The United States Embassy officially relocated to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The initiative was driven by President Donald Trump
Peace Vigil co-founder Shirin recently interviewed Na’eem Jeenah, a well-known South African academic who has written widely on Palestine and Israel. He is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg. The new President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has categorically stated that the South African government will end diplomatic relations with Israel over its actions in Palestine. This interview with Na’eem Jeenah is helpful to understand the situation.
Aisling Byrne interviews Abdel Bari Atwan
Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ (DoC) - whether in its actual or conceptual form - is ushering in a new strategic era, providing cover for an imposed strategic realignment that lays the foundations for the establishment of Greater Israel. The components already been implemented by the USA and Israel, plus those expected to be implemented (annexation and cancelling the right of return with settlement of refugees in neighbouring states), aim to create a new strategic reality that will fundamentally change the question of Palestine and the geostrategic politics of the region.
Strategically, the DoC amounts to the construction of a ‘neo Sykes-Picot’ redrawing of the Middle East according to the shared ‘Likud-Republican’ agenda that, with Greater Israel at its epicentre, could well be as destabilising as its original 1916 then-secret counterpart.
The core components of ‘Palestine’ have already been taken off the table, and what will be left for ‘New Palestine’ will be nothing more than a collection of semi-autonomous mini-states on about twelve per cent of historic Palestine. These will be connected by a land route, but will effectively be statelets with little more than the impotency of a bantustan. Demilitarised with only a lightly-armed police force, these statelets would have to pay Israel for providing military security. Lacking any aspect of sovereignty, this ‘New Palestine’ will be no more than an aid-dependent humanitarian macro-project couched in the framework of ‘better standards of living’ for Palestinians. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his colleagues have been explicit: the DoC addresses Israel’s security needs.
This new strategic architecture aims to strengthen the foundations of the Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE axis. Largely paid for by the Gulf states (with the US and EU contributing), the UN would likely co-ordinate much of the funding (as it has done during the Oslo decades) – all of which will further cement Israel’s political control and its divide-and-rule objectives. The extent to which the DoC is actively resisted remains to be seen: Jordan, Hizbullah (Lebanon), Iran, Syria (to the extent it can) and Turkey will resist rhetorically; although Russia and China said they will not attend the upcoming Bahrain workshop, their position will likely be similar to their position on Oslo and the regime change interventions in the region since 2003 – strategic patience: waiting for these western-led initiatives to collapse.
Crucially, however, inthe wider context, regional strategic developments are not going Israel’s way, and it is likely that this macro-strategic context will determine the fate of the DoC more than the micro mini-wins. The Gulf states are weak; the northern tier in the region (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah) is strengthening and has greater missile capabilities. Across the northern front, air defences are slowly being put in place that reduce Israel’s air superiority and its ability to operate. Strategically, these countries - as well as Russia and China - can afford to wait. So, while we might see a ‘twilight decade’ for Palestinians (perhaps not that different to the twenty-five-year Oslo period) at the micro level, the political landscape is changing rapidly in the region more widely.
The DoC reflects the excessive confidence of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, but it also, to an extent, reflects an acknowledgment of Israel’s greater vulnerability; hence this push to strengthen Israel’s strategic depth. It remains to be seen, however, whether the DoC results in and is reflective of overreach.
If a wider regional conflict erupts, this too would change the strategic circumstances for Palestinians, most likely with them being involved in wider resistance against the key DoC states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). A wider regional conflict may also change Israel’s circumstances dramatically in Galilee and the northern parts of historic Palestine; Hizbullah has warned that the next war will be fought inside Israel.
I asked leading Arab political commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, about the key strategic and geopolitical aspects and implications of the DoC.
The DoC appears to be more about cementing Israel into the regional polity and security architecture, and less about the micro context with the Palestinians. What are the key regional pillars underpinning this ‘Greater Israel’ project?
It remains unclear even to what extent the DoC will be officially unveiled as a coherent plan or to what extent it has even been formulated with any coherence. Nevertheless, the concept behind the DoC is to turn the Israeli status quo into a permanent fait accompli, and secure regional and international legitimacy and political acceptance of that reality, or at least resigned acquiescence. We have already seen the ground being prepared: with the US recognition of the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; with the financial pressure exerted on the Palestinians to force them – and bribes offered to induce them – to accept the DoC; and with the new Israeli nationality law that rules out any Palestinian state or right to return.
