Defend Truth


We all owe the Palestinians our support, in both word and deed


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The Palestinians are being decimated. Bombs are being dropped on them, rockets are deployed to kill them and snipers are at the ready to finish the job where the other methods failed. It begs the question, what have these Arabs done to deserve such treatment? And, what can be done to stop it?

A few years ago, while working in the Executive Mayor’s office in the city of Johannesburg, Parks Tau hosted a delegation from Palestine who were visiting the city. During this engagement, the Palestinians informed us that they had been looking and studying the ANC strategy towards defeating apartheid and we’re sure that there were some lessons they could learn.

They explained that the ANC adopted strategies and tactics which found expression through the four pillars of the struggle as they saw it. These four pillars were: International isolation, Mass mobilisation, Underground (Intelligence), and the Armed Struggle. They contended that if they too applied the same strategy, they would ultimately see the defeat of the Israeli apartheid state. I was surprised that they wanted to adopt this approach because the conditions were somewhat different I thought.

According to ANC doctrine, the struggle for freedom in South Africa is defined as a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). This revolution was informed by two key factors, namely, “colonialism of a special type” (CST) and the class struggle for socio-economic emancipation of all South Africans. This was called the two-stage solution, first political emancipation (ANC) then economic emancipation through class struggle (SACP).

In order to achieve the former objective, the ANC needed to implement the four pillars of struggle as mentioned above. Once this objective was achieved, which is what broadly happened in 1994 (political freedom), it would enter the second stage of the revolution and the guiding document for this transition is the Freedom Charter, underpinned by Marxist ideology. In other words, a socialist epoch where the equal and inclusive distribution of wealth would occur. Within the South African context, we are still not at this stage of our development.

So, in order to check whether indeed such a strategy could work for the Palestinians let us look at each pillar separately.

Let’s begin with International Isolation. South Africa had a very successful campaign internationally which saw the Nationalist Party government struggling to trade. The anti-apartheid movement was very successful globally.

The Palestinians through the efforts of Boycott Disinvest and Sanctions (BDS) are attempting to gain the same international status as was the case for the ANC then. But this is easier said than done, especially when the Israeli State declared BDS a terrorist organisation.

On the mass mobilisation front, it seems the Palestinians are not doing too badly. Masses of people, locally and abroad, are fully behind the struggle for freedom, and the region itself by and large is in support of the Palestinian people.

Besides the occasionally armed retaliation by some of the neighbouring states towards Israel, many are actively giving support to the Palestinians. The only downside of this mobilisation is that in the midst of such continuous violence, both sides are instilling hate in each other. Generation after generation, we observe pure hate in the eyes of the Israeli and Palestinian children.

But no struggle can be successful without underground activities or gathering intelligence from the enemy. I would imagine the Israeli’s intelligence networks are far more superior than their Palestinian counterparts but I’m equally sure that the Palestinians have their fair share of empathetic and silent collaborators within the borders of Israel.

Then there’s the Armed Struggle. We are familiar with the arguments around why the Palestinians have the right to defend themselves and to actively counter invading aggressors. The armed wing of the PLO is no match for the Israeli army but through solidarity, Hamas and Hezbollah make it a fairer contest. The fact that these organisations have been branded terrorist by the USA and Israel is neither here or there, after all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

So, in effect, the four pillar strategy is already very much at play and it seems the Palestinians are getting better at it.

As to the question of why there is a need for such strategies and tactics, let’s refer to a recent speech delivered by Marc Lamont at the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with Palestine in which he references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

…I am profoundly interested in the plight of the Palestinian people as well as the broader ethical, moral, and political implications of their struggle for freedom and justice as well as equality. As such, this annual convening represents a critical intervention. It also represents a site of possibility. On the other hand, it shows considerable irony.

As you well know, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration is produced out of the rubble and contradictions of World War ll. And it was intended to offer a clear ethical and moral outline of the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings, irrespective of race, religion, class, gender or geography are entitled. This declaration, of course, has been far from perfect, both in design and in execution. Too often we have framed human rights through the lens of the West. We viewed it through the gaze of colonialism, and we have assessed them through the limited prism of our experiences. Simply put, the powerful have too often attempted to universalise their own particular and local values.

Still the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has offered us a flawed but functional starting point from which to articulate basic moral and ethical ambitions as global citizens. These ambitions have been particularly helpful when attempting to keep track of the vulnerable against the backdrop of imperialism, exploitative economic arrangements, white supremacy, patriarchy, and all the other entanglements of the modern nation state.

