“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
—Nelson Mandela, International day of solidarity with the Palestinian people, 4 December 1997.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its roots in the 1890s, when a Zionist movement emerged in Europe, with the aim of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. According to the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, such a state would “form a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”[i]
The Zionist movement gained a powerful ally in 1917, when the British government gave its support to their aims. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Britain took over the government of Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations. It used this mandate to enable Jewish settlers to acquire land and weapons and to organize militarily and politically. At the same time, the British crushed Arab Palestinian organizations, exiled their leaders and jailed or hanged Palestinians resisting their rule.
In 1947, Britain asked the United Nations to decide the future of Palestine. The majority of the UN Special Committee on Palestine recommended partition into two states, on the basis of a brief fact-finding mission and their sympathy with the plight of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. The minority proposed a single unified state, with democratic rights for all. With the support of the United States and the Soviet Union, the UN voted for partition in December 1947.
The partition plan gave 45% of the land to the Palestinians, who made up two-thirds of the population, 55% of the land to the Jews, who made up one-third of the population and assigned the city of Jerusalem to international supervision. The Zionists accepted the plan. Palestinians rejected it, but had little say in the process. The newly-formed Arab League was speaking on their behalf, even while some Arab leaders were secretly negotiating with the Zionists to seize Palestinian territory.
From December 1947 until May 1948, Zionist militias began a process of ethnic cleansing, evicting Palestinians from their land both within the territory assigned to Israel by the UN and beyond its borders. This culminated in the Nakba (or catastrophe) which accompanied Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948. Unarmed Palestinians were massacred, urban Palestinian communities were driven out of cities where they had lived for more than a thousand years, 530 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed and over 750,000 Palestinians—almost 90% of the population in the territory that became part of Israel—became refugees, either in the West Bank or in neighbouring states. Israel expanded its borders through conquest to include 78% of mandate Palestine.
The minority of Palestinians who remain in Israel are subjected to many forms of discrimination. There are restrictions on their right to travel, who they may marry, where they may live and their ownership of land. They carry a different identity card from Jewish citizens of Israel. Although they are allowed to vote, it is illegal for them to support the creation of a unified democratic state or to commemorate the Nakba.
In the six-day war of June 1967 Israel occupied the remaining 22% of mandate Palestine—the West Bank and Gaza—as well as territory seized from Egypt and Syria. The occupation continues to this day, with Israeli military rule in the West Bank and siege in Gaza. Since 1967 Israel has also built settlements for its Jewish citizens in and around East Jerusalem, on the West Bank and Golan Heights, thus annexing more Palestinian land and violating international law.
There are now more than 600,000 people living in these illegal Jewish settlements. Israel has built a separate road system in the occupied West Bank, on which Palestinians are not allowed to travel. It has created a maze of checkpoints for Palestinians that prevent them getting to their fields, schools, hospitals, etc. Israelis control the borders of Palestinian territories and resources such as water, which are used mainly for Jewish settlements while Palestinian villages are prevented from building wells to irrigate their fields.
Palestinians are subject to military law, which gives massive powers to the military and provides for indefinite detention without trial. Unarmed protestors are shot dead on occasion and detainees are frequently tortured. It’s estimated that about 10% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank has been imprisoned at some time, including very young children.
Palestinian resistance to the occupation reached a climax in the Intifada of 1987-91, with mass refusal to conform to Israeli law. In this context, the Israeli government began a process of negotiation with the Palestinian leadership, held in Madrid with the oversight of the USA and the USRR, then in its final days. The public negotiation process put Israel in a bad light, and the Israeli government began a parallel process in secret, negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then exiled in Tunisia.
The PLO was willing to make major concessions in return for their recognition as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people. Their armed struggle in the 1960s and 70s had led nowhere. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had left them without powerful international allies. A sign of their isolation was their support for Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the first Gulf War of 1991.
Secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993, which established the political framework which continues until today.
The Oslo Accords allowed Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership to return to the occupied territory of Palestine, where his party Fateh was elected to head the Palestinian Authority, with limited powers in a limited part of that territory. In return, the PLO (or its majority party, Fateh) renounced its claims to the 78% of mandate Palestine from which Palestinians had been driven in 1948. “Final-status issues” such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Jerusalem, control of borders, water, etc, were meant to be negotiated over the next five years.
In practice, this meant that no major issues could be resolved without Israeli agreement. While they were waiting for that, the Palestinian Authority was reduced to the role of policing their own people. Twenty years after Oslo, they are still waiting. Fateh has gained a reputation for corruption and brutality; Hamas for its repressive attitudes towards religious observance, gender and other aspects of everyday life.