Even if the deal is officially presented, there are no guarantees that any of its clauses will be implemented, even those related to so-called ‘economic peace’. Oslo was not implemented, nor the decisions of the Gaza reconstruction conference, nor even the Paris economic protocol. At best, the implementation of these agreements was partial and selective. Nor will anyone believe any funding pledges made by the Gulf states in support of the DoC. They have a long and consistent record of making promises of aid and investment to various countries or multilateral bodies and then failing to deliver.
The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait – are supposed to fund the economic side of the DoC in exchange for guarantees of American protection and support for their regimes. There are reports that a total of $70 billion is to be pledged at the upcoming Bahrain workshop. This is a paltry price to pay for Palestine; Trump managed to get $450 billion out of Saudi Arabia in a single visit that lasted barely 24 hours. Today, the US is demanding the Gulf states pay more and more for American military protection, and tomorrow Israel will be demanding the same as the price for safeguarding them against Iran and other threats.
The DoC not only targets the Palestinians as a people – it is an updated version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in conjunction with US policies elsewhere – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. – aims at redrawing the geopolitical map of the region, eliminating anything called Arab nationalism, and establishing the foundations for a Greater Israel. The Palestinians are to be softened up by being starved into submission and denied funding, jut as Iraq was before it was invaded, and the PLO was before Oslo. The same scenario is being played out here.
This ‘deal’ will be the prelude to further chaos. The Gulf regimes it depends on – Saudi Arabia and UAE – rule states that are more fragile than they seem. The idea was to also co-opt Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt – which are due to receive most of the funding to be pledged at the ‘prosperity workshop’ in Bahrain, in lieu of compensationfor Palestinian refugees and the complete renunciation of their right of return. It is noteworthy that all these countries are in severe financial difficulty and have astronomical levels of debt. Syria too – though out of the picture at present – is just emerging from a devastating civil war and has a massive job of reconstruction facing it.
A specific role is earmarked for Jordan: While Israel is to annex much of the West Bank, the perceived solution for the areas of high population density – Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, etc. – is to annex them to Jordan, either directly or by means of a nominal confederation. Palestinian security forces are to be replaced by Jordanian forces, and we will be given a new version of the Village Leagues in the guise of municipal councils with lightly-armed local police. Israel trusts no-one but the Jordanian army and security forces to do the job of policing the Palestinians, while Israel’s own forces will be responsible for the 600-kilometre border with Jordan.
Having worked with Israel on security co-ordination (crushing resistance) for twenty years, the PA and the Fatah elite now find themselves in financial crisis and bankrupt. Do you see this as part of an intentional process of weakening and getting rid of the PA as a national political body altogether?
If the DoC is applied, the PA will have outlived its usefulness to Israel and the US as a means of sustaining the status quo under the guise of a token national entity engaged in an illusory peace process. But irrespective of the DoC, the PA is approaching the end of its shelf life, and the PLO has become increasingly debilitated and is virtually moribund. I foresee a period of turmoil in the West Bank, which will, in turn, generate new forms of spontaneous and organised resistance, including armed resistance using home-made weapons as in the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon and Yemen. In Gaza, the resistance-based model espoused by Hamas has been more successful; the model has stood fast in the face of a suffocating blockade, every coercive and punitive measure imaginable, and four wars.
Under the DoC, Hamas will effectively govern a mini-state. They will have to disarm; if not, they will face a full Israeli invasion, most likely with full US and Gulf backing. They are already dependent on Egyptian mediation and Israeli security gestures and humanitarian sweeteners (salaries for 36 000 Hamas civil servants, for example, are dependent on Israeli approval, each month, once and if Gulf donors – currently Qatar – agree to provide funds). Hamas and Gaza’s other factions are resisting tactically. We’ve seen the Return Marches, balloons, even Hamas’s improved military capabilities; but to what end? These are little more than a pinprick of resistance against Israel’s strategic hegemony. Hamas recently signed a ceasefire agreement with Israel, cemented by Qatari funds. Given these strategic realities, is Hamas too compromised to resist? Or will the Hamas enclave eventually effectively become an Egyptian ‘province’?
