Israel’s repression of its own Palestinian citizens, as well as Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and even African refugees, has become ever more brutal, despite decades of global solidarity efforts for justice in Palestine. Many of the solidarity achievements — including the successful Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign — were made possible by international legal precedents and learning from the role played by global boycotts in ending apartheid in South Africa.
Comparisons between apartheid in South Africa and the Israeli version have become relatively commonplace. Even respected Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said recently that the country is an “apartheid” state.
The Palestinian Ambassador to South Africa, Hanan Jarrar, believes that the plight of Palestinians is no different from the plight of Africans in apartheid South Africa.
“I’m not entirely convinced that our situation is any more different or unique from what existed in South Africa during apartheid,” said Jarrar. “The Israeli government has replicated, and in some ways, worsened the South African version.”
The bond between their respective national struggles has in recent times led to more South African efforts to challenge Israeli human rights abuses and systematic discrimination against the Palestinians. According to Ambassador Jarrar, however, the Palestinian conflict is often presented as being too “complicated” or “complex” — a myth propagated by Israel — which results in many people refraining from taking an anti-apartheid stance when it comes to the Palestine-Israel issue.
“There is nothing complex about the Palestinian situation,” explained Jarrar. “Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single regime of apartheid. Palestinians living inside Israel can vote, but cannot legally organise against the system of Jewish supremacy. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians have residency rights but not citizenship. Within the West Bank, Palestinians live under military law and have no citizenship. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have no citizenship and they are imprisoned in that tiny area.”
The parallels with apartheid South Africa are striking. White minority privilege was maintained at the expense of human, civil and political rights for the non-white population. Apartheid determined every aspect of life, including education, free movement, access to work, and where people could and could not live.
A fundamental element of South African apartheid was the issue of land ownership. The Group Areas Acts and their amendments, for example, allowed the government to move non-whites from their homes by force and seize property. In occupied Palestine, the land is taken by force, and settlements are built on it in contravention of international law. More than 600,000 Jewish settlers currently live illegally in more than 250 settlements across the occupied West Bank.
Attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians and their property are common. The perpetrators are rarely held to account by the Israeli occupation authorities. Indeed, in most cases the settlers who harass and attack Palestinians are accompanied and protected by Israeli soldiers.
“Israel treats Palestinians in different areas differently to ensure that the state achieves its apartheid goals including the domination by one group over another between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea,” Jarrar pointed out. “This is exactly what the apartheid South African government did in its own context. The State of Israel exploits the different legal statuses of Palestinians in various areas to ensure its domination and maintain Israeli apartheid.”
Finding a long-term solution to the crisis facing the Palestinian people is possible through a proper understanding of what has happened in South Africa, noted the 45-year-old ambassador, who has heard first-hand accounts from people who played a role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. “It was a decades-long struggle to get the world to recognise the evils of South African apartheid. The boycott and sanctions movement against South Africa achieved much success in the 1970s and 1980s. But let’s not forget that anti-apartheid campaigning began in 1959, and that success was preceded by decades of political lobbying, grassroots mobilisation, and advocacy.”
She quoted pan-Africanist revolutionary Amilcar Cabral from Guinea, one of Africa’s foremost anti-colonial leaders: “Claim no easy victories,” is chanted by many South African activists.
“The international community, especially western powers, initially declined to support the work of the Special Committee against Apartheid established by the UN General Assembly in 1962. These powerful nations, mostly former colonisers and their allies, argued that a boycott of apartheid South Africa was not necessary; they preferred “constructive engagement”. It was left to Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Somalia, and others from the Global South to press for international sanctions.
“We Palestinians must learn from this and seek support and solidarity from the Global South in our pursuit of freedom, as well as from western countries since the international dynamics are different now and we can present our rights from the perspective of a human rights window.”
However, post-apartheid South Africa has not been an easy time for anyone. The country still wrestles with significant racial issues and has been labelled as the world’s most unequal society. According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10 per cent of South Africans own more than 90 per cent of the country’s wealth; 80 per cent own almost nothing.
This is compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority at the bottom of the pyramid are Black. While the number of poor white South Africans has increased in the past 30 years since formal apartheid came to an end, and the non-white middle class has grown, the economic picture remains mostly unchanged in terms of race.
Political liberation has been achieved, explained Jarrar, but economic liberation has not. She believes that there are lessons to be learnt here to move the Palestinian cause forward. “Not only should we learn from South Africa’s past, but also its present. When Palestinians think of political liberation, we must also ensure that economically we are also liberated. This is a crucial lesson for us.”
The reality of a two-state solution is not impossible, she suggested. “What is needed are leadership and political will. The efforts of civil society and those on all sides who seek to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians also need to be supported. In politics, there are no hopes, only facts, and realities.”
When four Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco —announced their plans last year to formalise diplomatic relations with Israel, South Africa made its pro-Palestinian position crystal clear. The government in Pretoria recognised immediately that these “normalisation deals” cannot lead to a just solution for the Palestinians.
“African nations continue to stand with Palestine — especially at the UN — despite the efforts of the Israeli government to use religion, aid, and technology to negate their long-standing positions in line with international law on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The BDS movement in South Africa remains one of the strongest in the world, and it supports efforts to boycott products made in illegal Israeli settlements.”
Ambassador Hanan Jarrar highlighted the double standards of the international community when dealing with Israel. There has been, for example, no serious efforts at the UN to compel Israel to comply with its international obligations.
“While states, corporations, and civil society imposed various forms of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, Israel has been exempted from sanctions for breaking international law and practising apartheid,” she added. “As long as there are no consequences for Israel, it will continue to occupy Palestine and impose apartheid upon the Palestinians.”