On June 1 the world bore witness to the killing of Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old Palestinian female volunteer paramedic, by Israeli forces. When she was shot, Razan was trying to reach injured protesters close to the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip. Images of her and other medical volunteers dressed in white coats, and raising their hands high up when approaching a wounded protester near the fortified fence minutes before she was shot, went viral. According to eyewitnesses, she posed no threat to the soldiers who chose to end her life. We saw her body carried back to an ambulance, and soon after, we heard that she had died.
Mass protests began in the Gaza Strip in late March, calling for an end to Israel’s 11-year blockade of Gaza and the right for Palestinian refugees to return to the land from which they were displaced in 1948. As it has done so often before, the Israeli army used lethal and excessive force to crush Palestinian demonstrators, killing nearly 60 people on May 14 alone. The killing of Razan al-Najjar, whose only goal was to save lives, underscored the appalling reality of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Exactly 42 years ago, a killing in South Africa came to symbolize the brutality of a different government. The image of a teenager carrying the lifeless body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, shot dead by South African police while taking part in student protests, also spread around the world. Hector was killed in protests known as the Soweto Uprisings, which marked the beginning of the end of South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime.
The photograph sparked international outrage. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union (AU), led the charge, going beyond condemnation of the massacre and calling out governments, including powerful western states, who continued to collaborate with South Africa. A series of resolutions were adopted at the OAU’s Ordinary Session meetings in July 1976, naming and shaming countries including New Zealand, USA, France and Japan who had violated international sanctions. The language was strong and uninhibited and the message clear: there should be no more prevarication, no more delay in executing international obligations against apartheid.
It is against the backdrop of this history that the next AU Summit will be held in Nouakchott, Mauritania, from July 1-2. The situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) will be on the agenda of the Summit and African leaders must consider what they need to do to hold Israel to account for decades of injustice, oppression and violations committed in the OPT, including in Gaza. The slaughter of Gazan protesters must prompt unified action by the AU, just like that which the killings in Soweto elicited from the OAU 42 years ago.
There is no doubt that AU remains one of the strongest regional blocs in the world in condemning Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. The AU has consistently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people, including by calling for the immediate lifting of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, urging member states to ban settlement products, and strongly condemning Israel’s aggressive land-grab policies and illegal settlements. Nelson Mandela famously said that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians”.
But there is a stark disconnect between the AU’s declarations and the actions of its member states. In January, the AU adopted a declaration rejecting the December 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States (US). Yet several African states attended the US embassy inauguration in Jerusalem on 14 May, including Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, DRC, Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zambia and Tanzania – the very same day that dozens of Palestinians were killed and thousands injured during protests in Gaza. At the United Nations (UN), recent positions taken by AU members in relation to Israel’s killings of Palestinians are shameful. Ethiopia abstained in vote on a Kuwaiti-drafted UN Security Council resolution calling for the protection of Palestinian civilians. At the UN Human Rights Council, Ethiopia abstained again, along with Kenya, Rwanda, and Togo, on a vote on an investigation into the circumstances of the recent deaths and injuries.
The AU must change course. It must name and shame those states that turn their backs on AU declarations concerning the human rights of Palestinians. It must call out those states who intentionally defied the AU and lent support to Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem by attending the inauguration of the US embassy. States that declined to openly support the initiation of investigations into the Gaza killings must also be held to account – their failure to take a stand makes a mockery of AU’s stated commitment to support Palestinians in their struggle against institutionalized discrimination. The countries that continue to trade in settlement goods and services, in violation of numerous AU declarations, must also be exposed.
In essence, the AU must do more than pay lip service to the human rights of Palestinians. It must take concrete action by investigating the conduct of its member states in their cooperation with Israel, and assessing their compliance with their international legal obligations.
Nothing can undo Razan al-Najjar’s death, but African leaders should be guided by her legacy, and that of Hector Pieterson, of standing up against decades of institutionalized discrimination and oppression. At next month’s Summit, it is incumbent on African leaders to ensure that their actions do not place them on the wrong side of history.
Netsanet Belay is the Africa Director for Research and Advocacy at Amnesty International