I was myself born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. We were ten children and my father was ill, so we were dependent on UNRWA’s rations and went to its schools. Poverty and need did not diminish our commitment to our national aspirations for return and just peace at the time, and this has been demonstrated time and again by people in the Gaza Strip in the decades since then, including at present.
The West Bank-Gaza Strip separation and division is clear on the ground and appears intractable at present, but it could soon come to an end, even if geographical separation is maintained, especially with the impending collapse of the PA. There are simply no other national options or alternative solutions. That is the main reason for the policy of starving the Palestinian people into submission. But harsh and vicious as this starvation policy has been, it has not succeeded and has backfired in political terms: the besieged and bankrupt Hamas – for all its many faults and shortcomings – remains more popular than the donor- and aid-dependent PA.
Hamas will not abandon its weapons. It has developed an effective missile arsenal that gives it deterrent power, and it has learned from the mistakes of the PLO. The culture of resistance has deep roots, and Hamas has nurtured them. It has also created a generation of weapons-making experts. This know-how will survive. Gaza is different to the West Bank: eighty per cent of its inhabitants are refugees and only twenty per cent are Gazans – though all are equal in their crushing poverty, while the ratios are roughly reversed in the West Bank. But the direct reoccupation of either would generate fierce resistance. In both places the younger generation has shown that it has freed itself of fear of the occupying power.
How do you see the wider strategic context of an ascendant Resistance Axis impacting the DoC; this will presumably constitute the core of the strategic resistance to the DoC?Where do you think forceful resistance to the DoC will come from? Resistance from Iran and Hizbullah will be strong (perhaps this is one reason we are seeing the current US-Israeli offensive posturing towards Iran); Turkey and Jordan are clearly opposed; a much weakened and divided PA and Hamas are already skirmishing over who will lead the Palestinian opposition. Europe will likely be cautious in its response, unwilling to directly confront or contradict the US; it may highlight a few ‘positive aspects’ to the DoC, but coordinated collective opposition by the EU is unlikely (it has, after all, been the major funder of the outsourced occupation implemented during more than years of the Oslo period). Likewise, Russia and China will likely not intervene directly beyond reaffirmation of international law and existing UN resolutions. Ironically, some opposition is coming from a polarised US.
A key feature of this wider strategic context is the growing regional strength and influence of this Resistance Axis – thus far comprising Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Iraq and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The formidable military capability it has developed, especially in terms of missiles, has achieved a measure of strategic deterrence with Israel, and to a lesser extent the US, despite the latter’s hugely more sophisticated military hardware and prowess.
Gulf money destroyed the original Palestinian resistance. It came close to destroying the Hamas movement too. But the Saudi-UAE embrace of Israel will backfire; they are not capable of performing the task set for them. The interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen have united a large segment of the Arab public against them. You can see this everywhere in the Arab world, and this will negatively impact not only their regional and international image, but also their domestic security and stability.
Israel’s military and economic supremacy is being threatened. Its Gulf allies are in decline, both in terms of regional influence and domestic control, while the Resistance Axis is on the ascendance. This Axis has been bolstered by being joined by Iraq, by its deterrent missile capability, and by its military successes in Syria, Yemen and Gaza. All of this is relative, of course. But the resistance’s missile capacity – however ‘asymmetric’ – has overturned previous assumptions about air power being the decisive factor that Israel could rely on. Israel used to have military dominance both in the air and on land, but it has lost both. Its Iron Dome has proved to be a failure in facing Gaza’s rudimentary, but steadily improving, missiles, and the economies and cities of its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become vulnerable to Houthi drones (costing only a few hundred dollars each), and more recently, Houthi cruise missiles.
Israel’s ally and protector, the United States, is no longer the sole superpower. China and Russia are there and India is on its way. All are being subjected to economic warfare by the US, which may well intensify. The Europeans are the main financial donors to the Palestinians. It is they who encouraged the PLO to sign the Oslo accords, renounce armed resistance and agree to the two-state solution, on the grounds that this would bring peace and justice. But now the two-state solution is unattainable and justice and peace have never been more elusive. Europe will be a major loser if the PA and the peace process collapse.
