Melbourne, Australia – Ports have emerged as the centre of pro-Palestine rallies in Australia as protesters target Israeli ships, and vessels alleged to have links with the country.
Last week, dozens of people attempted to stop the ZIM Ganges container ship from reaching the Port of Melbourne, with police eventually deploying pepper spray to break up the blockade against a backdrop of shipping containers and cranes, the familiar symbols of a global industrialised world.
Dozens were arrested after the picket blocked access to the wharf and forced the Victorian International Container Terminal (VICT) to close. Voluntary legal observers (MALS) who were accompanying the protesters say they were met by about 200 police, some of whom were on horseback.
Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak of the community organisation Free Palestine Melbourne was at the blockade, which lasted for four days.
“I have family in Gaza and they have nowhere to go in the bombarded prison it has become,” she said.
Sofia Sabbagh, a prolific Melbourne-based Palestinian artist, was also there for the final showdown.
“They circled us forming lines, intimidating us,” she told Al Jazeera, saying the group complied with a request to move on to avoid arrest.
The legal observers say the crowd was not threatening and people were just chanting.
“Once we were on public property, police pushed us away from our medical supplies and gear, pulling one person out of a wheelchair and pushing over a lot of other people, pepper spraying over 20 people,” Sabbagh added. “I was traumatised seeing a person being dragged out of their wheelchair.”
Victoria Police said the use of pepper spray was in response to the “dynamic nature” of the blockade and the threat of “aggressive” protesters.
After the dozen or so arrests, the exhausted enclave of activists descended onto Sandridge Beach. There, Declan Furber Gillick, a representative from the revolutionary group the Black People’s Union gave an impassioned final speech calling for the continued disruption of the military-industrial complex through the use of “peaceful, people-powered, revolutionary tactics” before the group disbanded and went home.
The blockade was established at the port on the afternoon of January 19, a few hours before the ZIM Ganges, which sails under the Portuguese flag, was scheduled to dock in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city.
ZIM shipping was founded in 1945 as part of Israel’s quest for statehood, initially helping Holocaust survivors travel to the new state of Israel. Currently Israel’s 10th-largest shipping company, ZIM has drawn protests since Chief Executive Eli Glickman promised to fulfil all of Israel’s needs after the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7 and Israel’s declaration of war on Gaza.
Port Melbourne handles about 8,850 containers a day and is Australia’s largest commercial port. The protests had “effectively halted operations” for almost four days, VICT said in a press release after the police ended the picket.
Tradition of radical action
The ragtag gang of activists worked in shifts, blocking six consecutive shifts of port workers from entering the terminal and forcing the ZIM Ganges to anchor in the bay until it was finally able to enter the port at about midnight on January 21.
The blockade was originally organised by a group called Unionists for Palestine (U4P) but, as the days went by, attracted wider interest. By January 20, it had become a broad coalition of Palestinian, First Nations and antiwar groups.
U4P member Fiona Healey said the picket was aimed at disrupting the company’s supply chain as it continued to “support and supply an apartheid regime”.
This was reiterated by fellow community organiser John Smith.
“We targeted the port of Melbourne in solidarity with Palestinians call to disrupt all companies complicit with the ongoing genocide in Gaza – and that includes ZIM shipping,” Smith said.
Maritime Union Australia (MUA) members, such as dock workers, were advised not to cross the picket due to health and safety concerns.
Many dock workers, who would have been escorted onto the terminal by police, refused to cross the picket line. An online fundraiser raised more than 25,000 Australian dollars ($16,469) for the workers, who were initially not paid for the days they did not work, but the money was redirected to Gaza relief efforts after the union secured pay for the dock workers.
Ben Hjorth from U4P told Al Jazeera that the movement was linked to a broader “anti-war” cause within the Australian trade union movement.
He referenced Nelson Mandela’s 1990 speech in Melbourne, thanking Australian workers for leading the world in boycotting ships to apartheid-era South Africa. Hjorth cited those radical but successful MUA industrial actions as a source of inspiration, adding: “Sometimes you have to break the law to change it.”
VICT Chief Executive Bruno Porchietto told Australian media outlet Channel 7 that the four-day picket had probably cost the port about “50,000 containers”, and Victoria “millions of dollars”.
But the state’s treasurer, Tim Pallas, downplayed the blockade’s financial impact, saying the brief protest would only “minimally affect” the economy in the long run.
As the ZIM Ganges finally came into the dock, some protesters were following it online through the vesselfinder.com tracking site. They say the ship disabled its GPS tracking as it came into port, noting the two tug boats accompanying it did not, leaving a gap where the ZIM Ganges was.
“This is highly unusual behaviour,” said U4P’s Hjorth.
Under Australian maritime law, ships can only disable their GPS tracking for safety and security reasons.
Since the protests, other ships have been able to dock in Melbourne without disruption.
But the threat of action remains.
Hjorth said the group aims to disrupt Israeli supply chains until there is a “permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the occupation”.
On Monday, the ZIM Ganges was due to arrive in Sydney, where protesters held a rally last November targeting another ZIM vessel. The shipping line’s schedule shows it is also due to travel further up the eastern coast to Brisbane.