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Palestinian solidarity and support for Israel in South Africa

October 25, 2023 at 11:55 am

People hold a rally and march in support of Palestinians in Johannesburg, South Africa on October 15, 2023 [Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency]

The support for the Palestinians in South Africa is likely to increase as long as pictures of brutalised women and children continue to be broadcast on television screens. Nevertheless, the Palestine-Israel conflict continues to be a divisive issue around the world.

It has, though, been a unifying issue around the Muslim world, as perhaps one of the few political issues that both Sunni and Shia Muslims agree on and support. In fact, most Sunni Muslims who support Iran, a “custodian of Shia Islam”, do so because of Iran’s overt support for Palestine and its liberation movements, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

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In South Africa the Palestinian issue has been for a very long while a “Muslim issue” for obvious reasons. However, over the years there has been a growth of Palestinian solidarity across the political spectrum. Last week, the governing African National Congress (ANC) issued unequivocal support for Palestine during its national executive meeting in Boksburg. President Ramaphosa and NEC members appeared at a meeting dressed in traditional keffiyehs and waving small Palestinian flags. Elsewhere, at the 3rd International Dilemmas of Humanity Conference, Palestine solidarity and support dominated the discussion. The conference was addressed by, inter alia, Ronnie Kasrils, Naledi Pandor and Laila Khaled, a famed Palestinian activist from Ramallah.

The National Freedom Party, one of the new opposition parties in South Africa, has increased its support for the Palestinians. The Economic Freedom Front (EFF) led by firebrand Julius Malema has also been very vocal in its support for the Palestinian struggle and its condemnation of Israel. The EFF vowed that if it wins in the General Election next year it will send arms to Hamas to help the movement in its legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation. Understandably, there are similarities between apartheid South Africa and what is happening in Palestine. B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all said in recent years that Israel has passed the legal threshold of apartheid.

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South Africa has played a key role in the establishment of the global Palestinian solidarity movement. The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban in 2001 is regarded by most around the world as the birthplace of a global Palestinian solidarity movement and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. During that conference, civil society declared Israel’s founding ideology Zionism to be equated with racism. The Palestine solidarity movement and BDS subsequently used most tactics and strategies from South Africa’s experience of the struggle against apartheid.

Post-apartheid South Africa has also played a key role in influencing the terminology used within the global Palestine solidarity movement. Terms such as “apartheid Israel”, for example, are derived from South Africa’s political experience. South African Palestine solidarity activists have also brought in and emphasised justice, equality and political correctness in the movement. It has been very clear that it is not fighting Jews, but political Zionism. Many non-Zionist Jews have joined the movement as a result and have become among its leading members in South Africa. Over the years the movement has also grown to include well-known Christian leaders such as Reverend Frank Chikane and Buti Tlhagale, both of whom are prominent anti-apartheid activists.

As the Palestine solidarity movement continues to grow in South Africa, so too does the anti-Palestine campaign led by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF). Both organisations have been courting opposition political parties and religious groups across the country. They have established strong alliances with the Patriotic Alliance, Congress of the People (COPE), Democratic Alliance (DA) and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP). Recently, they were joined by Bishop Phakama Shembe, a leader of the Nazareth Baptist Church (Shembe Church), one of the largest in South Africa.

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The SABD and SAZF’s blanket support for Israel despite the ongoing bombing of civilian areas and the demonisation and brutal treatment of the Palestinians will undoubtedly have a major impact on interfaith relations in South Africa. Justifications of Israel’s violations of international law ring hollow with growing numbers of citizens.

Although the Palestine solidarity movement has been deliberate in its use of language and differentiates between Judaism and Zionism, recent pronouncements by the SAJDB and SAZF in support of Israeli actions in Gaza are not helpful when trying to point out that not all Jews are Zionists who support Israel (and not all Zionists are Jews, it must be added). The call goes out to Jews across South Africa, therefore, to stand up for justice in Palestine and counter the narrative pushed by the SAJDB and SAZF. They have honourable and distinguished Jewish anti-apartheid activists to use as role models.

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