So, the strategic outlook is changing to the advantage of the Palestinians and the Resistance Axis in the near term. It is Israel that is afraid and fretting about the prospect of being bombarded with missiles from north, south and east. The DoC could cause significant disturbances in Jordan, which Israel currently counts on as a reliable neighbour. The DoC effectively posits Jordan as an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, and all Jordanians – regardless of their other divisions – are united in opposing this.
War on Iran would open the gates of hell to Israel and its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It could be the last all-out war in the region, just as World War II was in Europe. Every last missile left in the arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iraq would be launched against Israel and these states. And if nuclear weapons were used, chemical weapons could be employed in retaliation, with Israel being the main target.
Trump’s team has been clear that this is a ‘take it or leave it deal’; if it is rejected, the US has said, it will ‘walk away’. Palestinian rejection of the deal is guaranteed, as is a tentative ‘Yes in principle, but…’ from Netanyahu. This will likely result in the selective unilateral implementation of aspects of the DoC by the US and Israel – as is currently happening – with little opposition other than rhetorical from Europe, Russia, China and others. In the event of the DoC’s ‘failure’ or its being ‘dead on arrival’, what do you see happening?
Israel cannot impose the DoC unilaterally. Its annexation of Palestinian and Arab land lacks any legal validity and does not strengthen its hand. Take the issue of the US endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. This favours the Palestinians because it closes down any prospect of negotiations between Israel and Syria, whatever the future may hold for that country, and ensures that Syria remains a confrontation state forever.
The death of the DoC would mean the termination of the last major US political venture in the Middle East, the final demise of the two-state solution, the burial of the Arab Peace initiative, and the region’s return to square one: the pre-Oslo and pre-Camp David stage of resistance against occupation. Israel and the US, and not the Arabs or Palestinians, would be held responsible for this, for violating signed agreements that were heavily loaded in favour of Israel, not to mention UN resolutions and international law. The biggest winners from the collapse of the DoC will be the culture and policies of the Resistance Axis, and the biggest losers will be Israel, its Arab allies and US policy in the region.
* Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of Al-Rai Al-Youm, former editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a leading Arab political commentator, and author of numerous books, including Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate(2015) and The Secret History of Al-Qa'ida(2006).
* Aisling Byrne is Director of Projects and Partnerships at Conflicts Forum. She was formerly a Social Policy Adviser with UNRWA in Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, and an organisational development consultant with a number of public bodies in the UK. She has degrees from Balliol College, University of Oxford, an MA from SOAS, University of London, and was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Touted by its architects as the ‘deal of the century’, US president Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and Israel has had to again be kept hidden as Israel heads back to elections after a failure by its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a government. The decision for new elections (in September) followed a vote by the newly-inaugurated 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament), hours after Netanyahu announced he could not form a coalition government, plunging Israel into political chaos. The news was hugely disappointing for Trump, who had been waiting for Netanyahu’s government to be appointed before unveiling his plan. Instead, it now sits in limbo as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and Palestinians reject the proposal outright, based on leaks about what it contains. Trump’s administration has resorted to revelations in small doses, evidenced by the announcement that the economic part of the deal will be unveiled at a 25-26 June summit in Bahrain. This strategy postpones the grand announcement while allowing Israeli occupation to continue unabated. Israel, meanwhile, is in political turmoil, with Netanyahu fighting corruption charges, and increasing tensions between right-wing Orthodox Jews and secular right-wing groups.
