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Apartheid South Africa and Israel: two sides of the same coin?

We have just passed the second anniversary of 'Operation Cast Lead', in which for many it seemed that the holiday period was used as a convenient cover for launching the attack on Gaza which led to 1400 Palestinian deaths, most of them civilians and one-third children. Most of the buildings – homes, shops, factories – destroyed on that occasion remain so, due to the blockade on building materials and many other items entering Gaza.

Meanwhile attempts to bring together the Palestinians and the right-wing government brought to power by last year's election in Israel in peace talks have foundered on Israeli unwillingness to end the building of settlements on Palestinian land. This despite enormous bribes in terms of $3bn worth of fighter planes plus other inducements being offered by the Obama administration in return for just three months extension of a freeze which was in any case honoured as much in the breach as the observance.


For many who were active in campaigning against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s there are many similarities with the present situation of Israel/Palestine; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has made the same observation. Let me mention seven in particular: the ideology of racism, the occupation of land, military power, economic strangulation, mockery of international law, divide and rule, and public relations.

Racism is an ideology which believes there really are different races within humanity – a belief requiring considerable biological gymnastics – and that some are superior to others. Anti-Arab racism has always been around in western society; adjectives such as 'dirty, shifty, lazy' come to mind. Arabs are seen as devious, untrustworthy, incompetent and corrupt, and this has been built into a belief system, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously. Such attitudes will be very familiar to black South Africans.

Land is another key issue. In South Africa the whites had taken the best farming land and claimed it as their own. They also claimed it was 'promised' to them, by their God. This is a particularly difficult dispute for Palestinians as Israelis and Jews simply point to the Old Testament for justification for their occupation. As on other topics, the Bible has a lot to answer for; its assumption that 'the Promised Land' was only occupied by unimportant savages who simply needed to be swept away by Aaron has led to a mentality both among Israelis and the Christian West which has bedevilled the acceptance of the simple truth that all Semitic peoples have an equal claim to the 'Holy Land'.

During the years after 1945 the South African state built itself into a military power which could threaten the whole of southern Africa; likewise the Israelis in relation to the Middle East, with considerable American assistance. Israel is of course entitled to security, but whether extremely advanced military equipment including nuclear weapons need to be part of that is very doubtful. It is interesting that past Israeli-South African co-operation over nuclear know-how has recently come to light. Both states have exhibited paranoia in their relationship to the outside world.

The South Africa of the mid-twentieth century made it extremely difficult for even the most entrepreneurial black African to progress economically, although a few did succeed. Mostly, though, Africans came in by bus or train from townships to undertake the labouring jobs which whites were unwilling or insufficient in numbers to carry out. Not surprising then that Palestinians find themselves in the same position, struggling to make their way through checkpoints to earn meagre wages on Israeli construction sites, in some cases building the settlements which are on their own Palestinian land.

The ideal solution would undoubtedly be a secular state with equal citizenship between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem a shared capital. However the United Nations has repeatedly made it clear that a peaceful and legal resolution to the current situation means withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Israel continues to ignore that, building large 'settlements' (some are more like small towns) usually on hilltops and strategically designed to overlook Palestinian land, and settler-only roads between them which divide Palestinian communities. They all mock international law, as the apartheid state did when told by the UN to leave Namibia and to end its divisive 'Homelands' policy.

The policy of 'divide and rule', to separate out the various South African peoples – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana – and give them each their own territory was successful for a time. It set the different groups against each other, competing for the largesse of the apartheid state. It is difficult to judge the part that Israel has played in the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and certainly the Palestinians must take prime responsibility for this, but it is hard to imagine that the possibility of setting a Hamas-led Gaza against a Fatah-led West Bank was not in the mind of Ariel Sharon when he pulled Israel out of Gaza. The EU and the US have not helped by refusing to deal with Hamas as the party which won one of the most democratic elections ever held in the Middle East.

Finally, both apartheid South Africa and Israel have excelled in public relations, putting across their position continually, appealing to the solidarity of other Europeans/Jews/Christians and subtly undermining the just claims of Africans and Palestinians with mixtures of half-truths and lies. Israel has, of course, able protagonists in the shape of many in the Jewish communities both in Europe and the US, although they do not represent all of Judaism, as groups such as 'Jews for Justice for Palestinians' show. Some of the Jewish leadership, to its shame, plays the 'anti-Semitic' card against its opponents. The truth is the properly pro-Semitic position is to seek justice for all the Semitic peoples of the region, including the Arabs.

Like Black and White South Africans did in 1987 Christian Palestinians one year ago launched their own Kairos document called 'A Moment of Truth', written by an ecumenical group of Christian Palestinians and endorsed by the Heads of thirteen Churches in Jerusalem, including three Patriarchs, five Archbishops and four Bishops. It is obtainable in the UK from Friends of Sabeel, care of the Church Mission Society in Oxford. Those who wish to know more of the Palestinian position, as it is given so little visibility in the mass media, can contact the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, the equivalent of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which runs the 'Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions' campaign; the Amos Trust which is campaigning for a 'Just Peace for Palestine – and Israel', or read the Methodist Church's report, which has reportedly led to a more robust and honest dialogue between Methodism and Judaism in Britain.

Justice for the Palestinian people will itself bring security for all. For that peace-with-justice we must both pray and work.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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