Palestine: Thoughts from South Africa’s experience

Abstract: In this article, Victoria Brittain explores the many parallels between the treatment of Palestinians by Israel and that of Blacks by the apartheid South African regime, in particular focusing on the Western powers support for the oppressor in both cases. Brittain concludes that the only effective manner in which Palestine can be liberated is for the people of the world to use tactics similar to those used to topple apartheid – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Half a century ago, one of the 20th century’s towering intellectuals wrote from Paris about another war, words which inspired men and women in South Africa’s liberation movement and their supporters, and which today have an echo for Palestine and for those who see from outside the dramatic deterioration in Palestinians’ political and economic situation.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote:

“Our army is scattered all over Algeria. We have the men, the money and the arms. The rebels have nothing but the confidence and support of a large part of the population. It is we, in spite of ourselves, who have imposed this type of war – terrorism in the towns and ambushes in the country. With the disequilibrium between the forces, the FLN has no other means of action. The ratio between our forces and theirs give them no option but to attack us by surprise: invisible, ungraspable, unexpected, they must strike and disappear or be exterminated…All this fits into the pattern of a popular war of the poor against the rich, with the rebel units depending on local support.”

It seems like a perfect description of the Palestinian Resistance against the Israeli creeping occupation and political bulldozing.

Sartre wrote these words in the preface to a book that did much to change the image and the course of Algeria’s war against the French occupiers. The book was ‘The Question’ by Henri Alleg. In it, Alleg, editor of Alger Republicain for 5 years until it was closed for its opposition to French policy in Algeria, gave the detail of the horrendous torture he suffered at the hands of the French army after his arrest on June 12, 1957, and he wrote of the other victims, the unknown Muslims of the Resistance, who suffered worse, and of the young French soldiers who were part of the dehumanising machine meting out their suffering.

In this period of Al Jazeera and the Internet we should not need to wait for the one slim book that will expose unseen horrors as a revelation to the outside world. (Though who knows the names of, for instance, Adla Abdel Jaber As-Sayyefi and Munira Ahmed Kabaha, symbols of Israel’s intrusion on the most intimate and precious part of life, two of the dozens of young women to lose their babies at birth, after soldiers at a checkpoint refused to allow them to pass through to ambulances waiting on the other side to take them to hospital.)

Everyone who wants to can see today what is happening in Palestine. Everyone who wants to, knows that Israel’s illegal occupation and increasing settlements, the illegal apartheid Wall, the policy of assassination of Palestinian leaders, its pattern of broken promises and agreements, the daily flouting of the Geneva Conventions on the protection of civilians under war or occupation, and the deliberate meltdown of economic and social life in Gaza, are tacitly supported by the most powerful country in the world. They know that 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, including women and children, are in Israeli jails, new people being arrested as some are released as a publicity gesture. They know that torture and economic meltdown are equally used to create collaborators and break families and communities. They know how cynical, pointless, and insulting to the Palestinians, was the meeting in Annapolis late last year from which members of the elected Palestinian government were excluded. That meeting did not even touch the major dynamics of the conflict. It was an alibi for inaction by the external powers that have the power to restrain Israel from creating ever more facts on the ground, but who do not want to use it.

Prominent South Africans, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Minister for Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils, have repeatedly in recent years drawn the parallels between Israel’s behaviour in the Occupied Territories and the apartheid regime’s behaviour in South Africa. In each case they have stressed how much worse things are in Palestine than anything they had to contend with in South Africa. The Israeli linguistic professor, the late Tanya Reinhart, made the same point three years ago when the situation on the ground in the OPT was far less dramatic than today: “I believe that even before its present atrocities, Israel has followed the South African apartheid model”…and then, “what Israel is doing under Sharon far exceeds the crimes of South Africa’s white regime”.

South Africa’s liberation struggle had a very different shape from that of the FLN in Algeria, or from Palestine’s, but the basic line up of forces inside each country are just as Sartre laid them out, and the role of outsiders as part of the dynamics for change is also the same.

However, the unique situation of Israel as central to US geopolitical strategy makes the Palestinian liberation struggle incomparably more difficult than the other two – long and difficult as they were.

