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Tutu pleads to Israelis, liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement in his native South Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and has used his platform to campaign on a number of global human rights issues, including the spread of HIV/Aids, homophobia, racism and various world conflicts.

Over the years, he has often voiced his support for the people of Palestine, likening their situation to that of black South Africans under apartheid. After a visit to Jerusalem in 1989, he said that he was a "black South African, and if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa." He reiterated this sentiment in 2002, when he spoke out against "the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about." Accordingly, he has long been a supporter of the campaign for divestment from Israel.

Now, after the latest round of violence in Gaza, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed, he has spoken out again. This time, he makes his case through the unusual medium of an Israeli newspaper, the left-of-centre Haaretz. Under the headline, "My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine", Tutu sets out the comparison with South Africa, the need for open-mindedness from both sides to facilitate dialogue, and his support for economic divestment from Israel.

"Violence begets violence and hatred, that only begets more violence and hatred," he writes. "We South Africans know about violence and hatred. We understand the pain of being the polecat of the world; when it seems nobody understands or is even willing to listen to our perspective. It is where we come from. We also know the benefits that dialogue between our leaders eventually brought us; when organizations labelled 'terrorist' were unbanned and their leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were released from imprisonment, banishment and exile. We know that when our leaders began to speak to each other, the rationale for the violence that had wracked our society dissipated and disappeared. Acts of terrorism perpetrated after the talks began – such as attacks on a church and a pub – were almost universally condemned, and the party held responsible snubbed at the ballot box."

His support for the boycott and divestment campaign will perhaps be the most controversial element of his article, particularly within Israel where such campaigns are frequently seen as evidence of anti-Semitism. Tutu justifies his support, again, in terms of the comparison to South Africa. Describing the end of apartheid in his home country, he writes: "What ultimately forced these leaders together around the negotiating table was the cocktail of persuasive, nonviolent tools that had been developed to isolate South Africa, economically, academically, culturally and psychologically."

Tutu goes on to say that the boycott of South Africa was a tipping point, which made the government realize that the cost of preserving apartheid far outweighed the benefits. "The withdrawal of trade with South Africa by multinational corporations with a conscience in the 1980s was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees," he says. "Those corporations understood that by contributing to South Africa's economy, they were contributing to the retention of an unjust status quo. Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of 'normalcy' in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. Those who contribute to Israel's temporary isolation are saying that Israelis and Palestinians are equally entitled to dignity and peace."

While Tutu's column has only been published in Israel, it has attracted international attention, in part because of his high profile but also thanks to Avaaz, the online campaigning platform, which has distributed the article. In his piece, Tutu references the Avaaz campaign calling on corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation, or those implicated in the abuse of Palestinians, to pull out. The campaign, which 1.6 million people have supported, specifically targets Dutch pension fund ABP; Barclays Bank; security systems supplier G4S; French transport company Veolia; computer company Hewlett-Packard; and bulldozer supplier Caterpillar.

Tutu's interventions on Israel-Palestine have caused controversy in the past, attracting allegations of anti-Semitism and racism in Israel and the US, and this latest is likely to be no different. The decision to publish a call for divestment from Israel in an Israeli newspaper may be seen as provocative. However, Tutu's central message is not about boycotts and sanctions, but about the moral need for a solution, and the mutual benefit that such a solution would bring. This is summarised in his conclusion: "Goodness prevails in the end. The pursuit of freedom for the people of Palestine from humiliation and persecution by the policies of Israel is a righteous cause. It is a cause that the people of Israel should support. Nelson Mandela famously said that South Africans would not feel free until Palestinians were free. He might have added that the liberation of Palestine will liberate Israel, too."

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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