Palestinian children running towards the Israeli wall. Photo: Wikipedia Palestinian children running towards the Israeli wall. Photo: Wikipedia

The occupation of Palestine by Israeli forces is not dissimilar to apartheid South Africa, argues Koos Mohammed

On Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 April, activists around the world marked Palestinian Prisoners’ Day with protests. In London, on Saturday, a group of activists – dressed in clown outfits – joined a larger anti-austerity demonstration to protest the imprisonment of Mohammed Abu Sakha, a Palestinian circus performer who has now been held in an Israeli prison almost five months without a trial. Abu Sakha was detained at a checkpoint on his way to work at the Palestinian Circus School.

There are currently 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, many held without a trial – among them 438 children. For a personal touch, I decided to work on my own placard to take with me to the protest, rather than pick up one handed out by the organisers. After a few thoughts on words that can decorate my placard, I settled with these words: “Mandela, too, was a prisoner in apartheid.”

Later, I pondered on what that meant. How did Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years behind bars come out to greet a world that embraced him? What hope does he offer for the Palestinians?

South Africa’s apartheid

In a lot of ways, the world that created South Africa’s hero is similar to the one that brutalises Palestinians today. Some, like American political activist Noam Chomsky, would argue that Israel’s actions in Palestine are “much worse than apartheid in South Africa”.

In the same year that the Israeli state was created – 1948 – in a racially charged atmosphere, the Afrikaner National Party, an all-white party, gained power in South Africa. The party legally enforced existing segregations, in what it called “apartheid” (literally translated as “apartness”). Under the law, the white minority population would live apart from the black, the ‘coloured’ (mixed race people) and the Indian populations. 80% of the country’s land was given to the white minority, and blacks (and others) who wanted to access these areas had to carry IDs and documents to justify their presence.

Under a series of legislations and laws that were designed to confine the black population on the fringes of society, between 1961 and 1990, 3.5 million black South Africans were driven out of their homes and pushed into ghettos called “Bantustans” on about 13% of the country’s land.

In the face of such injustices, South Africans rose and resisted. The African National Congress (ANC), its Youth League and other political movements, including the Communist Party, became increasingly active. The resistance movement took many forms. Many early campaigns took the non-violent path. However, in the face of government violence and increased crackdown, which saw the killing of 69 peaceful black protesters in 1960, many leaders who were proponents of non-violent resistance, including Nelson Mandela, were no longer opposed to violent means to liberation, leading the struggle to take form in armed resistance. Power lines, railways and government buildings were blown up in 200 actions between 1961 and 1964.

Mandela is quoted to have said, “There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence.” Mandela, who was already in and out of prison for his non-violent campaigns and was serving a five-year sentence handed in 1962, had his prison term extended to life in 1964 after his involved with the violent resistance movement became apparent.

What brought down the walls of apartheid South Africa?

In 1959, the boycott movement, calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of apartheid South Africa was formed by South African activists. In the following couple of decades, the outside world endorsed it. The United Nations General Assembly had denounced apartheid in 1973, and in 1976 the UN Security Council voted to impose a mandatory embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa. Boycott become widespread in the 1970s, with ban on Olympics participation and other sporting activities.

In the 1980s, unrest and violence increased in the country, leading President P.W. Botha to declare a state of emergency in July 1985. Many countries imposed economic sanctions by the mid-1980s and investors started pulling out. The reasons for divestment were not always political, as Chase Manhattan Bank executive is quoted in Patti Waldmeir’s ‘Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa’ to have said, “We felt that the risk attached to political unrest and economic instability became too high for our investors.  We decided to withdraw.  It was never the intention to facilitate change in South Africa, the decision was taken purely on account of what was in the interest of Chase and its assets.” The unrest, violence, and sanctions created an undesirable environment for investment, for some.

The other undeniable factor in the collapse of the apartheid system was the strength of its opposition, and in particular its leaders who became global stars. Its biggest star, Mandela, was regularly receiving visitors from governments around the world when his prison condition became less restricted in the late 70s. 250,000 people demonstrated in Hyde Park, London, for Mandela’s 70th birthday and a concert held in Wembley stadium was attended by 70,000 and viewed by 600 million worldwide.

On 11 February 1990, the “jailed terrorist leader” emerged as a hero after spending 27 years in prison, and in 1994, in the country’s first non-racial democratic election, he was voted in as its first black leader.

