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Solidarity with Palestinian resistance forged in historic struggles

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena /African News Agency (ANA) – The ANC leads a march in solidarity with the people of Palistine to Protest at the Israeli Embassy.

By Na’eem Jeenah

In 2006, soon after Hamas won the Palestinian election across Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), then president Thabo Mbeki issued a public invitation to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to visit South Africa. Haniyeh had just been elected prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Seventeen years later, last week, South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, spoke to Haniyeh on the phone, offering South African relief aid to Palestinians in Gaza who were being pummelled by a massive and merciless Israeli bombardment that had, by then, reduced more than one-third of the territory to rubble. Haniyeh is now the top leader of Hamas, the party that ‘governs’ the Gaza Strip.

A few days before Pandor’s call, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as president of the African National Congress and wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, pledged the ANC’s full support for the ‘just struggle of the Palestinian people’.

His predecessor, eight years before, had welcomed Haniyeh’s predecessor, Khaled Khaled Mashal, and his delegation to South Africa, and the ANC Top Six had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hamas leadership. Three years later, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu signed an MOU with a Hamas parliamentary delegation from Gaza.

These events are neither random nor isolated from each other. They reflect two unique positions in South Africa: that of the South African government and that of the ANC. Mbeki’s invitation to Haniyeh was in the latter’s capacity as ‘prime minister’ of the PA, not as Hamas leader. Pandor’s call, similarly, was to Haniyeh as the leader of the ‘governing’ authority in Gaza. The other meetings and agreements were between Hamas, the political party, and ANC, the political party. These two should not be confused. The South African government has relationships with states (and, in this case, a pseudo-state), not with parties or non-state actors; the ANC has relationships with other parties.

It was South Africa’s recognition of the ‘State of Palestine’ that resulted in a Palestinian embassy being opened in South Africa; the ANC has relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It was the same recognition by the government that allowed the president in 2006 and the international relations minister in 2023 to make calls on Haniyeh.

It is debatable whether the ‘State of Palestine’, while recognised as such by 140 states globally, fulfils the basic definition of a state. It is an entity that is not sovereign, has no control over its territory, security, borders, airspace, coast, water resources or land. It is entirely under Israeli occupation, in repeated violation of international law. There is a strong body of legal opinion that that occupation is illegal. Also illegal is Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territory and its apartheid practices – both within the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and within Israel itself.

Picture: Khaled DESOUKI/AFP- A man waves a Palestinian flag while marching past the headquarters of the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party along Talaat Harb Street in the centre of Cairo on October 20, 2023 during a protest supporting the Palestinian people following Friday Noon prayers, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Picture: EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER – Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Tal Al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza, 20 October 2023.

More than that, Israel has been responsible for numerous regular human rights abuses throughout the OPT, an illegal hermetic siege of the 360 square km territory of Gaza and its 2.3 million residents (mostly refugees), and its regular massacres, since 2008, of Palestinians in Gaza. Those massacres resulted in the killings of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children. Indeed, Israel’s tactic to maintain some deterrence against Palestinian resistance is the murder of civilians. Resistance – including armed resistance – against colonialism and occupation is a right under international law. Palestinians exercise that right against their 75 years of occupation and colonialism by Israel.

The most recent of those massacres began on October 7, soon after the resistance in Gaza broke their siege and attacked military targets and civilians in southern Israel. Israel murdered almost 4,000 Palestinian civilians in the past two weeks, including 500 killed when Israel bombed a hospital (one of 59 health facilities it had bombed in just over a week), and more than 50 mostly Christians when Israel bombed the St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church. In the West Bank, where Israel’s favourite bogeyman, Hamas, does not exist, Israel murdered around 80 civilians and took another 850 hostage. The latter group joined more than 5,000 other civilians held hostage in Israeli prisons – mostly without charge or trial.

For South Africans, black South Africans in particular, much of the Palestinian suffering of the past 75 years is very familiar. But much is totally unfamiliar. Massacres on the scale that regularly take place in Gaza, fighter jets dropping bombs on residential areas, tanks driving down township streets and through homes never happened in apartheid South Africa. But it is the familiarity of one group of people treating others as subhuman that resonates for us. Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant’s reference to Palestinians as ‘human animals’ made many of us black South Africans wince because of the memories it evoked.

Unfortunately for the colonialists, occupiers and racists throughout history, their oppression and their privilege does not last forever; the ‘human animals’ do break out of their zoos and assert their humanity. And oppressed people often see themselves in each other, thus fulfilling Samora Machel’s understanding that solidarity is ‘cooperation between forces fighting for the same objective’.

It is no surprise, therefore, that, by and large, black South Africans have seen themselves in Palestinians. It is no surprise that the ANC, which had its own armed wing to resist apartheid, has relations with Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas.

We also know too well what dehumanisation and brutalisation (both physical and rhetorical) means, and how double standards of morality apply. Liberal democracy, human rights, the laws of war, the ‘rules-based system’, as Professor Steven Friedman pointed out recently, seem to be the preserve of a particular Western elite. The ‘human animals’ of the Global South (and most darker-skinned people in the West) neither deserve nor should they expect such luxuries. Israel is allowed to massacre civilians from the air; Palestinians are not allowed to kill even one Israeli civilian. Israel can hold 5,000 civilians hostage for years and decades; Palestinians dare not consider capturing one Israeli civilian. Israel can bomb hospitals and places of worship with abandon; Palestinians should not fire a measly rocket into a government building.

South Africa’s responsibility is, always, to uphold human rights and stand with those who are oppressed and marginalised. Palestinians, now more than ever, require that support. But when South Africans dare to express such support, we get told by the likes of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, a hateful warmonger as he has already proven, that he will no longer pray for our government. God listens to the prayers of the oppressed; the apologists of apartheid – not so much.

*Na’eem Jeenah is a Senior Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute (MISTRA). He writes in his personal capacity.