For this reason it is indeed ironic and sad that this year also makes the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the great catastrophe in May 1948 that resulted in the expulsion, murder, and to date, permanent dislocation of more than a million Palestinians. For every minute that the global has articulated a clear and lucid framework for human rights, the Palestinian people have been deprived of the most fundamental of them.

While the Universal Declaration for Human Rights says that all people are ‘born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ the Israeli nation state continues to restrict freedom and undermine equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as those in the West Bank and Gaza. At the current moment, there are more than 60 Israeli laws that deny Palestinians access to full citizenship rights, simply because they’re not Jewish. From housing to education to family reunification, it is clear that any freedoms naturally endowed to all human beings are actively being stripped away from Palestinians through Israeli state craft.

While human rights promises the right to life, liberty, and security of person, Palestinians continue to live under the threat of random violence by Israeli military and police, disproportionate violence within the West Bank and Gaza, unprompted violence in the face of peaceful protest, and misdirected violence by an Israeli state that systematically fails to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

While the Universal Declaration for Human Rights protects us again torture and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Palestinians continue to be physically and psychologically tortured by the Israeli criminal justice system, a term I can only use with irony.

As human rights groups around the world have noted, the use of solitary confinement constitutes a clear and indisputable form of torture. Yet in the West Bank Palestinians are routinely subjected to solitary confinement and indefinite detention, often without any formal charges being file. Last year, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that physical torture in “exceptional cases,” including ticking time-bomb situations, constitute acceptable means by which to engage in torture. Although these exceptions are themselves a violation of the absolute human right not to be tortured, Israeli security operates in practice in such a way that nearing all Palestinian cases are viewed as exceptional. Nearly every Palestinian is understood to be a potential terrorist, thereby making them susceptible to “ticking time-bomb” investigation tactics at all times. As such, Israel’s practices are routinely in clear violation of the UN’s Convention on Torture, which was signed by Israel in 1986 and ratified in 1991.

While the Universal Declaration for Human Rights insists that no one be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, Palestinians are routinely denied due process of law. West Bank Palestinians are regularly placed under administration detention, a framework that allows them to be incarcerated for up to six months, and can be extended after a judicial review, without being charged with a crime. The only thing needed for such outcomes is the ambiguous claim of a security threat, a claim used by the Israeli state at all times, at all costs, and for all reasons. Through this vagueness, Palestinians are routinely punished for their political views rather than any actual threat of violence.

The Universal Declaration for Human Rights insists that all humans are entitled to a “fair and public hearing by an impartial tribunal.” Israeli military courts, the exclusive adjudicator largely for West Bank residents, and in some cases Palestinian citizens of Israel, they have a conviction rate of more than 99 percent. That suggests that Palestinians are either more guilty than any other group in human history or that the Israeli government is unwilling or incapable of offering fair and impartial trials for Palestinians.

The Universal Declaration for Human Rights promises the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state as well as the right to leave any country, including his “own” and to return to said country. It is impossible to travel throughout historic Palestine and not see the blatant restriction of movement between cities in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as inside the State of Israel. Standing checkpoints, temporary or flying checkpoints, annexation walls, and other security barriers prevent Palestinians from moving freely, both within areas legally designated by the Israeli government and cosigned by the Palestinian Authority under the terms of Oslo, but also we see in Gaza the restriction of movement that is so severe that it literally defines life in the area…

… the conditions on the ground for Palestinian people are worsening. In recent decades, the Israeli government has moved further and further to the right, normalising settler colonialism and its accompanying logics of denial, destruction, displacement, and death.

Despite international condemnation, settlement expansion has continued. At the same time, home demolitions and state-enforced displacement continues to uproot Palestinian communities. For Gazans, the 11-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade by land, air, and sea has created the largest open-air prison in the world. With only four percent potable water, electricity access that is limited to four hours per day, 50 percent unemployment, and the looming threat of Israeli bombs, Gaza continues to constitute one of the most pressing humanitarians crises of the current moment.

In the West Bank, conditions are not much better. Unemployment is generally around 18 percent with frequent loss of income due to Israeli military closures making it impossible for Palestinian workers to get access to jobs. Settlements and the extra land allocated for them, as well as closed military zones and other restrictions make it impossible for Palestinian towns to grow. And in the midst of it all, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administration has become increasingly indifferent to critique, censure, or even scorn from the international national community for its practices.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this indifference, as well as the urgency of the current moment, is the recently passed nation-state law. Through this basic law, the Israeli state has officially rejected Arabic as an official state language. It has described settlement expansion, both inside and outside of the Green Line, as a national value, and it has reinforced the fact that Israeli is not a state of all of its citizens.