History is easily telescoped, and these days it is easy to forget just how long and difficult the struggle – military, intellectual, diplomatic – was for the black majority in South Africa to get their rights. And it is easy to forget the great sacrifices made over the years, including thousands of little-known lives, inside South Africa, and in other southern African countries, like Angola.

Just as Palestinians reeled from the horror of the nakba in 1948, black South Africans too then began a new phase of history, far worse than what came before. The Afrikaner Nationalists, who came to power in 1948, believed that, as a minority, they must dominate or be dominated. The memories of the 25,000 Afrikaners who died in British camps during the Boer war had given them a collective sense of victimhood. They began to legislate for their domination of the future South Africa.

By the 1950s the tiny Afrikaner population of one and three quarter million of the three million whites, had conceived the idea of apartheid – initially as a physical separation of the land and people, then, realising they needed African labour, they devised it as a system to keep Africans from their land, from education, and in repressed subservience – forever. It was a parallel vision to that of the Zionists.

In South Africa, a world dedicated to enriching whites and impoverishing blacks was created; blacks were uprooted from their land and dumped in remote places where nothing would grow while urban neighbourhoods like Sophiatown were bulldozed to be replaced by white suburbs; and further, blacks were forced to move to squatter settlements hours from their work and often from their families. Ten remote, desperately impoverished Bantustans were created as dumping grounds for blacks, five of them nominally independent, but in fact run by despots who were proxies for the apartheid government. Post-Oslo the parallels began to be widely recognised.

Apartheid South Africa entered a secret alliance with Israel, which created the South African arms industry, and gave both countries a military (including nuclear) cooperation, which would shape the intransigent and arrogant character of both.

In the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, 69 unarmed people protesting against the pass laws were shot in the back and 300 wounded, bringing to the world stunning pictures of the cost of apartheid for South Africa’s majority. Even before this, a boycott of South African goods had been started by Tennyson Makiwane in London after the call for economic sanctions from the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, the ANC’s Chief Albert Luthuli. It would be 30 years before it paid off as a mass movement and one of the key forces for change. Third World countries like India denounced what was being done by the apartheid government, and two thirds of the world was appalled and regularly – but ineffectually – called for action in every international forum. But South Africa’s powerful Western friends were not listening. In the 1960s, John Vorster described the United Nations as full of “traitors and morally rotten creatures”, while as late as 30 years on, the official journal of the South African Defence Force still called the UN, “a stage from which anti-apartheid groups and non-aligned states could display their bitterness and launch attacks.”

The story of those 30 years and apartheid’s devastation of South Africa itself and its neighbouring countries, while the Western world refused to see or believe it, would be the story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission established as a priority of the new government after majority rule.

Books like the historian Ilan Pappe’s recent ‘Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ have revealed the systematic devastation of Palestinian towns and villages in 1948 which lay behind the creation of Israel. Thousands of UN and other independent reports have revealed today’s devastation, but a Truth Commission for Israel and Palestine will one day have to be the basis of a new phase of common history.

In the case of Israel, the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which includes the hotly debated academic boycott, began with the call of Palestinian civil society. How different this is from the South African case where the boycott call came from the ANC? Nonetheless, the campaign has now begun to be effective in pockets of the US and Europe. Professor Tanya Reinhart wrote of how some Israeli academics had supported the boycott of apartheid South Africa, though the vast majority now hotly contest the same tool’s use against their own country. She went on to support the Palestinian civil society organisations’ call on the international solidarity movement, “Since the US is backing Israel and the European governments are silent, it is the moral right and duty of the people of the world to do whatever they can on their own to stop Israel and save the Palestinians.”

The Algerians of course won their liberation war in the end – at great cost and against all the apparent odds. So did the South Africans, Angolans, Mozambicans, and others. So will the Palestinians. In each case outsiders take their direction from the organised forces in the forefront of the struggle, and may be a useful megaphone for those whose voices are not otherwise widely heard in the world’s intellectual and diplomatic circles where the dominant powers have a monopoly of attention.

Victoria Brittain

Victoria Brittain is a journalist. She was a campaigner and speaker for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a member of the committee on children, co-editor with Abdul Minty of Children of Resistance (Kliptown, 1988). She is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK.