A racist and intolerant country cannot call itself civilised

Should it be business as usual and a comfortable position of passivity, or should it answer, with action, the Palestinian call for solidarity and support?

At their base, these are the questions fuelling recent debates about the department of international relations' position on relations with and travel to Israel, about the department of trade and industry's intention to label goods manufactured in illegal Israeli settlements correctly and, most of all, about the surge in demands by civil society groups and organisations such as trade union federation Cosatu, the communist party and the South African Council of Churches to hold Israel accountable through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Attempts by Ben Levitas of the South African Zionist Federation ("Hostility to Israel an ANC ploy to woo Cape Muslims", August 31) and others to paint these questions as "racial divisiveness" are a smokescreen masking their own racial bias in defending Israel and its colonial policies.

Ehud Barak, Israel's minister of defence, recently ordered the demolition of eight Palestinian villages in the southern corner of the occupied West Bank and the forced removal of their inhabitants. The Israeli army and its so-called civil administration (the administrative body that governs the civil aspects of Israel's brutal occupation) see the roughly 1 500 residents of these villages as squatters in Israel's "military training ground 918" – despite the fact that these Palestinian towns have existed since at least the 1830s, predating not only the state of Israel, but even the British mandate.

Israel's forced removals are not limited to the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967. A year ago, the Israeli government approved the "Prawer plan" mandating the forced removal of 35 Bedouin informal settlements in the Negev region, an area well within Israel proper. According to the plan, 30 000 Bedouin people will be affected.

I was born in Israel, where I have lived my entire life, to a family of Jewish descent. I vividly remember the televised newscasts of Israeli soldiers confronting Palestinian children during the first intifada and, later on, the day the Oslo accords were signed. I have seen how Israel used the so-called peace process, now more than 20 years old, to perpetuate its occupation of Palestinian land, deflect international pressure and perfect its sophisticated apartheid regime.

Campaign of boycott
During the second intifada, I learned first-hand the toll of Israeli military repression: I joined Palestinian-led demonstrations in the West Bank and carried the dead bodies of slain Palestinian friends and comrades shot by Israeli soldiers. Such Israeli policies and actions demand a tough stance by the international community, including support for the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

I was born in Israel, but my government does not represent me. Nor do the right-wing organisations of world Jewry that denounce any move to hold Israel accountable for its actions and policies. The cries bemoaning Israel being singled out are cries of complete moral forfeiture: they imply one may not act to stop a particular injustice until all injustice is eradicated. As bad as it was, South Africa was never the worst place in the world, even in apartheid's darkest days. Yet it was eventually singled out by the international community in a way that enabled democracy to be realised. Claims such as those made by Levitas are, hence, of a special audacity.

Another common argument is that boycotts and sanctions will affect not just the Israeli government, but also the Israeli left and Palestinians. It is incomprehensible that such a case can be made in South Africa where, for years, apartheid apologists used this argument to try to derail the movement to boycott the country and its regime.

Palestinians deserve freedom, justice and the realisation of their full rights. They also deserve the unwavering support of the international community in their struggle to achieve these rights and freedoms.

Levitas refers to Israel as a democratic country, thus ignoring the laws that discriminate racially against Palestinians inside Israel, as well as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are subjects living under military law without the right to vote. He goes further, extolling Israel as "the only democratic country in the region". This racist perspective ignores the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which are no less democratic that Israel.

This is no coincidence. If there is one issue that Israeli society is sensitive to, it is its image as a liberal democracy, false though it may be, and the perception that it is part of the "civilised" West. Steps such as discouraging travel to Israel, although still limited in scope, are important not only in putting pressure on Israel and its government, but also in supporting all those who seek justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Jonathan Pollak is an Israeli anti-apartheid activist and the legal aid co-ordinator of the Palestinian organisation Popular Struggle Co-ordination Committee

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