Palestinians must consider unavoidable truth in anti-apartheid battle


February 21, 2022

Nelson Mandela. (Reuters/File)

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When Nelson Mandela was freed from his Robben Island prison cell on Feb. 11, 1991, my family, friends and neighbors followed the event with keen interest from the living room of my old home in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

This emotional event took place years before Mandela uttered his famous quote “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” For us Palestinians, Mandela did not need to reaffirm the South African people’s solidarity with Palestine by using these words or any other combination of words. We already knew. Emotions ran high the day Mandela was released — tears were shed and supplications were made to Allah that Palestine, too, would soon be free.

Though three decades have since passed without that coveted freedom, something is finally changing as far as the Palestine liberation movement is concerned. A whole generation of Palestinian activists, who either grew up or were even born after Mandela’s release, was influenced by his freedom and the start of the official dismantling of the racist, apartheid regime of South Africa.

Even the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 between Israel and some in the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization — which served as a major disruption of the grassroots, people-oriented liberation movement — did not end the anti-apartheid struggle in Palestine. Oslo, the so-called peace process and the disastrous “security coordination” between the Palestinian Authority and Israel resulted in derailed Palestinian energies, wasted time, deepened factional divides, and confused Palestinian supporters everywhere. However, it did not — though it tried to — occupy every political space available for Palestinian expression and mobilization.

Soon after its formation in 1994, Palestinians began realizing that the PA was not a platform for liberation, but a hindrance. A new generation of Palestinians is now attempting to articulate, or refashion, a discourse for liberation that is based on inclusive, grassroots, community-based activism and is backed by a growing global solidarity movement.

The events of May last year — the mass protests throughout occupied Palestine and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza — highlighted the role of Palestine’s youth who, through elaborate coordination, incessant campaigning and the utilization of social media platforms, managed to present the Palestinian struggle in a new light, bereft of the archaic language of the PA and its aging leaders. It also surpassed, in its collective thinking, the stifling and self-defeating emphasis on factions and self-serving ideologies.

And the world responded in kind. Despite the powerful Israeli propaganda machine, expensive hasbara campaigns and near-total support for Israel among Western governments and mainstream media, sympathy for the Palestinians has reached an all-time high. For example, a major opinion poll published by Gallup last May revealed that the percentage of Americans saying they sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis in the conflict inched up to a record high.

A new generation is now attempting to articulate, or refashion, a discourse for liberation.

Ramzy Baroud

Moreover, major international human rights organizations, including some based in Israel, have finally begun to recognize what their Palestinian colleagues have argued for decades. “The Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians,” B’Tselem pointed out last January. Human Rights Watch reported in April: “Laws, policies and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power and land has long guided government policy.” And, early this month, Amnesty International said: “This system of apartheid has been built and maintained over decades by successive Israeli governments across all territories they have controlled, regardless of the political party in power at the time.”

Now that the human rights and legal foundation of recognizing Israeli apartheid is finally falling into place, it should only be a matter of time before a critical mass of popular support for Palestine’s anti-apartheid movement follows, pushing politicians everywhere, but especially in the West, to pressure Israel into ending its system of racial discrimination.

However, this is where the South Africa and Palestine models begin to differ. Though Western colonialism had plagued South Africa since as early as the 17th century, apartheid only became official there in 1948 — the very year Israel was established on the ruins of historic Palestine.

While South African resistance to colonialism and apartheid survived numerous overwhelming challenges, there was an element of unity that made it nearly impossible for the apartheid regime to conquer all political forces in that country, even after the 1960 banning of the African National Congress and the subsequent imprisonment of Mandela. While South Africans continued to rally behind the ANC, another front of popular resistance, the United Democratic Front, emerged in the early 1980s to fulfill several important roles, including the building of international solidarity around the country’s anti-apartheid struggle. The blood of 176 protesters gunned down at the Soweto township in 1976, along with thousands more over the decades, was the fuel that made freedom, the dismantling of apartheid and the release of Mandela and his comrades possible.

For Palestinians, however, the reality is different. While Palestinians are embarking on a new stage of their anti-apartheid struggle, the PA, which has openly collaborated with Israel, cannot possibly be a vehicle for liberation. Palestinians, especially the youth, who have not been corrupted by the decades-long system of nepotism and favoritism enshrined by the PA, must know this well.

Rationally, Palestinians cannot stage a sustained anti-apartheid campaign when the PA is allowed to serve in the role of Palestine’s representative at the same time as it benefits from the perks and financial rewards associated with the Israeli occupation. It is also not possible for Palestinians to mount a popular movement that is completely independent of the PA, Palestine’s largest employer, whose US-trained security forces keep watch on every street corner in the PA-administered areas of the West Bank.

As they move forward, Palestinians must truly study the South African experience, not merely in terms of historical parallels and symbolism, but to probe its successes, shortcomings and fault lines. Most importantly, they must also reflect on one unavoidable truth: That those who have normalized and profited from the Israeli occupation and apartheid cannot possibly be the ones who bring freedom and justice to Palestine.

• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of
Twitter: @RamzyBaroud

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


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