Failure forming government
The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, secured major gains in the April election. He was elected prime minister after securing sixty-five votes from the 120-member parliament. The bloc is comprised of Likud (thirty-five seats); Kulanu (four seats); the Union of Right-wing Parties (URP) (five seats) that includes the Kahanist Jewish supremacist Jewish Power Party and Yisrael Beitenu; the ultra-orthodox Shas (eight seats) and United Torah Judaism (eight seats). It had hoped to form a coalition government similar to the one in 2015. Netanyahu, however, failed to get his partners to agree on critical issues, and to break a stand-off between the religious ultra-orthodox parties on the one hand and the racist leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Lieberman’s disagreement with the religious parties rested mainly on his insistence on passing the Haredi draft law, a controversial document which seeks to conscript religious Jews into the army (orthodox Jews are currently largely exempt from conscription). The religious parties were unwilling to compromise on the exemption of their members from military service, despite Netanyahu’s efforts. And Lieberman refused to concede, eventually collapsing the coalition effort.
Lieberman has since used Netanyahu’s failure to form a government to garner support for his party, and lambasted the beleaguered prime minister for bowing to pressure from the religious parties. Lieberman hopes to win additional seats in the September elections, and thus wield more influence in coalition talks. If he succeeds, he could weaken Netanyahu by reducing the number of Likud seats. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also working tirelessly to shift the blame to Lieberman for forcing Israel into fresh elections. It seems, therefore, that Netanyahu’s biggest challenge for the September election will be from parties from his own right-wing bloc rather than from ‘centrist’ Blue and White party he battled against in April.
Despite the standoff between Lieberman and the religious parties, Netanyahu also faced several hurdles with other parties in his right-wing coalition. These included managing the demands of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon who insisted on being finance minister. URP leader Belazel Smotrich also demanded key portfolios for his members, specifically the justice and education ministries. The URP remained aggrieved even after the Knesset’s dissolution because Netanyahu appointed a senior Likud leader as justice minister. Smotrich has threatened to again push for that ministry, which is key for new legislation; he hopes to use it to introduce biblical laws in Israel. If this insistence persists, it would pose a major threat to Netanyahu if he wins the September election.
Bad timing for rerun election
The decision to hold new elections in September could not have come at a worse time for Trump’s long-awaited announcement of his ‘deal of the century’, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The deal’s unveiling was to be after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Trump and Kushner had hoped that by then a new Israeli government would be in place to receive a deal heavily biased towards Israel. With Israeli politics plunged into uncertainty, Kushner and Trump are concerned about their plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.
On a recent visit to Israel, Kushner sought reassurance from Netanyahu. He had travelled to the region as preparation for the25-26 June Economic Summit in Bahrain, where he is expected to announce plans for economic incentives for the Palestinians. He will ask that the financial proposals, which are regarded as the economic part of Trump’s deal, be funded by the Gulf states that will attend the summit – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Kushner also met leaders in Morocco and Jordan, in an ultimately successful attempt to convince the two kingdoms to attend the summit.
Israel’s political chaos is now posing problems for Kushner, who had been looking forward to revealing the plan he and his father-in-law had been working on since 2017. Nevertheless, both of them will happily allow Israel to quietly continue expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory as contained in the deal. Leaks suggest the deal will allow Israel to build and expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank (including in Jerusalem), will entrench Israeli control of Palestinian air, land and sea borders, will subject certain Palestinians to military rule, and will deny the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the context of the current Israeli political reality, the new Kushner strategy is to release the plan in small doses starting with the economic plan to be announced in Bahrain. It will likely focus heavily on the besieged Gaza strip, and will involve economic incentives and plans for Gaza that will be operationalised by Egypt and Qatar. For the political part of the plan, Kushner’s recent comments that ‘Palestinians have no capacity to govern themselves’ hinted at what the spirit of the ‘deal’ might be. The plan will likely cement and legitimise the status quo of Israeli control of Palestinian lives, Israeli collection of Palestinian tax revenues and continued military rule for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, Netanyahu is on board with these aspects of the plan, but his current woes could mean he will be replaced by a prime minister who will not be as amenable to Trump and Kushner, thus raising questions about the plan’s future.
The April election provided an convincing victory for Netanyahu, who had hoped to form a strong right-wing government and to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His celebration halted abruptly after he failed to form a coalition government and was forced to announce new elections that will place on 17 September, two weeks before Netanyahu argues his case at a pre-trial hearing that seeks to indict him for bribery, corruption and fraud charges. These new political developments have thrown a spanner in the works and postponed the announcement of substantive parts of Trump’s plan for Israel and Palestine. A delay in announcing it, however, allows many aspects of the deal to be quietly implemented by the Israeli government anyway, with annexation of large portions of the West Bank and tying Gaza in economically to Arab governments already under way. This leaves the Palestinians with no real resolution in sight, and with no possibility, in the near future, of a Palestinian state.
