Aug 15 2014
By Sonali Kolhatkar
The temporary end to the bombing of Gaza has enabled Palestinian residents to slowly return to normal. But “normal” is defined by a seven-year-long blockade, endlessly frustrating checkpoints, the threat of beatings and arrest by Israeli police, and of course recovering from the loss of nearly 2,000 people and thousands of homes. Today 8-year-olds in Gaza have survived four brutal military operations and know only what it is like to live under siege.
Many have drawn comparisons between Israeli occupation and South African apartheid. Such comparisons are instructive, not only as a moral gauge but in terms of offering solutions to the current crisis.
As part of its negotiations with Palestinian factions in Egypt, Israel wants a complete disarmament of Hamas, the militant political organization that has become the lynchpin of Israeli claims about self-defense. (While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently repeated the knee-jerk statement that Hamas “call[s] for the destruction of Israel and they call for the killing of every Jew,” he and others ignore that Hamas has for years publicly accepted the right of Israel to exist within its 1967 borders.) But, for many Palestinians, Hamas’ actions amount to self-defense. If an elephant is trampling on a bee, is it not the right of the bee to sting?
In his struggle against apartheid, South African leader Nelson Mandela said in 1980, “Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid and white minority racist rule.” I am no fan of Hamas, primarily because I am turned off by religious ideology as a basis for nationalism. Nor am I a fan of today’s African National Congress, which Mandela once led but today is post-apartheid South Africa’s ruling party, wracked by charges of corruption. But is it not up to the oppressed to decide what form of resistance to take against their oppressor? Blaming only Hamas for starting the war, sustaining it, tossing largely ineffective rockets at Israel, breaking cease-fire agreements, bringing about the deaths of Palestinians by Israeli forces, using human shields, and any other accusation that sticks, is akin to blaming the ANC for daring to resist apartheid. Would we blame the bee for doing its absolute best to cripple the trampling elephant with its tiny sting?
The belligerence of American comic Joan Rivers, as seen in this video in which she talks to a reporter, expresses some of the absurdity of pro-Israeli logic. When asked to comment on the Palestinian death toll, Rivers blames Palestinians for electing Hamas to represent them, saying, “You can’t get rid of Hamas. You have to say you do not recognize them, they are terrorists. They were re-elected by a lot of stupid people who don’t even own a pencil. … At least the ones that were killed were the ones with very low IQs.”
In fact, the ANC was on the U.S.’ list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations until as recently as 2008. Hamas was added to that list in 1997.
In an interview Monday on Uprising, Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney, activist and assistant professor at George Mason University, said it was “a ridiculous idea” that “if you vote [in] an irresponsible party … you are all legitimate targets.” Erakat reminded us that Americans “voted for George W. Bush twice. He waged an illegal war in Iraq and deluded the entire international community. Would anybody therefore accept that Americans become legitimate targets? This is nonsensical. It’s racist. It’s dehumanizing. Joan Rivers should be shamed.”
Rivers also echoes the naked racism being openly embraced by certain supporters of Israel in recent weeks (read my earlier column about Israeli racism here). She tells the reporter in response to a question about Palestinian deaths, “You’re dead. You deserve to be dead. You started it. You started it. Don’t you dare make me feel sad about that.” Anyone who might use such invective against Jews would instantaneously and universally be denounced as anti-Semitic and racist, and rightly so. But when Arabs are the ones who are cast as collectively deserving of death there is far less danger of being blacklisted or shunned by American society.
Residents of Gaza have been so thoroughly devastated over the past month that any lull in bombing is obviously a relief. But Israeli negotiators and their U.S. benefactors want to completely disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. In return, Gaza could go back to simply living under a brutal occupation. Compare this to the prospect of the white South African leadership insisting on disarming the ANC in exchange for maintaining the system of apartheid.
According to Erakat, the cease-fire negotiations obfuscate the fact that Israel is a long-term occupier of Gaza. She asserted, “We should really be talking about what are Israel’s long-term violations that need to be addressed. … Instead the way that it is framed is that Israel is protecting itself … and attempting to use international law to justify its colonial domination, where such rights do not exist for colonial powers.”
Just as it was the right of black South Africans to demand an end to apartheid while maintaining their right to resist as they saw fit, it is the right of Palestinians to demand an end to Israeli occupation. Erakat confirmed this, saying, “International laws give a people under occupation the right to use armed resistance to shake off foreign colonization.”
As Gaza’s residents return to the rubble of what was once their homes and villages, they may have a strong legal case to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for possible human rights violations and war crimes. The United Nations has already convened a panel to investigate allegations of war crimes in Gaza by Israel (and also by Hamas), especially given that several U.N. shelters and facilities housing refugees were hit during Operation Protective Edge. The question is, will such an investigation make a difference?
A 2009 U.N. report in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, known as the Goldstone Report, was dismissed outright by Israel and its supporters. The lead author of that report, Richard Goldstone, is a South African judge who had used legal rulings to weaken apartheid when he served on that country’s Supreme Court, and he also served as the chief U.N. prosecutor over crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Despite his highly respected status, Israeli authorities refused to cooperate with the investigation and then rejected his conclusions that Palestinian civilians were targeted. Nothing has come of the Goldstone Report, and Israel’s recent dismissal of the U.N. Human Rights Council as a “kangaroo court,” even before the investigation of Operation Protective Edge has begun, underscores Israeli impunity for international law.
Erakat surmised that Israel “has boycotted mechanisms that are meant to hold states to account. It chooses to be above the law. No other state could get away with this but Israel can because it has the superpower United States as its primary patron.” Historian David Schmitz, in a 2011 interview with Salon, explained how President Reagan’s support for South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s prolonged that system of oppression, saying, “It gave it life. It gave it hope that the United States would continue to stick with it. It gave it continued flow of aid as well as ideological support. It delayed the changes that were going to come.” Similarly, it is U.S. support that bolsters Israeli impunity and prolongs the occupation.
If international law is impotent to hold Israel accountable, and if U.S. officials continue to unequivocally support Israel, what will end the suffering of Palestinians? The court of public opinion seems to provide perhaps the only glimmer of hope. Tens of thousands of supporters of Palestinian rights marched in Britain and South Africa last weekend to draw attention to Israeli brutality. Drawing inspiration from the international movement to end apartheid, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to financially affect Israel over its occupation is also gaining steam. The Soros Fund just recently quietly divested its shares of the Israeli company SodaStream. Hundreds of thousands of shoppers all over the world have signed up for a campaign to avoid buying Israeli products through a smartphone app called Buycott. In California and Washington, activists are planning to gather at West Coast ports this week to confront an Israeli ship in the hopes of blocking it from unloading its goods. And a Turkish aid group is setting sail for Gaza to try once more to break the Israeli blockade by sea.
Just as the South African resistance to apartheid and the global solidarity movement were initially resisted by establishment forces, today powerful elites vilify oppressed Palestinians and their allies. But as apartheid fell, so too will Israeli occupation crumble. Mandela reminded us of the importance of solidarity, saying, “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
It is only a matter of time.