As thousands gathered in major urban centres across every continent over the last weekend, the overwhelming groundswell of global support for the Palestinian people was something we’ve never witnessed before in regard to the apartheid state of Israel and its ongoing repressions.
And despite the media onslaught condemning local protesters, tens of thousands took over the streets of Sydney’s CBD last Saturday, and organisers, the Palestine Action Group, are set to keep the atrocities transpiring in Gaza on the agenda, as they’re planning another rally for next Sunday.
Israel is continuing to threaten to begin its ground invasion of Gaza, a small strip of land where 2.3 million Palestinians have been blockaded within for 16 years, with heavy restrictions on goods entering.
Since airstrikes commenced upon Gaza on 7 October, in response to hundreds of Hamas fighters having broken through barriers and making deadly incursions into Israeli territory, over 5,000 Palestinians have been killed, with at least 2,000 of them being children.
Israel unleashed its extermination program upon the Palestinians on their own land three-quarters of a century ago now, and since late 2022, the most far-right government that nation has ever known has taken power and it’s escalated illegal settlement building in the West Bank.
Yet, despite the massive grassroots support for Palestinians that’s being witnessed worldwide, western governments, including our own, are not condemning Tel Aviv for the wanton brutalisation, dispossession and massacre of the Indigenous people, rather they’re supporting the genocide.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Palestine Action Group spokesperson Josh Lees about why the NSW authorities have cracked down so harshly on pro-Palestinian protest, the Global North’s support of the apartheid state Israel and the possibility that positive change may follow.
Following the 7 October incursions into Israeli territory by Hamas, and as the Israeli forces were beginning to mount their massive onslaught on Gaza, the NSW Minns government lit up the Sydney Opera House with the image of the Israeli flag.
Palestine Action Group and others gathered at Sydney Town Hall that night, 9 October, and marched through the CBD to the Opera House to protest the visual show of support given to Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and its crimes against humanity upon them.
This first unannounced action was not met by heavy-handed policing, however politicians and the media criticised protesters, implying that their actions might be criminal.
For a follow-up protest on the 15th, NSW police announced it reserved the right to exercise its extraordinary powers, which again implied there was something criminal about the intentions of demonstrators, despite these laws not having been employed in the end.
And Palestine Action Group then organised another highly successful protest for last Saturday, 21 October, and the NSW police deployment was completely excessive, with figures like 800 officers on the ground being thrown about.
So, Josh, why have the NSW authorities been cracking down so hard on these pro-Palestinian rallies over recent weeks, while in the past, they’ve had no real issues with this same group of protesters?
The police play a very political role in society. To understand their response to our Palestine protests, you need to understand it in the context of the overall, unwavering support that the Australian political system, the establishment and the Australian state give to Israel.
You also need to understand what’s going on over there now. Israel is using the defence of a Hamas attack to justify a huge massacre in Gaza.
As the Israelis say, they want to use this moment to reshape the Middle East by wiping out Hamas, which really means wiping out the whole possibility of a movement for a free Palestine.
So, given the Australian government is on board with Israel, as are other western governments, we’ve seen a local and an around the world crackdown on Palestinian protests and a whipping up of an hysterical repressive environment.
Especially in the early days after the Hamas attack, protesters were being portrayed as blood thirsty as if we were celebrating civilian deaths.
And a lot of this response was reminiscent of the war on terror sentiment, where anyone who dared oppose the war was painted as though they were potentially dangerous terrorists.
That’s the context within which the crackdown on Palestine protests should be understood.
That’s what we saw in Sydney, as, at first, the police were initially going through the motions, as they would for any big protest. They were not being particularly antagonistic. In fact, they agreed to the march to the Opera House on the night.
There were a lot of police there, but they weren’t that aggressive towards the protesters.
Then as we started organising the second protest, the police were fine about it. We’d even agreed on a march route and were about to sign off on it, when the political pressure was clearly applied.
We’d seen the day before, the NSW assistant police commissioner Tony Cooke getting grilled by the media, chastising him for having allowed our protest to go ahead.
That was when things flipped: from having been agreeable about our second march, the police were all of a sudden becoming very opposed to it.
And they warned that they were going to oppose our right to march, as well as oppose all future marches at that point.
