Palestine’s SA moment

2014-07-08 10:00

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They may not call it apartheid, but that’s in essence what it is, writes Omar Barghouti, who asks whether it is not time for another evil regime to fall

In the 1980s, while studying engineering at Columbia University in New York, I was active in the divestment campaign against apartheid.

When a fellow student cynically asked me, “Do you really think apartheid will end in your lifetime?”, my answer was, “No, I don’t. I am doing this as a moral obligation to stand with the oppressed anywhere.”

But apartheid was abolished in my lifetime and no one can take the inspiring power of that achievement away from me nor from anyone around the world who contributed, no matter how modestly, to that universal struggle.

Today, the Palestinian people are appealing for the same effective international solidarity with our struggle for freedom, justice and equality, which South African jurist John Dugard describes as the world’s current “litmus test for human rights”.

Rooted in a decades-old tradition of Palestinian popular and civic resistance to Israel’s regime of oppression and deeply inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is today a global network that is proving to be singularly effective in the struggle for comprehensive Palestinian rights.

The BDS Call was launched on July 9 2005 by an unprecedented alliance of more than 170 Palestinian parties, trade unions, refugee groups and grassroots associations calling on people of conscience and organisations worldwide to “impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era”.

The global BDS movement is led by the largest coalition in Palestinian society, the BDS National Committee (BNC).

It calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including dismantling the illegal wall and colonies; an end to Israel’s system of legalised racial discrimination which meets the UN definition of apartheid; and for the inherent and UN-stipulated right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes of origin.

These basic rights correspond to the three main components of the Palestinian people: those under occupation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (38% of the Palestinian people), Palestinian citizens living under Israeli apartheid (12%) and those in exile (50%). More than two-thirds of Palestinians are refugees or internally displaced persons.

Anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and calls for equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity.

Over the past two years, BDS has reached a tipping point. In the past few weeks alone, BDS-related successes included the decision by the influential Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies involved in the Israeli occupation?–?Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

The Gates Foundation divested its entire stake of more than $180?million (R2.6?billion) in the world’s largest security company, G4S, after an intense BDS campaign, as did the United Methodist Church.

G4S is losing business in Norway, South Africa, the European Parliament, several British universities and elsewhere, partially as a result of its involvement in Israeli prisons where Palestinians, including children, are tortured, and in protecting illegal Israeli colonies and military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).

Also in 2014, the second-largest Dutch pension fund, PGGM, divested from the five largest Israeli banks over involvement in the OPT; the German government decided to exclude Israeli entities operating in the OPT from scientific cooperation agreements with Israel; the largest Danish bank, Danske, blacklisted Hapoalim, one of Israel’s largest banks; and the Norwegian sovereign fund, the largest in the world, divested from two Israeli companies involved in settlement construction.

The African National Congress’ indirect endorsement of BDS in December 2012 was a major moral breakthrough for the movement.

Renowned film makers, writers, bands and artists, including Hollywood star Danny Glover and bestselling author Alice Walker, have endorsed BDS or at least heeded the boycott call and refused to participate in Israeli cultural events.

Last year, one of the world’s leading scientists, Stephen Hawking, boycotted a Hebrew University conference, while four US academic associations, including the American Studies Association, adopted the academic boycott of Israel, as did the Teachers’ Union of Ireland.

It is crucial to note that the University of Johannesburg had set a precedent in 2011 by severing links with Ben Gurion University over human rights violations.

Support for BDS came from Cosatu and other major international trade union federations in Britain, Ireland, India, Brazil, Norway, Canada, Italy, France, Belgium and Turkey, among other countries.

Veolia, a corporation complicit in Israel’s occupation, has lost or had to withdraw bids for contracts worth more than $23?billion, mainly in Sweden, the UK, Ireland and the US.

The Dutch government has publicly “discouraged” companies from doing business with Israeli entities in the OPT, leading the largest Dutch construction company to withdraw from a project with the Israeli municipality in occupied East Jerusalem.

The publicly owned water company, Vitens, has also terminated a contract with the Israeli national water company, Mekorot.

The British government has issued guidance on business involvement with illegal Israeli settlements.

These steps follow the publication of EU guidelines against funding Israeli projects in the OPT. More recently, the governments of France, Italy and Spain have issued similar guidance.

Israel’s standing in world public opinion has been eroding for some time due to two main factors: the moral power and effectiveness of the global BDS movement, including its crucial anticolonial Israeli component, and its political shift to the far right.

Last year’s BBC international public opinion poll shows that Israel competes with North Korea as the third or fourth least popular country in the world.

Israel’s deep ties with “some of the world’s most reviled regimes,” as exposed by Sasha Polakow-Suransky in his book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, and particularly its “intimate alliance with apartheid South Africa” have contributed to its “moral decay and the rise of anti-Israel sentiment abroad”.

A key inspiration for the BDS movement for Palestinian rights came from Nelson Mandela, who famously said that South African freedom was “incomplete” without Palestinian freedom.

South Africa today is called upon by Palestinians and all peace- and justice-loving people around the world to “complete” its freedom by endorsing effective, far-reaching sanctions to hold Israel, its complicit institutions and banks, and international corporations that maintain its regime of occupation and apartheid accountable.

This would bring closer our South Africa moment.

Barghouti is a human rights activist and co-founder of the global Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel

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