South Africa must stand up to Israeli apartheid

A year ago, the UN published a landmark report on Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

It found “beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crimes of apartheid.”

This was no rash conclusion, but one the authors reached after meticulous analysis of the evidence and law – especially the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Palestinians hailed the report as a milestone in their struggle to see Israel held accountable for its brutal, decades long denial of their rights.

But Israel’s powerful patrons had other plans. Immediately, the US government, Israel’s biggest arms supplier, began to threaten the United Nations.

Israel lobbed its usual smears against the authors, renowned international law expert Richard Falk and political scientist Virginia Tilley, and its foreign ministry described their sober study as akin to Nazi propaganda.

Quickly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres caved in to pressure and withdrew the report from the UN website.

Rima Khalaf, the head of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the body that published it, resigned in protest at this censorship.

“I resigned because it is my duty not to conceal a clear crime, and I stand by all the conclusions of the report,” Khalaf stated.

That shameful episode highlighted the stark reality Palestinians face: there is no system of oppression more fully documented – in UN reports and studies by human rights groups – than Israel’s crimes.

These include the ongoing siege of Gaza, the wilful killings of civilian protesters, the theft of Palestinian land in the West Bank and the detention of thousands of political prisoners, including currently more than 300 children.

And yet for too long, Israel has been shielded and coddled by the so-called international community.

That is why in 2005, Palestinian civil society launched the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Inspired by South Africa’s freedom struggle, BDS aims to mobilize people all over the world to do what governments won’t: apply pressure on Israel until it respects all the rights of the Palestinian people.

Already, the movement has forced several multinationals to pull out of business with Israel that aided the military occupation, and Israel has declared BDS a “strategic threat.”

Artists are resisting the Israeli government’s efforts to use music to whitewash its crimes by refusing to play in Tel Aviv – just as during apartheid in South Africa many artists boycotted Sun City.

South Africans are answering the Palestinians call, including with nationwide events in coming days marking Israeli Apartheid Week, and it is my honour to be in South Africa to participate in some of them.

Recent decisions show the strength of activism in this country: in December, Tshwane University of Technology joined the academic boycott, announcing that it will not enter any partnerships with Israeli institutions “until such time that Israel ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.”

The same month, the ANC’s national conference endorsed a decision to downgrade South Africa’s diplomatic ties with Israel to the lowest level.

Over the last year, South Africa has helped push back Israeli efforts to improve its ties across Africa. Israel markets itself – often falsely – as a purveyor of superior technologies, a ploy previously used by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Israel’s charm offensive is particularly hypocritical given Israel’s singling out of refugees from Africa for mass deportation. Urging Israel to halt the expulsions, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism has said Israel’s targeting of Africans “clearly breaches the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin.”

As far back as 2002, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote that what he saw when he visited Palestine “reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Yet a decade and a half later – and a generation after South Africans won their freedom – Palestinians remain in bondage.

In January, South Africa’s representative told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that “Israel is the only state in the world that can be called an apartheid state.”

Apartheid is one of the most heinous crimes against humanity, so these words must be followed by action that matches their weight.

As a first step, South Africa should immediately implement the decision to downgrade its diplomatic ties with the Israeli apartheid regime.

On the world stage, South Africa is not an economic or military giant. But when it comes to fighting apartheid it can and must be a moral superpower.

I hope that my next visit to South Africa will not be for another Israeli Apartheid Week, but to celebrate Palestine’s liberation. Let’s make it soon.

Ali Abunimah is director of the online publication The Electronic Intifada.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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