From apartheid South Africa to Palestine To exist is to resist

With settlement expansion and continuing human rights abuses against Palestinians, the lessons from the anti-apartheid movement continue to motivate the growing global opposition to the occupation.


Article by

Patrick Bond

On a full-day drive through the Jordan Valley late last month, we skirted the earth’s oldest city and the lowest inhabited point, 400 meters below sea level. For 10,000 years, people have lived along the river separating the present-day West Bank and Jordan.

Since 1967 the river has been augmented by Palestinian blood, sweat and tears, ending in the Dead Sea, from which no water flows out, it only evaporates. Conditions degenerated during Israel’s land-grab, when from a peak of more than 300,000 people living on the west side of the river, displacements shoved Palestinian refugees across to Jordan and other parts of the West Bank. The valley has fewer than 60,000 Palestinians today.

But they’re hanging in. “To exist is to resist,” insisted Fathi Ikdeirat, the Save the Jordan Valley network’s most visible advocate (and compiler of an exquisite new book of the same name, free for internet download as a .pdf).  At top speed on the bumpy dirt roads, Ikdeirat maneuvered between Israeli checkpoints, through Bedouin outposts in the dusty semi-desert, where oppressed communities eke out a living from the dry soils.

Just a few hundred meters away from such villages, like plush white South African suburbs drawing on cheap black township labour, stand some of the 120 Israeli settlements that since the early 1970s have pocked the West Bank. The most debilitating theft is of Palestinian water, for where once peasants gathered enough from local springs and a mountain aquifer to supply ponds that fed their modest crops, today pipe diversions by the Israelis’ agro-export plantations leave the indigenous people’s land scorched.

From the invaders’ fine houses amidst groves of trees with green lawns, untreated sewage is flushed into the Palestinian areas. The most aggressive Israeli settlers launch unpunished physical attacks on the Palestinians, destroying their homes and farm buildings – and last week even a mosque at Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem.

The Gaza Strip has suffered far worse. Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ bombing and invasion in early 2009, the 1400 mainly civilian deaths, the use of white phosphorous, political assassinations and the relentless siege are responsible for untold misery. International solidarity activists – including a Jewish delegation last month – are lethally attacked (nine Turks were killed in May) or arrested while trying to sail ships to Gaza with emergency relief supplies.

As Ikdeirat pointed out, the Jordan Valley’s oppression appears as durable, for Netanyahu vowed in February this year ‘never’ to cede this space to the land’s rightful owners. On our way back up to Ramallah for an academic conference, Ikdeirat looked down on his homeland from the western mountains, and outlined the larger struggle against geopolitical manipulation, land grabbing, minority rule, Palestinian child labour on Israeli farms and other profound historical injustices.

Given the debilitating weaknesses within Palestine’s competing political blocs - Hamas in besieged Gaza and Fatah in the Occupied West Bank, as well as the US-Israeli-Fatah-backed unelected government in Ramallah led by the neoliberal prime minister (and former World Bank/IMF official) Salam Fayyad - this is a struggle that only progressive civil society appears equipped to fight properly.

To illustrate the potential, 170 Palestinian organizations initiated the ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction’ (BDS) campaign five years ago, insisting on the retraction of illegal Israeli settlements (a demand won in the Gaza Strip in 2005), the end of the West Bank Occupation and Gaza siege, cessation of racially-discriminatory policies towards the million and a half Palestinians living within Israel, and a recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to residences dating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing when the Israeli state was established.

The end of apartheid

The BDS movement draws inspiration from the way we toppled apartheid: an internal intifadah from townships and trade unions, combined with financial sanctions that in mid-1985 peaked because of an incident at the Durban City Hall. On August 15 that year, apartheid boss PW Botha addressed the Natal National Party and an internationally televised audience of 200 million, with his belligerent ‘Rubicon Speech’ featuring the famous finger-wagging command, “Don’t push us too far.”

It was the brightest red flag to our anti-apartheid bull. Immediately as protests resumed, Pretoria’s frightened international creditors – subject to intense activist pressure during prior months - began calling in loans early. Facing a run on the SA Reserve Bank’s hard currency, Botha defaulted on $13 billion of debt payments coming due, shut the stock market and imposed exchange controls in early September.

Within days, leading English-speaking businessmen Gavin Relly, Zac de Beer and Tony Bloom began dismantling their decades-old practical alliance with the Pretoria racists, met African National Congress leaders in Lusaka, and initiated a transition that would free South Africa of racial (albeit not class) apartheid less than nine years later.

Recall that over the prior eight years, futile efforts to seduce change were made by Rev Leon Sullivan, the Philadelphia preacher and General Motors board member whose ‘Sullivan Principles’ aimed to allow multinationals in apartheid SA to remain so long as they were non-racist in employment practices.

But the firms paid taxes to apartheid and supplied crucial logistical support and trade relationships. Hence Sullivan’s effort merely amounted, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, to polishing apartheid’s chains. Across the world, taking a cue from the internal United Democratic Front, activists wisely ignored attempts by Sullivan as well as by ANC foreign relations bureaucrat (later president) Thabo Mbeki to shut down the sanctions movement way too early.

Civil society ratcheted up anti-apartheid BDS even when FW DeKlerk offered reforms, such as freeing Nelson Mandela and unbanning political parties in February 1990. New bank loans to Pretoria for ostensibly ‘developmental’ purposes were rejected by activists, and threats were made: a future ANC government would default.

