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Israel-Palestine: South Africa’s relationships must be based primarily on human rights considerations

Shuaib Manjra is a Consultant Medical Doctor specialising in Sports Medicine and Occupational Health. He is involved in a number of NGOs and sports organisations. He is married with three children and an avid sportsman. He writes to organise his own thoughts coherently

Arguments put forward by ANCYL NEC member Rhulani Thembi Siweya display four key errors in reasoning, rendering her explanations invalid. What she lacks in basic logic, factual accuracy and historical appreciation she makes up for in a commendable sense of internationalism.

ANCYL NEC member Rhulani Thembi Siweya, in her column, BDS-SA undermines South Africans, must be commended for her sense of internationalism and concern about the plight of South African workers. Undoubtedly the economy is central to transformation in South Africa and specific types of investments are critical in attempting to reduce the GINI coefficient and improving the lives of the majority. However, in invoking the economy she shows little appreciation for the type of economy necessary to overcome the morass of unemployment.

Aside from that, her other arguments suffer severe deficits in basic logic, factual accuracy and historical appreciation. Consistency could be added if one considers that she warns in a June 2017 article:

Ecowas must also not fall into the trap of being enticed by Prime Minister Netanyahu who addressed the summit on the fourth of June by saying ‘Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel’. In 2016 they made an impassioned plea to the Eastern block of Africa. They are determined to infiltrate Africa. Such statements must not be eagerly entertained because this is a nation which continues to undermine the dignity of Palestinians and refuse them a seat in the League of Nations.

Countries like Israel and Morocco are taking advantage of the weaknesses in African economies, knocking at their doors attempting to buy favours with them. Both these countries continue to oppress their neighbours and African leaders must not forget that.” (emphasis mine)

Clearly something has changed.

Logical Fallacy 1: The Economy

Aside from hyperbole, the following statement fails a simple test of logic:

The trajectory taken by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement in South Africa (BDS-SA) to selectively discriminate against entrepreneurial and business opportunities by corporations linked to Israel, if not challenged, may lead to a huge collapse of the South African economy and ultimately lead to unwarranted job losses.” (emphasis mine).

Statistics detailing South Africa’s trade with Israel reveals no threat of a “huge collapse in the South African economy”. They also alert us that a significant percentage of SA’s exports to Israel consisted of unbeneficiated diamonds and the bulk of imports are agricultural produce. It is here where a huge potential for employment exists through the creation of local industries, not the takeover of one major corporation by another. Typically, Siweya fails to support her assertion that a foreign takeover of Clover will produce more jobs but by some stretch of logic concludes that the failure of this transaction would result in job losses.

Furthermore, reducing the GINI coefficient is not dependent on Israeli investment. It requires far more, or far less than that: not least of all is government policy, labour intensive industries, a living wage, a basic income grant, progressive taxation and initiatives of distributive justice.

However alluring it may be and no doubt we as a country need to embrace it, technology and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is no panacea to unemployment. In fact, it would probably increase unemployment and worsen the GINI coefficient as many jobs become redundant and the privileged continue to benefit.

While her concerns about workers are commendable, the largest trade unions in this country, who legitimately represent worker interests, are fully supportive of BDS. Their sense of international solidarity stands in stark contrast to someone who pretends to talk on behalf of workers. Coincidently, opponents of sanctions against the apartheid regime used the predictable argument that sanctions would distress workers.

Logical Fallacy 2: The Occupation

Siweya lists a host of “Occupations” around the world, but fails to distinguish their unique characteristics and their historical genesis, which any student will tell you is useful for a meaningful analysis and determination of political action. This is not to detract from their violations, or from the principle of consistency and internationalism. However, lumping them together in the way she does reduces her list to “whataboutism” rather than a call to meaningful international solidarity and struggle for justice and human rights. It is predicated on the juvenile notion that unless we engage in every struggle, we shouldn’t engage in any struggle. This notion of “if not every, then not any” is morally offensive and hopelessly impractical.

A factual correction on Tibet: notwithstanding the gross violation of their human rights, the Uighurs are not from Tibet. Furthermore, there are no UN resolutions which support the independence of Tibet and not a single country in the world recognises its independence, unlike Palestine. Yet Tibet continues to be used as a canard in “whataboutism”. I implore her to study the history of both Tibet and Crimea so that they become more than mere distractions. The continued repressive occupation of the Western Sahara by Morocco remains a blot on Africa and the AU, as does Egypt’s Sisi’s leadership of this continental body. We must continue opposing the Saudi’s gross violations of human rights both domestically, in Yemen, and their sponsorship of international terrorism. Sanctions against Saudi Arabia must be supported, as must any case for war crimes. As a declared pan-Africanist I am surprised Ceuta, Mellila and Chagos Islands don’t feature in Siweya’s list of Occupations, nor does Somaliland. Nor does she mention the Falklands, Northern Ireland or Gibraltar – all British colonial occupations.

But here is the nub of the issue and why the Occupation of Palestine fits a special category. In any era, there are particular struggles that capture the imagination of human rights activists because of their particular egregiousness. In the past, it was against Nazism, the Vietnam War, Apartheid and Colonialism. During these periods one could have used the canards employed in “whataboutism” to distract from the menacing ideologies which were a blot on humanity. During the struggle against Apartheid, apologists for the regime attempted to deflect attention using the same canards employed by defenders of Israel. This opening line from a article in the Christian Science Monitor (1989) titled “Why South African Shouldn’t be Singled Out” is instructive:

While the violation of human rights is the norm rather than the exception in most of Africa’s 42 black-ruled states, the spotlight remains on South Africa”.

