29 November 2023

By Imraan Buccus

In recent years there has been a decisive shift in global opinion on Israel. It is now widely understood that Israel is a settler colonial state, a brutally repressive settler state. It is also widely understood that Palestinians have been made to pay an intolerable price for the crimes of European anti-Semitism.

It is also increasingly recognised that the ongoing balkanisation of Palestine has made a two-state solution impossible and that, following the South African model, a one state solution is now the only viable way forward.

Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in military support from US government, and while support from younger people in Jewish communities in the US is in steep decline; Christian Evangelicals continue to offer strong support.

However, two recent developments indicate the long impunity accorded to Israel in the Euro-American world will not guarantee that such egregious oppression will be indefinitely sustained. One is the extraordinary grassroots activism that has emerged across Palestine – Ramallah, Haifa and Gaza, and in the exile communities in Lebanon and Jordan. On Tuesday millions of people joined what has been called the Unity Intifada going on a general strike and gathering in large demonstrations.

As activist Amjad Iraqi explained, “An extraordinary feature of the demonstrations is that they are primarily being organized not by political parties or figures, but by young Palestinian activists, neighbourhood committees, and grassroots collectives.”

At the same there have been extraordinary expressions of solidarity outside of Palestine. In London over a hundred thousand people marched over the weekend, and there were impressive demonstrations in many cities around the world. The old canard that critique of the Israeli state is inherently anti-Semitic is still weaponised to defend the murderous repression of the Israeli state. However, with millions of progressives opposing the Israeli state, including rapidly growing numbers of Jewish people, the political costs for uncritical support for the Israeli state by Euro-American governments are being rapidly raised.

Before his election as President Joe Biden was described as one of the “most aggressive and loyal henchmen in Congress”. But now Biden’s support for the Israeli state increasingly places him at odds with his own party, and his political base.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising young star of the Democratic Party, has no hesitation in describing Israel as an apartheid state. At the same time there is growing awareness in the US that technologies of repression developed in Israel are being brought back home to repress poor African-Americans in the inner cities. American police have been trained by the Israeli military, and use Israeli equipment. This led to important solidarity between Black Lives Matter and Palestinian activists. Leading African-American intellectuals like Angela Davis and Robin DG Kelley are in consistent solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

All this means that the Democratic Party will not be able to continue to offer uncritical support to the Israeli state without serious challenges from inside the party and from within its base.

In a UN report released in 2007 John Dugard, a man of unquestioned integrity, drew clear parallels between the situation in Palestine and South Africa, saying that the “large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, levelling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa”.

At the time the term ‘apartheid Israel’ was highly controversial. But it is now rapidly acquiring global legitimacy. This is hardly surprising. Just as pass laws restricted the movement of black South Africans, the movement of Palestinians continues to be restricted by checkpoints, roadblocks and a concrete wall. The apartheid wall cuts farmers from their land, children from their schools, mothers from medical services for their babies, and grandparents from their grandchildren – even apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans were not surrounded by gates.

This makes the question of Palestine particularly urgent in South Africa. As South Africans, perhaps we need to be reminded of just how closely tied our struggle for freedom in SA is to the Palestinian struggle. Just 16 days after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela met with Yasser Arafat in Lusaka. At Lusaka Airport, Mandela embraced Arafat and reiterated his support for the Palestinian struggle, telling the media: “I believe that there are many similarities between our struggle and that of the people of Palestine.”

Eight months later, during his three-day visit to Australia in October 1990, Mandela reiterated his support for the Palestinian struggle, saying: “We identify with them (the Palestinians) because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories. We agree with the United Nations that international disputes should be settled by peaceful means. The belligerent attitude which is adopted by the Israeli government is to us unacceptable.”

Many Palestinians grew up with a similar set of political heroes. These included Palestinian artist and militant, Ghassan Kanafani, Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevara, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The first was assassinated by Israel’s Mossad in Beirut, the second was captured and murdered (with CIA help) by government forces in Bolivia and Nelson Mandela was arrested with CIA assistance in Howick but lived to lead as SA’s first democratically elected president.

The relationship between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the ANC goes back many, many decades. Despite the fact that the Palestinians were engaged in their own struggles and endured brutal attacks from Israel (a supporter of the apartheid state), they stood in unflinching solidarity with our struggle for freedom. The ANC remains grateful for the training and other support it received from the PLO – there were even similarities in the military uniforms of the PLO and Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC).

During this time Israel intensified its relationship with apartheid South Africa. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, captures this relationship with precision in his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Suransky surfaces the dealings between the two countries, highlighting Israel’s security aid to SA and the sales of uranium to Israel from South Africa, which could have played a significant role in Israel’s nuclear armament.

The alliance between the Israeli and apartheid militaries did not prevent the ANC from sustaining a relationship with the Israeli state. The semi-automatic G3 rifles used by the South African Police Service in the 2012 Marikana massacre were manufactured by Denel under licence from Israel.

Most South Africans have an instinctive sympathy for the Palestinian cause. In recent days both of the major trade union federations – Cosatu and Saftu – as well as the more than 100 000 strong Abahlali baseMjondolo movement took clear positions in support for the Palestinian struggle.

Given the increasingly ubiquitous description of the Israeli state as an ‘apartheid state’ support for the Palestinian cause from ordinary South Africans takes on a powerful global resonance. The work being undertaken here to build a mass movement in support of the Palestinian struggle, with direct connections to the grassroots activists on the frontlines, could not be more important.

Dr Buccus is editor of Al Qalam and academic director of a university study abroad program at UKZN.

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