By Diana Block
Reaffirming Internationalism in the Twenty-first Century
In March 2019 I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend a conference – Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice. The conference was co-sponsored by the AMED (Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies) program of San Francisco State University (SFSU), AMEC (Afro-Middle East Centre) in Johannesburg, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, and An-Najah University, in occupied Palestine.
Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of the AMED program, had initiated the Teaching Palestine project in 2016, ahead of the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s imperialist Balfour Declaration, as an emancipatory pedagogical and advocacy project that would be conducted in multiple sites over a number of years around the world. An integral concept of the project is the “indivisibility of justice.” This framing affirms the integral connections between the struggle for Palestinian freedom and other current struggles against oppression worldwide. It offers a basis for engaging internationalism holistically in an era when global struggles are too often siloed or artificially separated by narrow organizational missions. Since it was initiated, Teaching Palestine has organized workshops and symposia in the U.S. ,Cuba, Seville, Spain, and Montreal. The first Teaching Palestine conference took place in 2018 at Birzeit and An-Najah National Universities in occupied Palestine. Given their closely interconnected histories and ongoing solidarity relationships, it made sense to hold the second international conference in South Africa.
I had traveled to Southern Africa nearly forty years earlier, in April 1980, for the celebration of Zimbabwean independence. I had been part of organizations working with the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) in the United States. ZANU was fighting for the national liberation of the Zimbabwean people from the white supremacist regime that held power in what the settlers called Rhodesia, after colonist Cecil Rhodes. The victory over Ian Smith’s regime was a thrilling culmination of years of struggle by the Zimbabwean people who were supported by a vigorous international solidarity movement. To those of us in that movement, Zimbabwe’s independence signaled the inevitable future downfall of apartheid in South Africa. And the struggles against white supremacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa were part and parcel of the struggle for Black liberation against white supremacy within the borders of the United States. Southern Africa was a focal point for anti-imperialist struggle throughout the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and worldwide.
Forty years later Zimbabwe and South Africa, in different ways, are still struggling to fulfill the liberatory promises of independence. Given the consolidation of the neoliberal world order under U.S. hegemony in the final decades of the twentieth century and the collusion of the new national ruling parties and elites with neoliberalism, these newly independent African countries have faced monumental external and internal challenges. Within the U.S., Southern Africa has largely disappeared from the movement’s political map.
Yet anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial/neoliberal struggles have inevitably continued against a global regime of imperialist dispossession, appropriation and exploitation in the twenty-first century. Now Palestine has in many ways become the epicenter of anti-imperialist struggle as it has continued, across the century mark, to confront the Israeli settler colonial, apartheid state and its U.S. partner-in-chief. The growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2005, modeled on the South African boycott movement, demonstrates how the Palestinian movement has skillfully learned from the successful tactics that helped to bring down the South African apartheid regime. A conference on Palestine in South Africa was a means of reaffirming the historic importance of South African struggle and learning about the continuation of efforts to build a different, more equitable and just South African society.
The conference and subsequent study tour addressed the critical role of internationalism for Palestine and South Africa, examined lessons of the South African experience during and after apartheid, and exposed the expanding scope of Zionist assaults on all forms of speech and action in support of Palestine globally.
Ronnie Kasrils, the opening speaker at the conference, was a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), and the Minister of Intelligence in the South African government between 2004-2008. A South African of Jewish descent, he has also played a leading role throughout his political history in building solidarity with Palestinian liberation. He spoke to the critical importance of an internationalist perspective for the ANC historically. He described their careful study of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and its strategy of people’s war; the influence of victorious movements in Algeria and Cuba on ANC development; and the material support which other national liberation struggles were able to offer South Africa.