Palestine: A history of apartheid and ethnic cleansing

During the mid-19th century, there was a growing nationalist movement among Europe’s Jewish population who decided to end their persecution in Europe by founding their own state in Palestine. In the late 19th century, this movement became known as Zionism. In the following decades, in what became the transfer, Jews started immigrating to Palestine – often buying land from locals and Ottoman families – increasing the Jewish population slightly to 3% in 1874 and 5% in 1905. However, 1930s and 1940s saw a big increase.

Summing up the thoughts of leading Zionists at the time, Joseph Weitz who was in charge of the Jewish National Fund’s Lands Department (Zionist funding for land) is quoted by historians to have written in his diary:

There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, and to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth and Old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one [Bedouin] tribe. And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem will cease to exist. There is no other solution.

Between 1940 and 1945 the arrival of over 60,000 immigrants increased the Jewish population to 31%. Registered Jewish land ownership rose to 6%. This period was also marked by increased tension as Palestinians revolted against the influx of Jewish immigrants and militant Jewish nationalists emerged. But for the Palestinian population, the worst was to come.

On the 15 May Palestinians will mark the 68th year since “Yawm an-Nakba” – Day of Catastrophe – when the state of Israel was created on 78% of historic Palestine’s land. Between 1947 and 1949, almost 800,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe: “In a matter of seven months, 531 villages were destroyed and 11 urban neighborhoods emptied. The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and imprisonment of men.”

Palestinian refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) present the largest and longest-standing case of displaced persons in the world. A research – ‘Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2013-2015’ – conducted by BADIL at the end of 2014 states “at least 7.98 million (66%) of 12.1 million Palestinians worldwide were forcibly displaced persons”.

6.14 million are 1948-refugees and their descendants – of whom 5.09 million are registered with UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). 1.5 million live in 58 recognised Palestinian refugee camps – the Palestinian “Bantustans” – in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

One million are unregistered, according to BADIL. And a further one million are 1967-refugees. There are also “720,000 internally displaced persons on both sides of the Green Line (1949 armistice line)”. After Israel’s military occupation of the remaining Palestinian land in 1967, they began establishing Jewish-only settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories (POT).

The ethnic cleansing and apartheid continues today

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Silvan Shalom sums up current Israeli attitude: “We are all against a Palestinian state; there is no question about it.”

The displacement of Palestinians continues today. Nearly 40% of the West Bank (the largest area of POT) is now off limits to Palestinians. According to recent reports, there are now 406,302 settlers living in 28 illegal settlements in the West Bank and further 350,000 living in illegal settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem. And the seizing of Palestinian land and the ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants goes on unabated. Last month, residents were told 300 acres of land from villages in northern Nablus is set to go. They were given 45 days’ notice. This month, the Israeli authority delivered notice to the Palestinian village of Jalud, also in the Nablus Governorate, alerting residents that 1,250 acres of private land were to be confiscated.

Over 500 kilometres of wall – which is being extended – is currently encircling Palestinian towns and villages, increasingly concentrating the population in an ever-shrinking land. The movement of Palestinians is severely restricted by endless checkpoints and barriers. Palestinians living outside require permits to enter East Jerusalem. The wait for a reply can take months and the rejection rate according to locals is 96%. Families have been separated.

Gaza, a besieged tiny overpopulated enclave, home to 1948-refugees and their descendants, has witnessed three bombardments from Israel in less than six years which devastated infrastructure and left thousands dead. 75,000 people are still displaced from the last shelling in 2014.

Access to clean water in Gaza is now “a rare privilege”. 96% of water is unsafe to drink. According to reports, the average person consumes 79 litres per capita per day (Icd), which can drop to as low as 20 litres for some, while the average Israeli consumes 300lcd. World Health Organisation recommendation is a minimum of 100lcd.

Gaza fishermen are increasingly finding it difficult to source a living from the sea due restrictions and constant attacks from the Israeli navy. In 2015, the UN made the assessment that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if the current blockade continues. If you need visual evidence of how apart Israeli and Palestinian lives have become, just ask your search engine for images of Tel Aviv and Gaza.

The Palestinian people’s walk to freedom may be long, but I know they, too, will get there in the end, because change is one of life’s certainties. And when that change comes, I know the world will be grateful for the heroes of Palestine who show us, every day, how much the human spirit can endure.