A South African pro-Palestinian lobby group has welcomed the news that a delegation of mayors and other members of several KwaZulu-Natal municipalities has cancelled a planned visit to Israel.
"This is a major setback for the Israeli lobby and particularly the SA-Israel Forum, which we believe had organised the trip," said Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a board member of the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of South Africa. "The KZN province should be commended for its principled position. Now that the Israeli lobby has been exposed and, in a way, caught red-handed, it will be difficult for it to do its pro-Israeli work.
"All other provinces, municipalities and other structures should now follow the lead of KwaZulu-Natal. A precedent has been set."
Ndlozi showed the Mail & Guardian an email sent to BDS South Africa from the office of Premier Zweli Mkhize confirming that the trip, which was supposed to have taken place early this month, had been cancelled.
Wayne Sussman, executive director of the South Africa-Israel Forum, said it had, to date, facilitated trips to Israel for individuals from municipalities in eight provinces. "There is a lot South Africans can learn from Israel, particularly in the field of agriculture, science and technology, and there is much South Africa can offer Israel," he said.
He added that the trips were funded by "various private individuals, trusts, foundations and companies".
According to BDS South Africa, the forum has close ties with the Johannesburg-based company Cape Gate, which supplied material for the infamous wall of separation in Israel (See "Local company had stake in fencing off West Bank").
"Nathan Friedman, the chairman of the SA-Israel Forum, is also the current chairman of Cape Gate," Ndlozi said.
Friedman did not respond to an email and SMSes the M&G sent to him.
Sussman said he was unable to reveal whether there was a link between the South Africa-Israel Forum and Cape Gate. "The forum is an independent organisation. Its work is supported by various individuals, organisations, foundations and companies. Our policy is not to comment on specific supporters or links we may or may not have."
According to Ndlozi, news about the Israel visit, which included the mayor and municipality manager of Hibiscus Coast, first came to light last month, although such trips were nothing new.
"We've been aware of these boycott-busting trips to Israel by the SA-Israel Forum for a while now," he said. "The SA-Israel Forum, a mostly covert arm of the Israeli lobby operating in South Africa, has for several years been taking people from the academic, cultural, sports, business and local government sectors to Israel to forge relations for the Israeli regime, which is becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage."
When BDS South Africa learned about the trip, Ndlozi and his colleague, Muhammed Desai, wrote a letter to the premier requesting that it be cancelled and asking for clarification. The letter was endorsed by several organisations and individuals, including the ANC Youth League, trade union federation Cosatu, former minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils and Sandile Phakathi, president of the South African Union of Students.
"This is the first Israeli lobby trip that we campaigned against and we were pleasantly surprised at the way people received our request for them not to cross the boycott-against-Israel picket line.
"Even admin people and personal assistants to mayors, for example, were adamant in their conversations with us that this Israel trip should be cancelled," Ndlozi said.
The spokesperson for the premier, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, said an invitation from the South African-Israel Forum had been received.
"The KwaZulu-Natal government gets invitations from many countries, including Israel. Normally, international trips involving the government and municipalities are approved by the [legislature] and co-ordinated by international and intergovernmental relations in the premier's office, working with the department of international relations and co-operation.
"We can confirm that an invitation was received from the SA-Israel Forum, but [the legislature] has not yet finalised internal processes," Sibiya said.
Ebrahim Ebrahim, deputy minister of international relations and co-operation, said the department strongly discouraged trips to Israel unless they were linked to the peace process.
"Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there," he said. "That is our general policy, but more so in regard to municipalities, since they are part of government."
Local company had stake in fencing off West Bank
According to Who Profits from the Occupation, a research project initiated by the Israel-based Coalition of Women for Peace, the company Cape Gate, which manufactures steel, wire and wire products, owns Yehuda Welded Mesh, which built the fence around the Gaza Strip.
"It supplied fences for the seam-line expanse separation project and the separation wall around Jerusalem and in the area of Mahola junction," coalition project co-ordinator Yara Sa'idi said.
"In general, all the information in our database and reports are from public resources. In the case of Cape Gate, we collected information from the company's website and news articles, which were verified by field research executed by activists. Following the publication of the company's involvement, it removed some of its logos on fences in the occupied Palestinian territories."
Sa'idi said Yehuda was also involved in supplying material for the erection of Israeli checkpoints. "Approximately 2.5-million Palestinians living in the West Bank and another 1.5-million living in Gaza are affected daily by the checkpoint system and the separation wall, while 335000 Israelis in the West Bank do not have to pass through the checkpoints," she said. "They travel using bypass roads available only to them.
"Cape Gate and other local and international companies profit from this illegal system of segregation and oppression. These companies should be accountable for their involvement in the occupation industry."
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim said it was unaware of Cape Gate's involvement, but "it strongly discouraged any South African company from having anything to do with strengthening the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories".
$2bn spent on 'apartheid wall'
Israel's separation wall is 8m high – twice the height of the Berlin Wall. According to Israeli military officials, it will be about 810km long.
The cost of the wall is estimated at $2.1-billion. Israel has also spent two billion shekels (about $500-million) to construct alternative roads and tunnels.
About 85% of the wall is located in the West Bank. It encircles Jerusalem and is present in Bethlehem, Qalqilya and parts of Tulkarm and Ramallah.
It comprises watchtowers and a "buffer zone" that is 30m to 100m wide and used for electric fences, trenches, cameras, sensors and military patrols.
Elsewhere it consists of layers of fencing and razor wire, military patrol roads, sand paths to trace footprints, ditches and surveillance cameras. In many places the wall is metres away from homes, shops and schools.
The idea of creating a physical barrier between the Israeli and Palestinian populations was first proposed in 1992. Construction of the wall, including land confiscation and the uprooting of trees, began in 2002 west of Jenin.
In 2010, 520km of the planned 810km, or 64%, was completed. Construction was slow for most of 2010 because of concerns about the global financial crisis and ongoing court cases.
However, in the second half of 2010 there was renewed work in Jerusalem and the focus was on closing gaps in certain areas.
Wall construction has restarted in Bethlehem in al-Walaja village, which will be surrounded on all sides. Work is also continuing in Beit Jala, where it is being built along a settler road.
Israel calls the wall a "security fence", but its opponents term it the "apartheid wall", claiming it is enclosing Palestinians into ghettos based on their ethnicity.
International condemnation has been strong. The Red Cross declared it to be in violation of the Geneva Convention and Amnesty International said "it is cutting off Palestinian families and communities from each other, separating farmers from their land and Palestinians from their places of work, education and health-care facilities and other essential services".
In 2004 the International Court of Justice found that it was "contrary to an international law". It advised that "all states [including South Africa] are under an obligation not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and not to render aid or assistance". Former United States president George W Bush said: "I think the wall is a problem." (Source: stopthewall.org)