Thursday, January 16, 2014

Opposing Apartheid

Mise agus Mustafa Barhgouthi of the PLO
Nelson Mandela – Madiba – was the pre-eminent world citizen and his death in December was a moment of great sadness and loss. It also saw worldwide media coverage of his state funeral and almost daily news reports looking back at the struggle against apartheid and Madiba’s role in leading that struggle from inside and outside of prison.

As regular readers know Richard and I attended the funeral. It was an emotional time. But it was also hugely uplifting. ANC/MK veterans of the armed struggle, political leaders of the new South Africa and comrades from other African states and from liberation movements, spoke of the years of oppression and of war; of imprisonment and protests in the townships; of oppression and resistance. And a consistent theme of all of those reflecting on the decades of conflict was the importance and positive role played by the international community.

This solidarity took different forms.. For some it was about providing practical help and support, like providing passports to allow Mandela and other ANC activists to travel. It also included the provision of logistical and material support to the ANC and also to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – the ANC’s armed organisation which Mandela and others had established.

Speaking at the funeral Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, recalled Madiba’s first visits to that country in 1962. He was there seeking support from Tanzania's first president Julius Nyerere for training camps for MK. Kikwete told mourners that; "Beyond availing places to live and train, he [Nyerere] offered Tanzania's own moral and material support.”

But for most people in Ireland and elsewhere around the world support for the ANC found expression in the numerous anti-apartheid groups that sprang up everywhere. I was one of many thousands who took part in anti-apartheid demonstrations in Dublin. Our task was to raise political awareness about, and to encourage opposition to the apartheid regime. The most effective tactic that the anti-apartheid movement organised was to isolate South Africa through a boycott. This took the form of economic, sporting, cultural, and educational. At every level and in every way there was to be no contact with South Africa – no engagement that would give aid and comfort to apartheid.

In Ireland this was most famously given expression by the Dunnes Stores workers who refused to handle South African produce. But all across the world solidarity organisations marched and campaigned in favour of boycotting South Africa. There were those, like Margaret Thatcher who railed against boycott even claiming that this was hurting the very people oppressed by the white regime’s apartheid policies. But they were a minority.

Those who spoke at Mandela’s funeral; the ANC activists I met; the news reports and documentaries that were broadcast; and the millions of column inches written about Madiba in December; all agreed on the crucial role played by the international community and by the boycott campaign.
I tell you all of this because in a recent conversation with Dr. Mustafa Barhgouthi of the Central Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament), he described the current situation in that region as ‘a consolidation of a system of apartheid.’

Last summer the United States Secretary of State John Kerry pressed the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to agree to new peace talks which commenced in August. Media reports say that Mr. Kerry is trying to get Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to agree a framework that would set out the core principles of an agreement. These reports suggest that this would be along the lines of the 1967 border with some land swaps to accommodate settlements.

However there appears to have been little progress and last week the Israeli government announced the construction of 1400 housing units in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. This sparked a sharp rebuke from Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator who said that they, the Israelis, ‘know very well that this destroys the peace process.’ He added that the Israeli announcement showed its ‘commitment to an apartheid regime.’

Mustafa Barhgouthi in his conversation with me before Christmas pointed out that there are now over half a million settlers living on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank. During the process of negotiations he said that the ‘rate of settlement expansions was 132% higher than in recent years, 550 Palestinians were arrested, while only 52 were released from jails and 24 Palestinians were killed.’

The fact is that there is a significant power imbalance in the negotiations with Palestinians at a serious disadvantage.

In these circumstances the role of the international community is crucial and in this context boycott and sanctions are real levers of pressure.  

The EU has a particular role to play in this. Last July it explicitly restated its position that Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are not considered part of the state of Israel under international law. At the same time there has also been a growing demand for the clear labelling of Israeli products originating in settlements.

On Monday a report in one U.S. newspaper revealed that; ‘An international campaign to boycott Israeli settlement products has rapidly turned from a distant nuisance into a harsh economic reality for Israeli farmers in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley …Export driven income of growers in the valley’s 21 settlements dropped by more than 14% or $29 million, last year.’

In the context of Israel’s £8 billion trade with the EU this is small money but there is no doubt that it is having an impact in some of the settlements and there is potential for it to grow. The South African experience is one example of the positive role that the international community and the effective application of boycott and sanctions can have.


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