With open support and massive funding from the United States, Israel has felt no need to negotiate with the Palestinians. After the election victory of Hamas in 2006, Israel claimed it could not negotiate as there was no unity between Hamas and Fateh; when unity talks between Hamas and Fateh began, Israel claimed it could not negotiate with any party that recognized Hamas. Resistance to the occupation has shifted to local committees in villages and the international solidarity campaign initiated by Palestinian civil society, including trade unions.
Israel has continued to punish resistance to its occupation with bombing and invasion, demolition of houses and government building, targeted assassinations and the like. It attacks neighbouring countries—such as Lebanon—which provide refuge for Palestinians, and ships bringing medical supplies and children’s toys to the open-air prison that is Gaza.
Governments around the world—including the ANC government in South Africa—sometimes issue statements calling for an end to the slaughter or urging “all sides” to return to the negotiating table. But they do little or nothing to put pressure on Israel. In this context global solidarity with the Palestinian people has grown in recent years and has a vital role in deciding the future of the Middle East, and of our common humanity.
The history recounted here is long and complex. There is a far longer history—going back to Biblical times—that is actively contested and reinterpreted through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea that Israel is the “homeland” of the Jews is often used to justify the expulsion and oppression of the Palestinians. What has been called Palestine since Roman times has had many occupants and many rulers. From 1,300 years—from the Arab conquests to the British mandate—Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in Palestine in relative harmony, as they did in many other parts of the Mediterranean region. Solidarity with the Palestinian people is also a way of affirming this legacy of religious and cultural tolerance.
Why solidarity with Palestine?
There are many causes around the world that deserve our solidarity. Most people, for most of the time, will put their effort into the struggles that impact on them directly. But we cannot escape the global context of our own struggles. And within the global struggle for human emancipation, Palestine has a unique importance.
First, nowhere else do the wealthy and the powerful of the world—above all, the United States and the European Union—stand so openly and unapologetically on the side of oppression. Nowhere else are they so consistently prepared to turn a blind eye to the violation of their own laws and institutions. This enables Israel to disregard UN resolutions, the International Court of Justice, the Geneva Convention governing rules of war, global norms concerning the proliferation of nuclear weapons, etc.
The suffering and injustice inflicted on Palestinians is not just endorsed by the wealthy and powerful. Palestinians are labeled as terrorists and fundamentalists, unwilling to negotiate. Anyone who points out what is happening is accused of acting out of hatred of Jews. In defending Palestine, we are not standing up to just one more rogue dictatorship, but to the idea that any people can be declared surplus to humanity, and outside the protection of global norms.
Second, nowhere else does oppression depend so much on the hollowed-out forms of liberal democracy—legality, constitutionalism, procedure, civilized values and the like—to entrap and disempower the majority, to convince them of their own powerlessness and ensure that the powerful and wealthy always prevail. Nowhere else is reality so consistently invented and spin-doctored to meet the needs of the powerful, all in the name of law, accountability and some elements of democracy.
Third, nowhere else are the principles of settler colonialism so vigorously applied and extended. These principles were defeated with the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, but they have grown more powerful than ever in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Nowhere else do these principles require so great a distortion of history. When European settlers dispossessed the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, Australasia and large parts of Asia, they separated themselves from people with whom they had never lived as equal members of one society before. But when Zionists dispossess Palestinians, they are actively proclaiming that wherever there is religious or cultural difference there must be domination of one group over another.
For all these reasons, the cause of Palestinian solidarity is supported around the world. But there are more specific reasons why the Palestinian cause is important to South Africans in particular.
Our history of apartheid, and the overthrow of apartheid, makes it especially important for South Africans to speak out when the principles of apartheid are used and developed to ensure the oppression of the Palestinian people. If South Africans, who lived with apartheid and fought against it, cannot recognize apartheid when it is imposed on others, then how can we expect others to do so? If we turn a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinian people, then we bring hope and encouragement to their oppressors; we cause people of conscience around the world to become hesitant and uncertain. If they see that South Africans are not concerned, they say to themselves: Perhaps what is happening in Palestine is not so bad.
Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people is not the same as apartheid in all respects. It allows some rights to the Palestinian minority within the 1948 borders of Israel, although it makes sure that they remain a minority without real power. It is similar to apartheid in establishing massive inequality in every area of life on the basis of birth and ancestry. It relies on similar techniques of forced removals, pass laws, separate residential areas and conditions of work, denial of civil rights and a near-permanent state of emergency.
In some respects, the occupation is worse than apartheid. Apartheid never built separate highways for white and black, as Israel does in the occupied West Bank. Apartheid never prevented rural people from building houses on their land or digging wells. Apartheid never dropped bombs on defenceless people in the townships or homelands to punish them for resistance.
South Africans did not choose to become the global experts on apartheid. That knowledge was forced upon us. But now that we have that knowledge, we have a responsibility to use it for the benefit of others.