Kasrils pointed out the closely intersecting histories of South African and Israeli apartheid. The apartheid government was first elected in South Africa in 1948, the same year as the Israeli Zionist project expelled the Palestinians from their land in the catastrophic Nakba.He highlighted the ways in which the international boycotts and disinvestment campaign became a key pressure tactic against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, contributing to South Africa’s isolation as an outlaw state. While the majority of the world distanced itself from South Africa, Israel cemented its role as one of South Africa’s main strategic military allies. In 1975 Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime and in 1979 Israel and South Africa collaborated on the test of a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean.
Robin Kelley, distinguished scholar of African-American history and a professor at UCLA, brought the long history of solidarity between the Black radical movement in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation movement to the conversation. He argued that solidarity was rooted in a politics of shared principles and that it was important for the U.S. movement today to go beyond the politics of “analogy” based solely on a shared experience of oppression. He pointed out that in the 1960’s, it was not enough to have a common experience of oppression. In fact, Black center/right politicians supported Israel while radical Black forces aligned with organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its vision of radical Third World nationalism and a democratic socialist state. “It is not the conditions of captivity, but the critique of captivity and shared visions of liberation that form the basis for real solidarity,” Kelley insisted.
Rabab Abdulhadi contextualized the significance of holding the Teaching Palestine conference in South Africa. “The heroic struggle of the South African people must be learned from despite critiques of the current political situation,” she insisted. She also spoke to the importance of the Teaching Palestine initiative as a means of shifting how Palestine is framed – a departure from a narrative of subjugation, submission and defeat to one of resistance, liberation and solidarity. Though this was the intellectual project she initiated, teaching Palestine has been the praxis of Palestine transnationally as long as the Palestinian resistance has been around. Through education, Palestinians could affirm their history, land and struggle in the face of dispossession and displacement. Today, it is not only critical for Palestinians to know their own history but to also learn from and stand in solidarity with other struggles for liberation.
The need to speak the truth about South African history and dispel sanitized distortions was asserted throughout the conference and study tour. Salim Vally pointed out that the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in April 1994 were a result of a long multi-dimensional struggle. However, the victory is often attributed to a “politics of negotiation and forgiveness,” that gained sway in the period leading up to and after the elections. Such politics are now held up as a model for other struggles such as Palestine despite their problematic impact on South Africa.
As Vally and Jeenah assert in their edited book Pretending Democracy , “For ordinary working-class South Africans, the development of the constitution and the process of ‘reconciliation’ such as it has been, have contributed little or nothing to ending their lives of struggle, misery, poverty and racism.” In his article Martyrs and Reconciliation, Jeenah points out that Zionists often manipulatively advise Palestinians to learn from South Africa’s history of non-violent and peaceful resistance. “We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white.”
Many presenters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere reiterated this critique, pointing out that the negotiations that resulted in the 1994 elections involved multiple compromises and the acceptance of a neoliberal economic framework which precluded wealth and land redistribution. Speakers talked about the deep problems of the governing ANC party over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the pervasiveness of state capture, the term commonly used for government corruption. Within the ANC itself there is a continuing effort to challenge these endemic problems.
Trevor Ngwane, a scholar activist who teaches and conducts research at the University of Johannesburg, pointed out in his presentation during the study tour that the South African constitution exemplifies some of the best aspects of liberal bourgeois legal principles, including democratic and human rights for all, same sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis. Yet when it comes to the socio-economic realities, South Africa is one of the most grossly unequal societies in the world today with unemployment at 40%, land ownership overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and gender violence at crisis proportions.
In a recent article, Ngwane characterizes South Africa as an insurgent democracy because of the ongoing intense level of social movement disruption and protest against the governing status quo by multiple sectors of the South African people. Significant recent protests include the Marikana mineworkers strike of 2012, the #FeesMustFallmovement to decolonize the system of higher education, and the #Total Shutdown movement in 2018 to confront rampant gender violence.
Solidarity with Palestine is also a contested issue in post-apartheid South African society although the government position on Israel is very different than that of the apartheid regime. The ANC and the government it leads have pledged solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and have repeatedly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the relentless attacks on Gaza. In 2018, South Africa recalled its ambassador from Israel after Israel’s brutal attacks against the Gaza Great March of Return.