Last year, the NSW government passed antiprotest laws that permitted NSW police to crackdown harder on rising climate actions. These were accompanied by unprecedented overpolicing of activists, which included raids, home visits and the tracking down and arresting of people days after an action.
Do you consider the NSW police response to the recent Palestinians protests reveals that because of the new antiprotest regime, officers are now emboldened to react in a manner that would have been considered excessive in the past?
Certainly, that’s added to a climate in recent years that tries to portray protest as a privilege and not a fundamental democratic right.
The police didn’t go on to use any of those new antiprotest laws against us, but certainly this was happening within a climate where protests are being cracked down upon more recently.
And this again creates that idea that protest is to be criminalised and that people don’t have a right to do it.
It adds to the idea that the police or the minister should be able to shut down protests.
A lot of discussion in the media following our Monday night protest was criticising premier Chris Minns for allowing it to happen, even though he was rabidly against it, as he’s a staunch supporter of Israel.
But the idea that it should be up to the whim of a politician of the day as to whether or not you get to protest is appalling, and that’s part of the climate that’s been created by the antiprotest laws.
Another stark aspect to the NSW Police Force’s heightened crackdown on displays of pro-Palestinian sentiment is that the same approach has been taken by other Australian state law enforcement agencies and indeed, police forces the western world over.
So, how do you account for this concurrent heavy-handed approach that western governments have taken to pro-Palestinian protests, considering it’s not likely the various authorities planned their response?
It’s the extreme unwavering support they give to Israel, even now as it carries out massacres of thousands of civilians and commits all of these war crimes as it carries out the mass collective punishment of 2.3 million people from Gaza.
They’ve cut off the water, food and electricity supplies.
They’ve bombed hospitals and dozens of other medical facilities. They’ve been targeting journalists.
We’ve seen western governments lining up behind this, and the reason for this is the same reason they’ve always supported Israel, because it’s in their geopolitical interest to have Israel there in the Middle East as an outpost of western imperialism that helps them control that whole region, which is strategically important in terms of oil and trade routes.
That’s the reason the west has backed Israel and has allowed it to get away with its war crimes and its horrible racist, apartheid history.
That’s what we have seen with these protests recently, western governments deploying their powers of repression to silence dissent at home, because it’s part of their agenda for supporting Israel and imperialism in the Middle East.
But this transnational crackdown also reveals a dramatic outpouring of global solidarity with the plight of Palestinian people in regard to what’s happening right now and in general in Palestine.
By last Sunday afternoon, social media platforms showed massive pro-Palestinian protests in cities across all continents.
Do you think this could be a turning point in regard to the Palestinian issue? And are we seeing grassroots activism overwhelming the mainstream media propaganda machine?
It’s been remarkable that this whole attempt at repression and to smear protesters as antisemitic has not worked.
We have seen that in country after country, even where initial protests were oppressed by the police, in many places now, the authorities have had to back off because it just doesn’t work.
Thousands of people have been coming out in response to the crackdown, and the protests are only growing.
Here in Sydney, we’ve had protests going from 2,000 people to 10,000 people and then we had 30,000 people at our most recent protest.
In Paris, the first protest Palestinian supporters tried to hold was viciously repressed. It was banned. The people who turned up to it were teargassed.
But because a few thousand people did defy that ban and still managed to hold a protest despite the repression, that’s given confidence to thousands of others to say, “We can’t sit quietly as a genocide is going on and we are prepared to defy that.”
That’s been successful. Now we’ve had much bigger protests in Paris. There was a huge protest in London. There are protests in the United States as well.
So, it’s probably too early to say whether this is a decisive turning point in western politics and its relationship to Israel.
But here’s hoping that we can continue to build a movement that can demand that these imperialist governments stop backing this apartheid state, because that’s the only reason Israel can get away with its continued war crimes against the Palestinians: the carte blanche that’s been given by western governments.
People were remarking after the protest in Sydney on Saturday that it was one of the largest turnouts they’ve ever seen.
But the Albanese and Minns governments have been opposed to this public sentiment. Both major parties have been making rather dubious statements about what’s happening in Gaza, although there have been some notable Labor dissenters.
What are your thoughts on the position the political establishment in this country is taking in relation to Gaza?