It is not so difficult to see how South Africa’s history resembles Palestine’s present reality. It’s more difficult to see how continued—and even growing—inequality in South Africa after apartheid resembles Palestine today. In both cases there is an illusion of equal rights that helps to cover up and strengthen the reality of structural inequality. The process is far more advanced in Israel and Palestine than in South Africa. That is why we should fight against what is happening to Palestine rather than waiting for the same process to become more apparent here.
Thus, Palestinians in the occupied territories are told they are governed by the Palestinian Authority they have elected; yet they find that authority can do nothing for them, and their land is stolen and their livelihood taken away by the Israelis. Palestinian citizens of Israel are told they have equal rights of citizenship; but because the land belongs to the Jews they need a permit even to add an extra room to their house, and that permit will almost never be granted. In post-apartheid South Africa, workers have rights to organize enshrined in the constitution and the Labour Relations Act; but the reality is that increasing numbers are employed by labour-brokers against whom they have no rights. The mineworkers of Marikana had the right to strike, but were gunned down when they did so. People have constitutional rights to housing, healthcare, education and the like; but the reality is that the resources to provide these services are always being diverted into the pockets of the wealthy.
Solidarity with the Palestinian people is also the most effective way of building global solidarity against a capitalist system that perpetuates inequality, oppression and injustice.
There was a time when working people around the world looked to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa for inspiration and guidance. They saw our struggle as preparing the way for a new kind of society that embodied their highest aspirations. If the courage, self-sacrifice, discipline and unity developed in that struggle could be put to use in building a new society, it would surely be a model for the world, showing how to expand the limits of freedom.
The Palestinian struggle today has a similar role in global politics to that of the South African struggle during the apartheid years. The occupation shows us how brutal and destructive the rule of global capital can be; Palestinian resistance provides us with a model of a possible future for all humankind. If we want to make ourselves part of that global struggle, we must take it on where it is most intense and where the contradictions of the global system are most exposed.
During the anti-apartheid years, South African struggles could be internationalist without even knowing it. International alliances were built by the liberation movement in exile, the global anti-apartheid movement and sympathetic states acting through the UN and similar bodies. Today internationalism has to be consciously built by South African workers. It must become part of their perspectives and strategies, if they are to escape from the trap set by a capitalist ruling class which claims to practice internationalism on their behalf.
To get out of that trap, workers need to develop a collective understanding of how their struggles relate to a larger global struggle. They must resist not only the policies that bring about poverty, unemployment and inequality, but also the government’s view that the global market allows for no alternative to these policies. They have to stand up for themselves while standing up for working people everywhere.
This collective understanding of the global context can be developed in many ways, but an essential part of the process is acting in solidarity with oppressed people elsewhere. In this way workers educate themselves and develop a practical understanding of the global system and how to challenge it. You learn to stand up for yourself by standing up for those who need your solidarity.
Educate, organize, act
In the context just described, there are three essential components to building a powerful movement in solidarity with the people of Palestine. It is necessary to educate, organize and act.
Education is necessary because the history of the conflict is complex and there is a powerful and well-resourced lobby which supports Israel whenever it can, and when it cannot is always ready to confuse the issues. South African media do not always provide a useful guide to these issues. Often, it is necessary to understand the global context in order to relate our own struggles in South Africa to struggles taking place in the Middle East. Solidarity with Palestine can be a powerful means of developing a broader understanding of the global structures of inequality and oppression which impact on South Africa, and a global vision for social change.
Without education, worker solidarity with Palestine can easily be limited to resolutions adopted at conferences and statements issued by leaders. Education is the first step to organizing a solidarity movement which represents the strength and aspirations of the workers’ movement, but impacts on South African society as a whole.
Organization is necessary to ensure that Palestinian solidarity is not limited to crises or special occasions, but that it becomes an ongoing cause. There is widespread support for the Palestinian cause among black working-class communities in South Africa. However, the bulk of activists and polemicists in the broad Palestinian solidarity movement in South Africa are white, coloured or Indian, often university graduates who have visited the Middle East or other countries with a significant Palestinian diaspora. Their knowledge and access to resources can play an essential part in building a solidarity movement. But that movement would be transformed completely by the active participation and leadership of large numbers of workers. Such a movement could build solidarity with Palestine not only in worker organizations, but also in communities, schools and universities.
The aim of education and organization is action, which will connect South Africa to a global movement in support of liberation for the people of Palestine and help to make South Africa part of a global struggle for liberation.
A powerful solidarity movement would be able to put pressure on the South African government to live up to its rhetoric and actively support Palestinian demands, including the demand for global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Putting pressure on government action will often be the most direct way for such a movement to impact on South African corporations—some of which are profiting from the Israeli occupation—and on international bodies.
[i] Text originally written in 2013 for an International Solidarity manual, to be produced by COSATU. As far as I know, the manual was never produced.