As an American, I am embarrassed that my tax dollars contribute to this reality. I am frustrated that no American president since the start of the occupation has taken a principled and actionable position in defence of Palestinian rights…”.

… We need powerful, counterintuitive, dangerous, and courageous words. But we must also offer more than just words. Words will not stop the village of Khan al-Ahmar with its makeshift schools created by local Bedouin villages. Words will not stop them from being demolished in violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. Words will not stop poets like Dareen Tatour from being caged in Israeli jails for having the audacity to speak the truth about the conditions of struggle on her own personal Facebook page. Words will not stop peaceful protesters in Gaza from being killed as they fight for freedom against Israel’s still undeclared borders.

Regarding the question of Palestine, beyond words we must ask the question, what does justice require? To truly engage in acts of solidarity, we must make our words flesh. Our solidarity must be more than a noun. Our solidarity must become a verb.

As a Black American, my understanding of action and solidarity action is rooted in our own tradition of struggle. As Black Americans resisted slavery, as well as Jim Crow laws that transformed us from a slave state to an apartheid state, we did so through multiple tactics and strategies. It is this array of tactics that I appeal to as I advocate for concrete action from all of us in this room.

Solidarity from the international community demands that we embrace boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as a critical means by which to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinian people. This movement, which emerges out of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society offers a non-violent means by which to demand a return to the pre ’67 borders, full rights for Palestinian citizens, and the right of return as dictated by international law.

Solidarity demands that we no longer allow politicians or political parties to remain silent on the question of Palestine. We can no longer in particular allow the political left to remain radical or even progressive on every issue from the environment to war to the economy. To remain progressive on every issue except for Palestine. Contrary to Western mythology, Black resistance to American apartheid did not come purely through Gandhi and non-violence. Rather, slave revolts and self-defence and tactics otherwise divergent from Dr King or Mahatma Gandhi were equally important to preserving safety and attaining freedom. We must allow—if we are to operate in true solidarity with Palestinian people, we must allow the Palestinian people the same range of opportunity and political possibility.

If we are standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, we must recognise the right of an occupied people to defend itself. We must prioritise peace. But we must not romanticise or fetishise it. We must advocate and promote non-violence at every opportunity, but we cannot endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting, for refusing to do nothing in the fact of state violence and ethnic cleansing.

At the current moment, there is little reason for optimism. Optimism, of course, is the belief that good will inevitably prevail over evil, that justice will inevitably win out. In the course of human history, and certainly even in the course of the United Nations, there is no evidence of such a proposition. Optimism is unsophisticated. Optimism is immature. Optimism is what my students have when they take examinations that they did not study for. Some become quite religious at that time.

But regardless of their strategies of optimism, the outcome is far from guaranteed or even likely. What I’m challenging us to do in the spirit of solidarity is not to embrace optimism but to embrace radical hope. Radical hope is a belief that despite the odds, despite the considerable measures against justice and peace, despite the legacy of hatred and imperialism and white supremacy and patriarchy and homophobia, despite these systems of power that have normalised settler colonialism, despite these structures, we can still win. We can still prevail…

…So as we stand here on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the tragic commemoration of the Nakba, we have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action, and international action that will give us what justice requires. And that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea…”

And with those words of substance and clarity, do we not owe the Palestinians our support, in both word and deed?

To further Lamont’s argument, what that part of the world requires is not a two-state solution, but a single unitary secular state where Israelis and Palestinians live together side by side.

Israel’s development over the last 50 years compared to Palestine is very different – the former was allowed to enter modernity whilst the latter was not. The encroachment into Palestinian territory goes on unabated, the wall is a significant challenge to the free movement of peoples. There has been virtually no meaningful Palestinian infrastructure allowed over the years. No Palestinian airport was allowed to be built, no port to sea for the purposes of trade and the transport of goods and services, and no border control to speak of really. Can we then pretend that a viable Palestinian State is still an option?

We had to swallow bitter pills with our transition here in South Africa and yes not everything went as planned but our commitment to work together as black and white for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic country remain unwavering in the hearts and minds of the majority citizens to this day. Surely, you guys can and must do the same. DM


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