It’s totally appalling, but it’s also not surprising. For anyone who has been following the Palestinian issue for any length of time, they would be all too aware that it does not matter what crimes Israel carries out, they will still have the loyal support of the Liberal and Labor parties in Australia.
That goes right back to the foundation of Israel. It goes right through all of the massacres that they’ve carried out through the years, all of their illegal West Bank and East Jerusalem settlement building and the 16 year blockade of Gaza.
None of this has led any western government to stop its support, break ties or to put the kind of sanctions on Israel that they put on Russia, for example.
The whole Palestinian movement has for a long time been calling on western governments to cut their ties with Israel and to sanction it, as similar calls in the past were made against the apartheid movement in South Africa.
We have started to see some cracks emerge in that consensus. There was an open letter by the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Palestine, signed by mostly Labor and Greens MPs.
It calls for increased humanitarian aid in Gaza and for Israel to abide by international law. But the stance of the Palestine Action Group is that this statement does not go anywhere near far enough.
The open letter doesn’t even condemn Israel’s actions or call them out for the war crimes that they are perpetrating right now.
Just calling out for humanitarian aid to Gaza is not enough, when you are not stopping the cause of the humanitarian crisis, which is not some natural disaster, but it’s a deliberate policy being carried out by Israel with the ongoing backing and funding of western states.
So, those politicians need to go much further before they’re going to get the support of the Palestine Action Group.
What should these politicians be saying?
We should be calling for Australia to cut ties with Israel, to put sanctions on Israel wherever possible and to condemn the state for what it is. It is an international pariah.
It is an apartheid state. It is an open blatant example of a racist colonial state right before our eyes carrying out its long-term ultimate goal of genocide.
They want to wipe out the Palestinian people as a people. They want to complete the process of land theft, which is the basis of the Israeli state, and all of this is going on while the US still gives that nation $3.8 billion in aid annually, which is 20 percent of Israel’s military budget.
And of course, in moments of crisis like this, America floods Israel with even more support and even more funding. The US gives even more bullets and shells to be used to rain down upon the people of Gaza.
That is our role in the west, to stop the imperial support being given to Israel, to weaken its ability to oppress the Palestinians and to show solidarity with them, as they bravely try to survive and resist that oppression in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and everywhere else.
And lastly, Josh, Palestine Action Group are organising another rally for next Sunday 29 October in Hyde Park. And as we’ve seen from the footage around the world, it’s likely PAG is not the only group that’s going to keep up the momentum in challenging Israel’s current attempt to wipeout Gaza.
So, what do you think can be achieved by this momentum? And once a ceasefire is achieved, do you consider life in the region will be able to return to what is considered normal, as has been the case after other recent flareups, or are circumstances at a point where more is warranted?
It is imperative that we keep protesting. Israel is still set to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, which will massively escalate the atrocities being carried out against the civilians of Gaza, we know that from previous ground incursions into Gaza.
And this next one, from all accounts, is said to be even bigger and more destructive than what has come before. It’s quite a nightmarish scenario.
So, we need to keep protesting all around the world. That’s important so that the Palestinian people know that they are not alone, despite the appalling stance that’s being taken by the governments of most of the world and by the media.
It’s important that the people of Palestine know that even though our government supports Israel, we don’t agree with it, and we support Palestine.
In terms of what can be achieved, the main goal for us has to be to break the ties of western governments with Israel: to end their support of the genocidal state.
We must cut military and political ties with Israel and turn that state into a pariah, just like what was eventually achieved with the apartheid state of South Africa.
It won’t be enough to return to the status quo of before 7 October, because that was a status quo in which 2.3 million people were being held hostage in Gaza, the world’s biggest open-air prison.
It was also a status quo where illegal settlements in the West Bank were proceeding at an increasing pace and increasing violence is coming from the Israeli forces and the ultra-extremist religious civilians, who believe they are the chosen people, and they should wipe out the Palestinians.
Some of these extremists are in the Israeli government.
There has to be an end to the ongoing oppression of all Palestinians through a multitude of apartheid racist laws that make Palestinians second class citizens and continue to oppress them in the occupied territories.
So, it’s not enough to go back to the status quo. We need to end apartheid in Israel. We need to demand a free Palestine. And that means a radical transform in the whole situation, one in which Palestinians can live with equality, dignity, rights and in peace in that region.