The South African government has also played a role in resisting what Matshidiso Motsoeneng described as Israel’s charm offensive in Africa, a strategy to normalize relationships with African countries across the continent by offering economic support, technological development and military training. South Africa has led the rejection of Israel’s attempts to gain observer status in the African Union which Israel has sought in order to wield more influence in the region.
Civil society and grassroots organizations as well as members of the ANC have consistently pressured the South African government to support the Palestinian struggle. They have called upon the government to sever all diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the Israeli state and to build solidarity in multiple ways. In 2013 Ahmed Kathrada, a leader of the South African Communist Party and a former political prisoner who spent 25 years on Robben Island, initiated an international campaign to free Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Barghouti. Kathrada commented that South Africans “have a sacred duty to campaign for the unconditional release of Marwan Barghouti and all Palestinian political prisoners as an essential step towards the freedom of the Palestinian people and peace in the region.”
The Palestine Solidarity Alliance, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and BDS South Africa are among a number of groups that consistently organize for Palestine through a variety of tactics, including education and support for BDS. Palestine solidarity activists described the ongoing struggles regarding BDS at universities which bear many similarities to that at U.S. universities. The South African Student Union endorsed BDS in 2011 and in a landmark decision, the University of Johannesburg academic senate voted to end its ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University that same year. In 2017, Tshwane University of Technology, the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa, officially endorsed the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel, and imposed a ban on ties with Israel and Israeli institutions.
On the other hand, Tokelo Nhlapo, a researcher and former graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), explained that he was one of eleven students who were expelled from the University for disrupting an Israeli-funded concert which violated the cultural boycott of Israel. A widespread outrage at this harsh disciplinary action grew at Wits (which resulted in the suspension of the expulsion order). A WITS student leader explained, “Protest is not only an expression that should be protected but protests against Israeli-sponsored events also falls within the principle of internationalism that our country once benefited from. Thousands of students, workers and others protested against Apartheid South Africa sponsored events in the 1980s often disrupting cricket matches, rugby games etc. This international movement of boycotts contributed to our freedom today.”
The Teaching Palestine conference took place against the backdrop of escalating Zionist attacks against speaking and teaching about Palestine worldwide. In the U.S., Zionist groups have recently mounted frontal attacks against Black leaders such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and Michelle Alexander because of their support for Palestinian freedom. Incidents of academic intimidation and suppression regarding support for Palestine continue to increase. Dr. Abdulhadi initiated Teaching Palestine while she was being accused of false charges of antisemitism in a lawsuit filed by the Zionist Lawfare Project in June 2017. The lawsuit was defeated in October 2018 when Federal Judge Orrick ruled that the charges against her had no foundation in fact, but other forms of harassment have continued, including the recent cancellation of AMED’s study abroad program in Palestine.
As I traveled through Germany to South Africa, Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh was banned from speaking at a public meeting in Berlin on March 19th marking International Women’s Day after German officials revoked her visa. The Israeli government claimed credit for the action and the Berlin Senate denounced BDS Berlin, one of the co-hosts of the event, as an “anti-Semitic coalition.” And on March 21, an event where Ronnie Kasril’s was scheduled to speak at the Vienna Museum for Israeli Apartheid Week was canceled for similar reasons. In response Kasrils stated, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published, because I stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that, despite the lessons of our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, stifling free speech on Palestine.”
Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest grandson, confirmed the comparison with South Africa at the International Conference on Palestine held in Istanbul at the end of April. “We say it to the world that as we were able to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa, we will be able to do this with the apartheid regime in Israel.” He also called for the South African government to use its seat in the UN Security Council to become “the voice of the voiceless and therefore to speak about the self-determination of Palestine.”
For her part, Rabab Abdulhadi is committed to continuing the work, stating. “We will never be silenced nor defeated. We will continue linking communities, critically analyzing the world and advocating for an indivisible sense of justice. We take our inspiration from the people who are struggling for their freedom, dignity and peace in Palestine, South Africa and here in the United States. This is our community of justice and this is why we teach Palestine.”
Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit : A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009). She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the anti- prison coalition CURB. She writes periodically for Counterpunch and other online journals.