/ 26 May 2021

Palestine could be taking a South African direction

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A Palestinian girl stands amid the rubble of her destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, after the recent cross-border war between Israel and Hamas. (Photograph by Fatima Shbair/ Getty Images)

South Africans who watched, with justifiable horror, the latest round of violence triggered by the Israeli state’s domination of the Palestinian people probably did not link it to the Nkomati Accord of 1984. But there could be a crucial parallel between it and Palestine’s future.

The Nkomati Accord was an agreement between apartheid South Africa and Mozambique, whose president then was Samora Machel, not to support insurgencies against each other. That apartheid South Africa’s support for Mozambican rebels had forced a famed revolutionary leader to abandon support for anti-apartheid resistance movements seemed a remarkable surrender. Since the liberation movements relied on bases in states such as Mozambique, mainstream pundits saw this as a fatal blow to the militant fight against apartheid and a sign that white domination would continue for many years.

But only a year later, rebellion in townships had forced PW Botha’s government to declare a state of emergency. A year after that, United States then-president Ronald Reagan was forced to sign the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, introducing sanctions, and the negotiations that ended apartheid began within six years.

According to mainstream pundits, Palestinians were also running out of options only a few weeks ago. The Trump administration had closed the door on a Palestinian state and engineered the Abraham Accords, in which some countries in the region normalised their dealings with the Israeli state. Although these countries had been working with the Israeli authorities anyway, this was punted as the end of united Arab support for Palestine. The Biden administration was unwilling to change much of this; Israel seemed to have a blank cheque to do as it pleased.

There is no law of history which says people who are dominated always win in the end – Native Americans did not and neither did Indigenous Australians. So, it was not absurd to suggest that the Palestinian people could be defeated forever. So powerful did Israeli domination seem that a Palestinian party in the Israeli parliament was signalling its willingness to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

But do the horrific events of the past few weeks signal that, as in South Africa in the 1980s, the Israeli state’s “victory” may become a longer-term defeat? Two factors suggest that it might.

Deepening resistance

First, it was important to witness the nightly horror on our screens, but this can distract attention from why this round of violence began. One trigger was the attempt by the Israeli state to remove Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in east Jerusalem so that their homes could be given to Jewish Israelis. It was, of course, a typical apartheid forced removal once so familiar to South Africans. 

This is not new to Palestinians – land theft is central to their nightmare. But the popular response to it might break new ground. While Palestinians have been resisting for decades, Palestinian analysts and activists agree that the resistance has attracted very broad support this time, including from many Palestinians who have stayed away from politics.

Another cause was Israel’s latest attempt to curb Palestinian Muslims’ religious rights and freedom of movement in Jerusalem. The purpose, many Palestinians believe, is to make life impossible for them so that they will leave (the apartheid authorities made life as hard as possible for Black people in the cities in the hope of getting them to leave). The Israeli authorities limited Palestinian access to the Damascus Gate plaza after Ramadan prayers. 

Then Israel’s security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque on the holiest night of the Islamic calendar, perhaps partly because meetings in support of Sheikh Jarrah were happening daily at the mosque. This was what triggered rocket attacks on Israel. 

There is nothing new about the Israeli state storming the mosque, but again the depth of resistance has been broader and deeper. Palestinian writers, including some who were not politically active, talk of a new unity and resolve. 

The Palestinian scholar Azzam Tamimi argues that the protests are new because they unite Palestinians inside Israel’s 1948 borders with those in the occupied territories and the worldwide diaspora. They are being led, he adds, by a new generation of young people who, because the independent state held out to Palestinians as a route to freedom has crumbled in the face of Israeli land expansion, are no longer distracted by the hope of a separate state and demand equality from Israel.    

Stronger Palestinian resistance would spell far more trouble for the Israeli authorities than the violence that tends to make the news. Like the apartheid state, they are militarily strong but vulnerable to popular resistance.

Greater support for Palestine

The second shift is happening outside Palestine – in public opinion in the US and Europe, which are key sources of support for Israel. Nothing has changed at the government level, where politicians and officials trot out the usual clichés about “Israel’s right to defend itself” and pretend that the attempt to strip people in Sheikh Jarrah of their homes or bully Muslim worshippers never happened. But many of these countries have seen huge protests against the Israeli state, and more sporting and cultural celebrities are rejecting Israel’s actions.

The most remarkable shift has been in the US Senate and Congress. Not long ago, the Senate used to support Israel’s actions with no dissenting voices, not even that of senator Bernie Sanders. Now, over 30 senators, including the Democratic majority leader Charles Schumer, who regularly boasts of his support for Israel, called for a ceasefire. 

This may not seem very bold, but it did ask for something Israel’s political leadership does not want, which has not happened for decades. In Congress, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, Gregory Meeks, who usually toes the establishment line, supported withholding arms sales to Israel until it halted human rights abuses. He backed down, but the fact that he said it at all was remarkable.

Politicians have shifted because opinion inside the Democratic Party has moved significantly towards support for Palestinian rights and opposition to the Israeli state. For the first time in living memory, there are now political costs for Democratic politicians who sing Israel’s tune – a few have lost their seats. 

One important contributor is the links forged between the Black Lives Matter movement and Palestinians, which may have begun in Ferguson, Missouri, when Palestinians discovered that the tear gas the police were using against protesters was the same as that used by the Israeli state and offered tips on how to treat it.   

None of this means that the US and Western Europe are anywhere near pressing Israel to negotiate a democratic settlement with Palestinian leadership. But Israel’s fans in the media are warning it that the tide is turning against it. Once tides begin turning, they have a habit of gathering momentum. Taboos against support for equal rights for Palestinians are being broken and this does seem to be the start of a trend.

We don’t know how lasting these changes may be. But there are signs in the wind that, like the Nkomati Accord, the Israeli state’s recent successes were the high-water mark of its power and that the political battle for a free and democratic Palestine is gathering steam. 

This article was first published on New Frame