/ 19 July 2023

South Africa has moral obligation to stand with Palestine

Graphic Tl Hlela Palestine Twitter 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

The Jenin refugee camp is a global symbol of suffering and resistance. Located in the northern part of the occupied West Bank, it is one of 19 United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) camps. The Jenin camp was established in 1953 for 750 000 Palestinians who were forcibly removed from their homes during the Nakba in 1948 to establish Israel. They came from about 50 villages and cities in the northern parts of Palestine, mainly Akka, Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth.

This collective trauma reminds most South Africans of forced removals under apartheid, and how people were dumped in wastelands far from the cities to make way for the oppressors. 

The Jenin refugee camp has been home to three generations of Palestinians since the Nakba and and about 24 000 people are now crammed into the camp. They were born into and have lived their entire lives under colonial bellicosity, structural oppression and institutional violence. 

The ongoing dehumanisation by successive Israeli regimes and the double standards of the self-described “international community” have ensured that dispossession has been ossified into profound structural oppression. The camp has one of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the West Bank. The UN agency considers this to be one of the key factors driving increasing violence and substance abuse in the camp, but multi-generational trauma and a general sense of hopelessness must also be factors.

On 3 July, Israel invaded the camp with hundreds of soldiers, terrorising the Palestinians living there with helicopter gunships, rockets, and armoured vehicles for about two days. More than 3 000 Palestinians fled the camp and 12 lost their lives. Despite UN experts accusing Israeli forces of inflicting collective punishment on Jenin that may amount to a war crime, we all know that nothing will happen to Israel and that consecutive Israeli governments will live to commit more atrocities on the Palestinian people without fear of any consequences. 

Predictably part of the white South African opposition and commentariat that is so vocal in its support of Ukraine but silent on the wars in Ethiopia and Yemen continues to remain silent on the decades’ long struggle of the Palestinian people. 

This follows in the same vein as successive United States presidents, be they Democratic or Republican, who have reaffirmed Washington’s support for Israel and its “right to defend itself” against “terrorists” in Gaza. The Biden administration has also defended and supported successive Israeli incursions into Gaza. 

In May 2018, while Palestinians were participating in a “Great March of Return” rally, Israeli forces opened fire on the crowd. White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said at the time: “The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response, and as the secretary of state said, Israel has the right to defend itself.” 

In July 2014, Israel executed a 10-day aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip before launching a ground offensive. Then US president Barack Obama told reporters on 18 July of that year that in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he had “reaffirmed [his] strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself”. According to the UN more than 1 500 Palestinian civilians, including more than 500 children, were killed in that Israeli “military operation” in Gaza. In November 2012, Obama supported Israel’s offensive into Gaza that killed 100 Palestinians.

At the end of December 2008 Israel led an operation into Gaza that lasted about 22 days. According to Amnesty International, 1 400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed. On 2 January 2009, then president George W Bush insisted that “This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas — a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction.” 

The list goes on and on, all the way to the founding of the state of Israel when then president Harry Truman said: “The United States recognises the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new state of Israel.” 

Israel and its supporters have continued to point to the price paid by its citizens to legitimise more violence and oppression against Palestine. But there is no balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli violence against the Palestinians is much greater in terms of scope, scale and intensity than any violence Palestinian armed resistance of any form ever inflicted on Israel, therefore Israel cannot credibly point to Israeli victims of the violence to say it is “acting in self-defence”. 

The colonial logic at play could hardly be clearer. Palestinian lives do not matter. Israel is granted licence to oppress and still be described as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. We all know that if white people had been treated like the residents of the Jenin refugee camp it would be a global scandal. We all know how the West would respond if armed Palestinian forces stormed Tel Aviv claiming to be acting to secure the safety of their people and forced 3 000 people to flee and killed 12.

The UN General Assembly has adopted 140 resolutions criticising Israel since 2015, mainly over its treatment of the Palestinians, its relationships with neighbouring countries and other alleged wrongdoings, yet Israel has got away with not adhering to these resolutions, mostly because of the unwavering support it continues to receive from the US. Consecutive American governments have refused to bring Israel to heel but have instead blocked UN resolutions that have demanded that Israel adhere to the two-state policy. Israel has been given impunity by the West.

This is all too familiar for black South Africans who endured years of brutal and violent repression at the hands of the apartheid state, while Western countries led by the US and the UK stood behind the racist regime. The fact that we now have such a strident and uncritically pro-West lobby in our media is a distressing indicator of the growing power that colonial attitudes wield in our society. 

How can it be that almost 30 years after the end of apartheid there is such an overweening sense of moral superiority among the mostly white pro-West lobby, a sense of moral superiority that has no regard for the people of Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Libya, Iraq and other countries? 

Israel will not be able to oppress the Palestinians in perpetuity. The attack in Jenin will only help to make more Americans demand better accountability from their government and will turn more people around the world, including many young Jews, against the Israeli state and will build a new generation of freedom fighters in Palestine. And as the West, led by the US, steadily loses its once unrivalled global authority the tide will turn against Israel, the last remaining settler colonial state. 

South Africans have a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with Palestine. We also have a moral obligation to be fearless in rejecting the at times hysterically self-righteous demand from some of our white compatriots that we embrace neo-colonialism and we be seen to perform uncritical fealty to the West.

Nontobeko Hlela is an independent commentator on international relations and geopolitical issues.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.