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Salim Vally: The campaign to isolate apartheid Israel -- lessons from South Africa
By Salim Vally
[Salim Vally, a leading member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in South Africa and a veteran anti-apartheid activist, will be a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads conference, to be held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009, organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Visit http://www.worldATACrossroads.org for full agenda and to book your tickets.]
are moments in modern history when particular struggles galvanise millions
around the world to act in solidarity. This occurred during the Spanish Civil
War, the struggle of the Vietnamese people against
more than 60 years Palestinians have alerted us to one outrage after another,
injustices piled upon injustices without the commensurate scale of global
solidarity required to make a significant difference to their lives. It is now
in our hands to change this unconscionable situation. Not by appealing to the
ruling classes of the world and their institutions -- which remain, in the face
of abundant evidence, unmoved, callous and hypocritical. Which in fact sustain
and provide succour to
Acts of defiance and determination against overwhelming odds continue to drive the will of Palestinians. Global solidarity activists need to be inspired and strengthened by this unleashing of creative energies; the fact that obstacles can be surmounted and the debilitating wastefulness of internecine and sectarian conflicts exposed.
Israel: a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state
The Palestinian struggle does not only exert a visceral tug on many around the world. A reading of imperialism shows that apartheid Israel is needed as a fundamentalist and militarised warrior state not only to quell the undefeated and unbowed Palestinians but also as a rapid response fount of reaction in concert with despotic Arab regimes to do the Empire’s bidding in the Middle East and beyond.
the years this has included support for the mass terror waged against the
people of Central and
unrestrained hand of
the light of these killings and the slow starvation of the inhabitants of Gaza,
as well as the frequent “incursions” into the West Bank, the obsequiousness of
the Abbas regime becomes all the more abject. The fanfare and din surrounding
The tarnished trickery of those tired catchphrases “last chance for peace”, “painful compromises”, “moderates against extremists” is now worn so thin a child would not be deceived. It is a meeting to legitimise the status quo. There is an intense defeatism pervading the mainstream media and tired politicians without valour everywhere. But there is a hopeful reality: many ordinary citizens all over the world have not given up and the Palestinians have not given up on themselves.
remain steadfast and courageous. Despite the complexities of the Palestinian
resistance and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, and without discouraging
criticism, we outside the Israeli dungeons and the rubble of the Israeli war
machine have a responsibility to support the Palestinian struggle. I believe
this can be accomplished through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign
(BDS) proposed by a wide array of Palestinian trade unions, and academic,
student and political organisations representing the vast majority of the Palestinian
people (see http://www.pacbi.org). Other
writings have justified the need for this strategy, so it will suffice here to
quote an American currently residing in
It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of
. Good cause for a boycott has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel 's war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless, and the international community's need to contain Israel 's behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel 's aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in Israel , its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem. South Africa
Lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa
It will be helpful to draw activists’ attention to some of the egregious lessons from the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa, bearing in mind Amilcar Cabral’s “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” advice to revolutionaries.
First, it took a few decades of hard work before the boycott campaign made an impact. Despite the impression given by many governments, unions and faith-based groups that they supported the isolation of the apartheid state from the outset this is just not true. Besides the infamous words of Dick Cheney, when as a senator he called for the continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela because he was a “terrorist” quite late in the day, and the support given by US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher, together with regimes like dictator Pinochet’s Chile, Israel and others, most powerful institutions, multilateral organisations and unions were hesitant for many years to fully support the campaign. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was formed in 1959 and the first significant breakthrough came in 1963 when Danish dock workers refused to off-load South African goods.
The rise of the AAM must
be seen in the general effervescence of liberation struggles and social
movements in the turbulent 1960s/early 1970s and in the context of, whatever
our opinion was of the
Second, arguments opposed to the boycott related to the harm it would cause black South African themselves and the need for dialogue and “constructive engagement” were easily rebuffed by lucid and knowledgeable arguments. The South African regime, like the Israeli regime today, used ``homeland’’ leaders and an assortment of collaborators to argue the case for them. Careful research played an important role in exposing the economic, cultural and the armaments trade links with South Africa to make our actions more effective as well as to “name and shame” those who benefited from the apartheid regime.
Third, sectarianism is a
danger that we must be vigilant about and principled unity must be our
lodestar. Some in the AAM favoured supporting only one liberation movement as
the authentic voice of the oppressed in
The healthy linking of
struggles against racism, in support of the indigenous people and workers in
Fourth, the campaign for boycotts,
divestment and sanctions must be in concert with supporting grassroots
Initially, the dominant
liberation movement and its allies did not support the independent trade union
The workers have three main demands: adjusting wages to match the steep increase in the cost of living; a realistic addition to the "travel expenses" component of salaries (which has not risen since 1999, in spite of the doubling and tripling of the cost of travel because of roadblocks and the increase in fuel prices), and overturning a new regulation that demands every resident procure a certificate of honesty based on "confirmation of debt payment."…Government spokesmen, headed by Fayyad, have often spoken against a "culture of non-payment of bills," thus portraying the general Palestinian public as prone to being debt offenders…
Familiar language for us in South Africa and resistance to this neoliberalism is growing. For Palestinians it is happening even before ``liberation’’. Hass writes:
The strike, and all the public and internal discussions accompanying it, is a fascinating lesson of how Palestinians still acknowledge the power of the collective; how they oppose a liberal economic policy under occupation and colonization, and nurture a democratic suspicion as to the motives of the leading class.
Finally, the sanctions campaign in South Africa did produce gatekeepers, sectarians and commissars but they were also challenged. Writing in support of the academic boycott a colleague, Shireen Hassim does not gloss over the problems:
Some academics who actively opposed apartheid had invitations to international conferences withdrawn; it was not always possible to target the supporters of the apartheid regime; and South African academics’ understanding of global issues was certainly weakened. It is in the nature of such weapons that they are double-edged. But, as part of a battery of sanctions, the academic boycott undoubtedly had an impact on both the apartheid state and on white academics and university administrations. The boycott, together with the more successful sports boycott and economic divestment campaigns, helped to strengthen the struggle of black people for justice. The Afrikaner elite, very proud of its European roots and of the legacy of Jan Smuts as a global representative in the post-war system, and convinced that there would be support for its policies abroad, was rudely shaken. University administrations could no longer hide behind an excuse of neutrality but had to issue statements on their opposition to apartheid and introduce programs of redress. Academic associations (some more than others) examined the nature and conditions of research in their disciplines, and faculty unions became part of broader struggles for justice rather than bodies protecting narrow professional interests. Universities became sites of intense debate, and, indeed, intellectuals became critically involved in debates about the nature of current and future South African societies. In the wake of the boycott, there was not a curtailing of academic freedom, then, but a flourishing of intellectual thought that was rich, varied, and exciting.