A diverse coalition of pro-Palestine activists and organizations prepare to return to stop Israel’s largest maritime cargo corporation from unloading cargo at the Port of Oakland, costing the Israeli shipping company money and time and hurting its reputation.
AUSTIN, Texas — After multiple Block The Boat actions, even opponents of the blockade movement admit that Zim Integrated Shipping Services, Israel’s largest maritime cargo corporation, is on the defensive.
The next in this series of direct actions, which attempt to prevent Zim shipping vessels from unloading at U.S. ports in a show of support for Palestine, was scheduled to take place on the morning of Oct. 25. But Block The Boat organizers announced via Twitter that Zim Beijing, the latest vessel due in Oakland, California, had delayed its arrival.
There’s a long history of unions and activists collaborating to blockade business at the Port of Oakland, but the movement has spread in recent months. Attempts to prevent unloading, with varying degrees of success, have also occurred at the Ports of Long Beach, Seattle, Vancouver and Tampa Bay. There are signs that Zim may soon abandon Oakland entirely or may already be in the process of doing so.
In addition to the costs Zim incurs as a result of these actions, organizers suggest these actions damage the company’s reputation in international shipping circles just as it attempts to cement alliances with other similar corporations.
A movement grows after “Protective Edge”
The first Block the Boat action began in Oakland in 2010 as a response to the Israeli raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The flotilla was an attempt to bring humanitarian aid and construction materials into Gaza’s blockaded port. During the raid, nine activists were killed by gunfire. A United Nations report suggested that at least six people were killed “in a manner consistent with an extra-legal, arbitrary and summary execution.” The report added, “Under the circumstances, it seems a matter of pure chance that there were not more fatalities.”
Since the beginning, Block The Boat has been organized by San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which works closely with a diverse coalition of activists and groups. At that first action, the group succeeded in delaying unloading for a day. But the movement’s size grew dramatically after Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge,” its summer 2014 military campaign in Gaza that left thousands dead and displaced thousands more.
“During the last bombardment of Gaza we saw some of the worst atrocities and the greatest destruction that we’ve seen in recent years. That angered a lot of people and brought a lot of the community out,” Mohamed Shehk told MintPress News during a telephone interview.
Shehk is the media and communications director at Critical Resistance, a member of the Block The Boat coalition.
“Our organization is dedicated to the abolition of the prison-industrial complex and we understand this to be not just a struggle in the United States but internationally. We got involved from the beginning when Block The Boat came together.”
Shehk says the intersection between issues like prisons and Palestine is an important part of the movement’s growth and apparent success.
“We’re seeing a continuation of struggle not just in Palestine but here in the United States, with everything that has happened after the murders of Michael Brown and John Crawford, and the mobilizations that took place to kick Urban Shield [the law enforcement conference] out of Oakland,” he explained.
Activists rely on tacit union support
MintPress asked Shehk what to expect from the next action, now postponed from Oct. 25.
“We’re expecting to mobilize hundreds of people, meet up, and march down to the port where we’ll picket to prevent the Israeli Zim ship Beijing from unloading its goods in Oakland,” he said.
Earlier this month, Zim told JOC Group Inc., providers of news and analysis for the shipping industry, that they are “relying on local law enforcement to handle protests in Oakland.”
Block The Boat organizers are prepared for a police presence, but don’t expect heavy interference.
“We have gotten a lot of support from the rank and file and we don’t expect any kind of tension with them, as they’ve stood with us in recent Block The Boat actions. There would be no reason for police to respond aggressively,” Shehk said.
However, on Oct. 1, the Zionist Association of America penned a letter condemning “the police department’s failure to intervene” during the Sept. 27 action that successfully prevented unloading.
Regardless of how many protesters show up, Block The Boat depends on union support. When a ship arrives in port, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union assigns workers to unload it. If the workers refuse, nothing gets done.
Publicly, the workers’ union does not support the blockade.
“ILWU Local 10 and 34 represented longshoremen and clerks dispatched to work the vessel ZIM Shanghai at SSA’s Oakland California Terminal were met with hostile demonstrators, effectively blocking all access to the terminal,” the union said in a statement in September. “The ILWU is not among the groups organizing the protests, and the leadership and membership of the ILWU have taken no position on the Israel/Gaza conflict.”
But Jewish media have called this statement into question.
“Looking at photos of the individual protesters, it is kind of hard to imagine them physically intimidating any Longshoreman,” quipped The Jewish Press.
San Francisco-area publication jweekly.com’s Dan Pine noted, “Robert Bernardo, a spokesman for the Port of Oakland, told J., ‘It was our understanding that all terminal gates were clear so that anyone wanting to enter and exit were fully able to do so.'”
Pine goes on to quote Andy David, consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest: “If you’re anti-Israel, you’re entitled to your opinion, but don’t be a coward and hide behind excuses like the safety excuse.”
Rather than cowardice, organizers say unloading is prevented because of outreach and union workers’ unwillingness to cross picket lines — a tactic used in previous Port of Oakland shutdowns, like those that occurred during the Occupy movement.
A union worker outreach flier shared with MintPress is headlined “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” explicitly linking the blockade to police brutality and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department. It also appeals to worker solidarity with the following statement:
“‘We rely on our brothers and sisters in the trade union movement internationally to continue a proud tradition of international solidarity and to stand with us as you stood with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.’ ~Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions”
Shehk said recent union outreach has highlighted the need for continued action despite the end of Israel’s latest wave of large-scale attacks.
“It’s not just about when Israel is assaulting Gaza with bombs and missiles. We need to continue to protest Israel’s ongoing occupation, its ongoing settlement expansions, its ongoing daily killings of Palestinians, and its ongoing blockade of Gaza,” he said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support,” he added. “Many Longshoremen expressed that they won’t touch the Zim ship. They’ve supported us in the past and they’ll continue to support us when they see a strong presence out there.”
Lost profits and a damaged reputation for Zim
“Ninety-nine percent of imports and exports in Israel are through maritime trade,” said Shehk. “An action that will block or delay a Zim ship from unloading will definitely have significant effects on the Israeli economy and the Israeli state.”
The Jewish Press warned last month that “there are only losers in Oakland.”
“ZIM may not call on the Port of Oakland again, certainly not until the ILWU 10 has a contract and guarantees to unload ZIM ships. Other shipping companies wary of the port’s unreliability may also consider the same,” it said. “With an estimated 150 ZIM visits a year, that’s a lot of business and perhaps even jobs for the City of Oakland to lose.”
In their union outreach flier, Block The Boat cites this Al-Akhbar English report as evidence that some non-Israeli cargo is likely to return to Oakland on other ships. Even modest estimates suggest that Zim is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the repeated delays.
“One dockworker told us every twelve hours we delayed the Piraeus cost the company $50,000. That figure, too, is still unconfirmed, but what we know for sure is that the lost revenue greatly exceeds the operating costs. … It’s clear that Block the Boat isn’t just a flash in the pan: doing business with Zim can cause significant delays, and customers who don’t want to deal with that will take their business elsewhere.”
Beyond lost profits, the protests come as Zim, like all international maritime shipping corporations, is struggling with a weak market and seeking to form alliances with others to control market share. Zim is now in a unique position, according to JOC Group’s Grace M. Lavigne. “Excluding Zim Integrated Shipping Services, all traditional east-west carriers are now entrenched in alliances that cover all three east-west trades,” Lavigne said.
Meanwhile, Greg Knowler, JOC’s senior Asia editor, explains that Zim is in a precarious position of seeking these alliances while simultaneously undergoing major restructuring as the Israeli government gives up its controlling stake in the company. “Profitability may prove to be elusive. There is no panacea for the excess capacity in the container shipping business … All eyes will now be on which alliances Zim sets up as it is expected to move quickly to forge new partnerships,” he wrote at the end of August.
But protests like Block The Boat may be having an effect on carriers’ willingness to form alliances.
“David Osler reported that well-informed Israeli shipping sources have suggested that other container carriers may be wary of working with Zim because of its ties to Israel,” according to shipping news site Lloyd’s List.
“Zim chief executive Rafi Danieli confirmed in a recent interview with Lloyd’s List that the carrier … will be seeking to negotiate its way into one of the global alliances in due course. However, the Israeli offensive in Gaza may make Mr Danieli’s job that much more difficult,” it continued.
Block The Boat organizers like Mohamed Shehk openly hope that Zim’s next trip to Oakland might be its last.
“Since our first Block The Boat action in August, we’ve had Zim on the ropes,” he told MintPress. “They’ve taken their schedule off their website, they’ve had to delay their ships and they don’t even want to approach the ports for fear that they won’t be able to unload their goods.
“What we’re hoping for and we will continue to strive for is that it will be such an inconvenience at ports not just in Oakland but all over the United States that it will just be impossible for Zim to conduct business. We will continue to protest until the colonization of Palestine comes to a full stop.”