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When Arab Workers Stood Against Zionism

Above photo: Libyan workers celebrated IFATU’s decision to blockade American ships The Vanguard, issue 72, 73, front page, 1960.

In the 1960s Arab workers united and resisted reactionary regimes and the state of Israel.

When the whole world is watching genocide taking place against a population of more than 2 million, only a few nations and entities decided to rise and challenge imperialism, Zionism, and reactionism. While reactionary regimes in the region are engulfed in fruitless discussions about the efficacy of boycotting products complicit in arming and funding the genocide, the Axis of Resistance  (Hezbollah, Yemen, and Islamic Resistance in Iraq) took it upon itself to target the economic and military capabilities of the Zionist Entity as a downright direct challenge against imperialism, Zionism, and reactionism in the region.

The strategic location of Yemen at the Bab Al-Mandab strait, alongside the sovereignty of Yemen’s leadership from western imperialism, made them engage in a process of materialization of what the people across the region have aspired, which is the economic isolation of the Zionist Entity given its genocidal war on the Palestinian people of Gaza. Since Al-Aqsa Flood operation and the ongoing genocide that has killed more than 23,000 civilians to date,  Yemen has vowed to stifle the economic and military capabilities of the Zionist Entity by targeting its Eilat port and dissuading ships destined to the entity (and contributing to its genocidal war efforts) from travelling through Bab Al-Mandab or risk confiscation.

The United States gathered vassal states in the region and some other NATO countries in an operation called Prosperity Guardian to attack Yemen. However, one state after another decided to withdraw from this operation, leaving only  Britain and the U.S., through the use of regional military bases, to bomb Yemen. Further, they framed Yemen’s operations in the Red Sea as harming the principle of the freedom of navigation  of vessels that seek to deliver commercial goods to the Zionist entity. Ironically, when NATO engaged in the bombing campaign against Libya in 2011, they barred the territories controlled by the government from importing goods and fuel. This was an act of collective punishment against the people who simply resided in areas under the Gaddafi government, and despite the fact that what the government sought to import were also commercial goods. There was no mention of freedom of navigation then.

The issue here is not about circumventing freedom of navigation, but the discursive articulation by imperialists to frame the doings of Yemen as violation of this principle. But it is well-known that the freedom of navigation has been repeatedly exploited by the US and its allies, beginning in 1980 in the Gulf of Sidra in Libya to the manipulative militarization of the East China Sea where AUKUS (Australia, UK, and US) nuclear military trainings and build-up are being conducted in the vicinity of sovereign countries, all under the concept of freedom of navigation.

Arab Workers Against Zionism

What Yemen is doing in the Red Sea in terms of realizing the economic boycott of the Zionist Entity has been done once by Arab workers in 1960. Following the blowback imperialism received when Egypt overthrew its reactionary monarchy and espoused liberatory politics in the region and across much of the global south, Egypt under Jamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership, expelled foreign military bases from the country in 1954. The Suez Canal, which 56% was owned by the French and 44% owned by the British, was nationalized by Egypt in 1956, which deprived the imperialists from usurping rent on Egyptian land.

Following the nationalization, Egypt had  complete control over what entered its canal. Hence the Tripartite Aggression of 1956 by the UK, France and the Zionist Entity, especially the latter whose vessels could no longer use the Suez Canal. After the hostilities began, UN Emergency Forces acted as a buffer and barred Palestinians and Egyptians in Sinai from attacking the Entity’s economic interest in the Straits of Tiran and in the Gulf of Aqaba, while enforcing a ceasefire.

David Ben-Gurion, prime minister from 1955 to 1963, pushed the Americans to boycott Egyptian ships given that not only did Egypt prevent any ships from the Entity to enter the Suez Canal, but that it often confiscated construction cargo from ships destined to the Entity. Nasser used such cargo for constructing residences for displaced Palestinians within Egypt. Furthermore, the United Arab Republics (Egypt and Syria) prevented any ships from docking at their ports if they were destined to the Zionist entity. Through strong lobbying capabilities of the Zionist entity, the Histadrut, the Entity’s labor union, and the reactionary trade unionism of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), they managed to commit American dock workers to join the battle against UAR.

When an Egyptian ship by the name of Cleopatra  arrived in Brooklyn harbor on April 13, 1960 to unload Egyptian cotton and load American wheat. New York dock workers blockaded the ship, prevented it from unloading and loading the goods, and obstructed the delivery of food to the ship crew.

When UAR inquired about the happenings, the president of the Federation of Sailors of North America, Paul Hall, wrote “We just want to indicate that the blocking of Cleopatra is purely a labor related action that comes as a response to UAR’s disregard to Freedom of Navigation. Many of our sailors [due to the blockade] have lost their jobs because your government is preventing American ships from sailing in the Mediterranean… We respect international law that allows us the freedom to navigate” (emphasis added). The International Federation of Arab Trade Unions (IFATU), which encompassed various Arab countries’ unions, responded by stating that the blockading of ships headed to the Zionist entity is an act to prevent it from committing its apartheid policies and displacement of Palestinians, and argued that “the blockading of Cleopatra serves Zionist international interests… as a provocative measure directed at Pan-Arabism, to support and serve Israel’s interests”. On April 23, 1960, the IFATU gave a 7-day ultimatum to the American dock workers, either they release Cleopatra and allow it to unload and load the designated cargo, or all-American ships, regardless of destination, will be blocked by IFATU workers.

On April 30, 1960 the IFATU blocked all American ships, and all ships of any nationality that were going to or from the Zionist Entity.  The blockade lasted 9 days until the Americans agreed to Arab workers’ demands to allow the Cleopatra crew to unload their cotton, load their ship and access food. Nasser then awarded the IFATU leadership the Order of the Nile. During his speech, Nasser stated:

“Colonialism and Zionism have conspired against the Arab homeland. The Arab workers committed themselves to bring the first line of defense for Pan-Arabism, and they sacrificed everything in order to achieve this great message. They considered themselves the first line of defense for the sake of Pan-Arabism and for the sake of Arab dignity.”

What the Arab workers have done in the 1960 and what Yemen is doing in our present day are ultimately the same. Currently, most Arab countries are ruled by reactionary regimes who have not done a single thing to stop the genocide, and in fact they have stood against the people’s desires for supporting the Axis. The 1960s were no different from today because Arab countries had nominal independence then and the regimes were reactionary as well. Ultimately, the people and the workers stood on the side of humanity for the Pan-Arab cause and against US imperialism and its facade in the region. What the labor movement taught us is that when Arab workers (not necessarily regimes) are united against the common enemy – imperialism, Zionism, and reactionism – they become unstoppable. While Yemen is acting alongside the Axis of Resistance, Arab workers today have a chance to stand on the side of humanity, otherwise, we will continue to be mere spectators of a horrific genocide.

Essam Elkorghli is a Libyan PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He researches Libya’s modern political history and contemporary imperialism in education. He is a labor organizer with the Graduate Employees’ Organization,  assistant editor for Middle East Critique Journal, and a member of the Global Pan African Movement.

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