It was only by fusing bottom-up pressure with top-down international delegitimization of white rule that the final barriers were cleared for the first free vote, on April 27 1994.

Something similar has begun in the Middle East, as long-overdue international solidarity with Palestinians gathers momentum, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s bad-faith peace talks with collaborationist Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas go nowhere. Yet if another sell-out soon looms, tracking the 1993 Oslo deal, we can anticipate an upsurge in BDS activity, drawing more attention to the three core liberatory demands: firstly, respecting, protecting and promoting the right of return of all Palestinian refugees; secondly, ending the occupation of all Palestinian and Arab lands; and thirdly, recognizing full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Non-violent resistance

Abbas and Fayyad are sure to fold on all of these principles, so civil society is already picking up the slack. Boycotting Israeli institutions is the primary non-violent resistance strategy.

BDS, says Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”

For more than 250 South African academics (plus Tutu) who signed a BDS petition last month, the immediate target was Ben Gurion University (BGU). During apartheid, the University of Johannesburg (UJ, then called Rand Afrikaans University) established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for scientific exchanges with BGU, which came up for renewal at the UJ Senate on September 29 (read more).

Perhaps influenced by Mandela’s ill-advised acceptance of an honorary doctorate from BGU, the UJ Senate statement was not entirely pro-Palestinian, for it promoted a fantasy: reform of Israeli-Palestinian relations could be induced by ‘engagement’. Shades of Sullivan empowering himself, to try negotiating between the forces of apartheid and democracy.

On the one hand, the UJ Senate acknowledged that BGU “supports the military and armed forces of Israel, in particular in its occupation of Gaza” – by offering money to students who went into the military reserve so as to support Operation Cast Lead, for example. To its credit, the UJ Senate recognized that “we should take leadership on this matter from peer institutions among the Palestinian population.”

On the other hand, in an arrogant display of constructive-engagement mentality, the UJ Senate academics – many of whom are holdovers from the apartheid era - resolved to “amend the MOU to include one or more Palestinian universities chosen on the basis of agreement between BGU and UJ.”

Fat chance. The UJ statement forgets that Palestinian universities are today promoters of BDS. Even Al Quds University, which historically had the closest ties (and which until Operation Cast Lead actually encouraged Palestine-Israel collaboration), broke the chains in early 2009, because, “Ending academic cooperation is aimed at, first of all, pressuring Israel to abide by a solution that ends the occupation, a solution that has been needed for far too long and that the international community has stopped demanding.”

The man tasked with reconciling UJ’s Senate resolution with Middle East realpolitik is UJ Deputy Vice Chancellor Adam Habib. In 2001 he founded our University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, and led substantial research projects nurturing progressive social change. Habib was banned from entering the United States from 2006-10, for his crimes of being Muslim and speaking at a 2003 anti-war protest, and he is probably the most eloquent and highest-profile political analyst in South Africa today.

However, Habib made a serious mistake, when recently remarking: “We believe in reconciliation... We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

Even Habib’s enormous persuasive capacity will fail, if he expects liberal Zionists to recognize the right of Palestinians to self-determination and Israel’s obligation to comply with international law. Writing in the newspaper Haaretz in early October, BGU official David Newman celebrated Habib’s remark and simultaneously argued, point-blank (with no acknowledgement of the South Africa case), “Boycotts do nothing to promote the interests of peace, human rights or – in the case of Israel – the end of occupation.”

(Yet even Israel’s reactionary Reut Institute recognizes BDS power, arguing in February 2010 that a “Delegitimization Network aims to supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote’ principle by turning Israel into a pariah state” and that “the Goldstone report that investigated Operation Cast Lead” caused “a crisis in Israel's national security doctrine… Israel lacks an effective response.”)

Habib deserves far better than a role as a latter-day Leon Sullivan uniting with the likes of Newman, and I hope he changes his mind about ‘engagement’ with Zionism.

After all, last year I witnessed an attempt to do something similar, also involving Habib and BGU. At the time of Operation Cast Lead and the imposition of the siege, Habib, Dennis Brutus, Walden Bello, Alan Fowler and I (unsuccessfully) tried persuading two academic colleagues - Jan Aart Scholte of Warwick University and Jackie Smith of Notre Dame - to respect BDS and decline keynote speaking invitations to an Israeli ‘third sector’ conference.

BGU refused to add Palestinian perspectives (a suggestion from Habib), and the lesson I quickly learned was not to attempt engagement, but instead promote a principled institutional boycott. Today as then, what Habib forgets is Barghouti’s clear assessment of power relations: “Any relationship between intellectuals across the oppression divide must be aimed, one way or another, at ending oppression, not ignoring it or escaping from it. Only then can true dialogue evolve, and thus the possibility for sincere collaboration through dialogue.”

The growing support for Palestinian liberation via BDS reminds of small but sure steps towards the full-fledged anti-apartheid sports, cultural, academic and economic boycotts catalyzed by Brutus against racist South African Olympics teams more than forty years ago. Today, these are just the first nails we’re hammering into the coffin of Zionist domination – in solidarity with a people who have every reason to fight back with tools that we in South Africa proudly sharpened: non-violently but with formidable force.


Photo: Dreams of Palestine

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