There has been a decisive shift in global opinion on Israel in recent years. It is now widely understood that Israel is a settler colonial state, a brutally repressive state. It is also widely understood that Palestinians have been made to pay an intolerable price for the crimes of European antisemitism.
It is also increasingly recognised that the continuing 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 help from the United States government. Although support from younger people in Jewish communities in the US is in steep decline, many Christian evangelicals continue to back Israel.
However, two recent developments indicate the long impunity accorded to Israel in the Euro-American world will not guarantee that its egregious oppression will be indefinitely sustainable. One is the amazing grassroots activism that has emerged across Palestine and in the exile communities in Lebanon and Jordan. On 19 May, millions of people joined what has been called the “unity intifada” by going on a general strike and gathering in large demonstrations.
Acclaimed journalist and editor of the Palestine Chronicle Ramzy Baroud writes eloquently about how Palestinians have resolved to move beyond the fractures and divisions of Palestinian politics and develop a language of defiance centred on resistance and liberation. He writes, “consequently they are challenging factionalism, along with any attempt at making Israeli occupation and apartheid normal. Equally important, a strong Palestinian voice is piercing through the international silence, compelling the world to send a single chant for freedom.”
As activist Amjad Iraqi explained: “An extraordinary feature of the demonstrations is that they are primarily being organised not by political parties or figures, but by young Palestinian activists, neighbourhood committees and grassroots collectives.”
Tide is turning
At the same time, there have been remarkable expressions of solidarity outside Palestine. In England, over 100 000 people marched in London on 15 May, coinciding with impressive demonstrations in many cities around the world.
The old canard that critique of the Israeli state is inherently antisemitic is still weaponised to defend the murderous repression the Israeli state imposes on Palestinians. However, with millions of progressives opposing Israel, including rapidly growing numbers of Jewish people, the political costs of uncritically supporting it are rapidly being raised for Euro-American governments.
Omar Bharghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, reminded us in a recent piece that the overwhelming international outpouring of solidarity with Palestinians indicates a realisation of an ethical duty to boycott Israel. The example that is making waves internationally is the stance by the Movement for Black Lives advocating for the cutting of the $3.8bn annual military funding to Israel.
Before his election as US president, Joe Biden was described as one of the “most aggressive and loyal henchmen [of Israel] in Congress”. But now this support 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 impoverished African-Americans in the inner cities. The American police have been trained by the Israeli military and use Israeli equipment.
This has led to important ties of solidarity between Black Lives Matter activists and Palestinian campaigners. Leading African-American intellectuals like Angela Davis and Robin DG Kelley are in consistent solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
This all 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 among its base.
Similarities to apartheid
In a United Nations report released in 2007, John Dugard, the South African international law expert 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”.
The term “apartheid Israel” was highly controversial at the time, but it is now rapidly gaining 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 giant concrete wall. This “apartheid wall”, as activists have dubbed it, 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 is to the Palestinian struggle. Just 16 days after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela met with Yasser Arafat in Zambia. 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 set of political heroes that included Palestinian artist and militant Ghassan Kanafani, Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara and Mandela. The first was assassinated by Israel’s Mossad in Beirut, the second was captured and murdered – with Central Intelligence Agency help – by government forces in Bolivia, and Mandela was arrested with similar assistance in Howick but lived to lead as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
The relationship between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the ANC goes back many, many decades. Despite being engaged in their own struggles and enduring brutal attacks from Israel, a supporter of the apartheid state, the Palestinians 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 weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC).
During this time, Israel intensified its relationship with apartheid South Africa. American journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky captures this relationship with precision in his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. He reveals the dealings between the two countries, highlighting Israel’s security aid to South Africa and the sales of uranium to Israel by South Africa, which could have played a significant role in Israel’s nuclear armament.
The alliance between the Israeli and apartheid militaries has not prevented the ANC from sustaining a relationship with Israel. The semi-automatic G3 rifles that the police used in the Marikana massacre in 2012 were manufactured by South African arms manufacturer Denel under licence from Israel.
Most South Africans have an instinctive sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Both major trade union federations in the country, Cosatu and Saftu, as well as the more than 100 000-strong Abahlali baseMjondolo shack-dwellers’ movement, have taken clear positions in support for the Palestinian struggle.
Given the increasingly ubiquitous description of Israel 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 front lines, could not be more important.