israel’s role in the US-UK-Israel axis of terror when what is needed is to develop an integrated popular response to the highly-integrated strategy for domination of the region. Since Zionist Israel is a key regional attack dog for the US, Palestine must be a key component of the struggle against Western domination of the resources of the region.

It is wrong to downgrade or counter-pose support for the Palestinian liberation struggle to that of the region as a whole: Palestinians are among the most advanced guard of opposition to US-Israeli plans for the entire region. Palestinians are resisting Israel and its regional ambitions. If Israel had not been stopped at the Lebanese border by Hezbollah, or if Palestinians were not resisting in Gaza, in Nablus and in Hebron, Israel would expand even further and faster and would have to be stopped later, deeper into the Arab world and at even higher cost. The Palestinians are protecting the whole of the Arab world with their blood. Attempts anywhere to relegate solidarity with Palestine to a second level of importance are a betrayal of the struggle of the Palestinian people, and weaken the work for a truly worldwide front of resistance to imperialist barbarism. Such downgrading of solidarity with Palestine’s existential struggle against Zionism is especially unacceptable in Britain, which organised and continues to support the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

The leaders of the anti-war movement refuse to answer the call from Palestine for a comprehensive boycott of Israel, for this would place the anti-war movement in opposition to the apartheid state of Israel, and alienate some supporters of Israel, including those New Labour trade union leaders who have affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition.

Although there are no British troops currently in Palestine/Israel, there are many pressure points across the world where the political bases of Zionism can be weakened: Israeli companies, the JNF (Jewish National Fund), visiting Israeli politicians and war criminals, Israeli sporting and cultural delegations, and more. The anti-war movement needs to take up this campaign of boycott vigorously; it has the potential to inject new vigour into the movement between diminishing demonstrations.

Boycott activity confronts Zionism directly, and sometimes Israel itself, and can inflict real punishment. It can raise the morale of Palestinians and dent that of Israelis. Boycott of Israel is the only strategy on the table to offer effective solidarity, which is why Palestinian civil society has asked for it above all else. The Palestinian call for boycott, though, faces foot-dragging and muted opposition. Some demean the boycott campaign on the grounds that boycott is ‘only a tactic not a principle’. It is neither, it is the strategy that can progressively isolate apartheid Israel and contribute to a victory over Zionism.

4. The need for an honest accounting and a new start

At the beginning of the anti-war movement there was a ferment of activities and debate and discussion as newly-active layers of people sought answers to fundamental questions: why did 9/11 happen, why was Parliament so unrepresentative of public opinion, who owned the media and why did they distort the truth, what was Zionism and the Zionist State? We marched and organised and watched numbers grow and meetings burst at the seams, seemingly regardless of how sharp or mediocre we were.

The failure of the anti-war movement to face up to the failure of February 15th 2003, led to an increasing divorce between the ever-diminishing group of activists who followed the leadership in celebrating their so-called achievements and virtually everybody else in the real world who saw February 15th as a face-off between the anti-war movement and the Blair Government which the Government had won, after which Britain had joined in the US invasion and devastation of Iraq.

As the numbers diminished, attempts at critical analysis were rejected, and divergent voices were ignored, stifled, or delegitimised. Control of the Stop the War Coalition became ever more detached from the membership, as key decisions were taken off stage and handed down. A regular series of smaller and smaller demonstrations inspired no-one and were ignored by the Government.

Sadly, neither Abu Ghraib nor Gaza represents the low point of barbarism that the democratic governments of the West will inflict on the Arab, Muslim and other peoples of the world. To begin to put an end to this carnage we need an anti-war movement that is anti-imperialist rather than a ‘peace movement’, that is in political solidarity with the resistance to invasion and occupation, and that opposes Zionism and the genocidal state of Israel. We will learn from recent mistakes or continue towards irrelevance.

Kevin Connor
Vanesa Fuertes
Sofiah MacLeod
Tom McVitie
Mick Napier
John Wight

24 March 2008

Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign