Why the current protests for Palestine are so different to the 2003 Iraq War protests

By Davey Heller (classconscious.org, Australia)

It is likely unclear to many of the millions marching, week after week, against Israel’s murderous rampage of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Gaza, that they are part of an unprecedented movement. The only remotely comparable global protests occurred in February 2003, when up to 15 million people marched against the imminent US led imperialist invasion of Iraq. A comparison of the two protest movements shows however that we are currently witnessing a far more anti-imperialist and working class orientated protest movement than in 2003. This article will focus on the Australian context but as Australia is a key imperialist power and member of the “Five eyes” network there will be many parallels to other imperialist centres.

The makeup of the 2003 protest leadership and perspective of many participants, in the imperialist centres, was overwhelmingly liberal. Whilst there was genuine anti-imperialist sentiment amongst the protests the leadership included much of the liberal or “progressive” civil society including unions, churches, and social democratic forces. The war was being prosecuted by a Republican President which gave space for these liberal forces to move in opportunistically. In Australia there was a right-wing Howard led Government. Simon Crean, the then Australian Labor Party opposition leader, even spoke at the rally in Brisbane, although he was booed by the crowd when declared he would support an attack on Iraq if it had UN approval! This liberal framework of the war being “illegal” as it had not been sanctioned by the “thieves’ kitchen” of the UN Security Council was typical of much liberal “anti-war” discourse of the time.

Rally in South Australia February 2003 against Iraq War

This liberal orientation contributed to the fact the protests simply evaporated after the war started in 2003. They were built on pacifist and liberal illusions and had no perspective to continue fighting once the “shock and awe” campaign started. They were built on a healthy hatred of the horrors of war in the masses but lacked political depth.

The Palestinian solidarity protests in comparison are not being led by any such mainstream liberal/progressive forces. They are also being launched in opposition to a war being endorsed by a Democrat President and supported in Australia by State and Federal Labor governments. Most of formal civil society is too cowed or compromised to formally endorse and promote the mass protests the ruling class has slandered as “divisive” or even antisemitic. The Churches and the NGO’s who only a few months ago marched and hung banners promoting the Federal Labor Governments “YES” referendum for an at best tokenistic indigenous consultative body are conspicuously silent on Palestine.

Whilst rank and file unionists are vigorously organising in opposition to the war through the Trade Unionists for Palestine network in contrast the trade union bureaucrats in Australia are no-where to be seen or only offering token support. They do not want to expose their political patrons in the Labor Party Government.

Teachers marching in one of the Unionists for Palestine contingents

I have attended all the marches so far in Melbourne and observed that the leadership of the protests is much more grass roots and rank and file. Significantly the Australian Palestinian community and the long-time solidarity networks are playing a massive role in organising the street protests. There was not anything equivalent in 2003 eg a diaspora Iraqi community in the west. Arab Australians and the Muslim community more generally are also playing a leadership role. The 2003 Iraq war occurred in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the bogus “War on Terror” and it was a very difficult time for West Asian descended populations in the imperialist centres to organise politically in a visible way.

The leadership of the Palestinian community and their long-time solidarity networks has given these protests a much more left wing and anti-imperialist underpinning based on their decades long struggle and perspective.

One of the very notable elements in the imperialist centres of the US, Cananda and Australia is the linking of the struggle for Palestinian rights with the framework not just of anti-imperialism but settler colonialism. This has allowed links to be made with the struggles of indigenous peoples and First Nations of these countries who are also victims of ongoing dispossession and genocidal violence. This has manifested with activists from the “Black Sovereignty” movement, such as Senator Lydia Thorpe,  speaking at all Melbourne rallies as well as groups such as the Black Peoples Union co-organising and leading several direct actions.

The Palestinian and Aboriginal flag both feature prominently at rallies in Australia

The leadership and political sophistication of the Palestinian diaspora and the connections being made between the Palestinian struggle and other struggles against settler colonial violence has exploded on social media with a tsunami of pro-Palestine content. Tik Tok has been turned into a virtual “peoples university” giving a whole new generation a crash course in the history of Zionist and imperialist oppression of Palestine. Tik Tok under pressure was forced to issue a press release protesting that it was not their algorithm’s fault their platform was full of pro-Palestine content, its just that young people by and large support Palestine!

The online outpouring of support for Palestine is linked also to the Black Lives Matter Protests of 2020. Many of the content creators are US leftwing people of colour radicalised at that time who are now directly linking their own struggles against the police and US ruling class with the struggle against Zionist genocide of Palestine. This framework of fighting racialized state oppression has also influenced many young people in Australia of all backgrounds.  

The current protests are therefore grounded for many in anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and often anti-capitalist if not yet Communist perspectives. This means many of the ordinary working class people involved in the protest are much more realistic than in 2003 about the king of struggle they are waging. They are aware that the protests will not be enough to end the genocide and free Palestine. They are aware the struggle will need to be broadened and deepened. They are aware that workers will need to use their collective power.  They are aware that the struggle is being waged in opposition to all factions of the ruling classes of their countries. This helps explain why the protests are growing each week rather than dissipating. It means that even if when the protests inevitably drop away in the short term, they are laying the groundwork for an ongoing anti-imperialist war struggle in a way that the 2003 protests just failed to do.

They are aware they are dealing with a Zionist government that is backed by the US and all Western imperialist powers. They are also aware of the deep hypocrisy and sickening immorality of these powers “standing with Israel” supposedly in the name of human rights and democracy whilst a genocide is committed in front of them in real time! This is obviously what educators call a “teachable” moment for the worlds working classes!

Twenty years after the 2003 anti-war protests, the capitalist crisis has deepened. Hard lessons have been learned by the working class on many fronts. The betrayal and true nature of social democratic, liberal and progressive forces has deepened and the entire ruling class has moved to the right. The ruling class is revealing its true nature as authoritarian or outright fascist war mongers and the pretence of humanitarian imperialism is dropping away under the class pressures of the moment. I truly believe that these protests are part of a process which is making it clearer to the masses of the world whose side of the barricades they must be on. It’s a dangerous moment and the Communist left is not nearly as organised as it needs to be internationally but nevertheless the age of war and revolution is arriving whether the Left is ready or not!

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