So what makes Israel’s gross human rights abuses particularly egregious? I would direct her to the UN report on Israel as an apartheid state. The second is that it is one of the settler colonial occupations that survives the 21st century. And thirdly, this colonial project is based on the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians, the destruction of 450 towns and villages, and (continuing) land theft, ethnic cleansing and discrimination against Palestinians. So, like the other signal struggles mentioned above, in Israel human rights violations occur within a broader framework of a supremacist, racist-ethno-nationalist ideology which is designed to perforce colonise a land; exterminate, ethnically cleanse, obliterate indigenous populations, and disempower and subjugate those remaining. It also denies the existence, identity, history, suffering and claims to the land of these indigenous populations. The fundamentalist religious underpinning of these ideologies, even in secular incarnations, anchors such atrocities.

I am sure this sounds familiar to her and explains why Palestine is one of the signal struggles of our times and why Palestine has become an important axis in intersectional politics.

Myth 3: BDS

Not only does Siweya claim to speak on behalf of South African workers, she also arrogates to speak on behalf of Palestinians.

BDS-SA ought to listen to what ordinary Palestinians yearn for,” she pronounces, blissfully unaware that BDS is a Palestinian civil society initiative as part of its non-violent action to achieve freedom and independence.

Contrary to what she says, nowhere does BDS policy state or imply “that Israel has no right to exist”. BDS is based on three principles: an end to the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territory (pre-1967 borders); equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. I wonder which of these internationally established rights she finds objectionable.

What exposes her profound ignorance about the real nature of the Occupation is her assertion that:

Israel continues to be the Palestinian Authority’s most important trading partner. In fact, Palestinian Authority officials were recently seen at a meeting sitting around a table that has on it, several juice bottles, all products from Israel.” This simply confirms that the entire border of Palestine is controlled by Israel and consequently the economy is held hostage. No import or export is possible without Israel’s consent. Palestinians simply are compelled to trade with Israel, which punitively withholds hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue due to the beleaguered PA.

Myth 4: Palestinians are intransigent

In typical victim-blaming she calls on Palestinians to implement “previous resolutions”, “Oslo Accords” and to return to negotiating, while Israel daily violates these agreements and commitments while Palestinians have remained true to the letter and spirit of such agreements. Palestinians suffer “peace-process fatigue” since every effort has resulted in more Israeli violence, more land confiscation, more ethnic cleansing and more settlement construction. Donald Trump’s alliance with his fellow right-wing in Israel has permitted the latter to act with impunity – both in its violence and its settlement activity. This certainly is no evidence of any commitment to peace or justice. If there was, why the accelerated settlement activity on Palestinian land? Just last week Netanyahu formed an alliance and promised two Cabinet positions to the most racist, fascist and right-wing parties in Israel, including Habayit Heyehudi (a settler party) and Otzam Yehudit (a “Kahanists” party designated a “terrorist organisation”).

In this victim-blaming one should never forget that Palestinians are already negotiating for a whittled down 20% of their original homeland and are expected to compromise even further! The Arab Peace Plan – the most comprehensive initiative, including complete recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinians state on the internationally recognised borders, was rebuffed by Israel. It remains on the table.

If one reads a little bit of history, it will be clear that even in 1948 Zionist leaders had an ideological commitment to a “Greater Israel” encompassing the currently Occupied Territories (OPT). Few of the Israeli leaders had any willingness to withdraw from the OPT. With the rise of the right-wing, particularly the religious element, Israel has no will to withdraw from the OPT and seek to annex most of the OPT.

Anti-apartheid veteran Lord Peter Hain sums up the dilemma:

Prime Minister Netanyahu has increasingly drifted away from the two-state solution over the course of an ongoing programme of occupation and settlement. Members of his government and its parliamentary grouping have recently spoken out against a two-state solution, while the renewed ‘Greater Israel’ discourse of the growing Israeli right openly opposes a two-state solution, calling for the annexation of Palestinian territories.”

The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel echoed this sentiments when speaking to an Israeli think-tank:

Some members of Israel’s cabinet are explicitly against the two-state solution … across Europe and even in Germany, there is clearly growing frustration with Israel’s actions, with young people feeling increasingly less inclined to accept what they deem unfair treatment of the Palestinians … it is increasingly difficult for people like me to explain to them the reasons why our support for Israel must persist … are you willing to bear the consequences of fully fledged annexation — a one-state reality of unequal rights? Or are you ready to accept a single democratic state between the sea and the river?”

This clearly points to where the failure of negotiations lies – spoken by none other than Israel’s supporters. Israel will not end the Occupation unless there is a significant cost to it. BDS is one initiative that provides non-violent action.

Siweya would do well to note that the Central Bottling Company (CBC) of Israel, the bidder for Clover, is not only listed on the UN Blacklist of companies doing business in the illegal Israeli settlements, but it has also funded Im Tirtzu, a far-right wing organisation that was declared by the Israeli Supreme Court to have “certain lines of resemblance to fascism”. She should choose her friends a bit more carefully, particularly as her own party, the ANCYL, has distanced itself from her views.

She would do well to be led by President Ramaphosa, who echoed Mandela when he said at the 2019 SONA:

Our support for the struggle of the Palestinian people is not merely a product of history – it is a refusal to accept that a people should be continually denied the right of self-determination in violation of international law.” DM


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