Defining an Occupation: Voices about Apartheid in the Palestinian Territories

Jaisal Noor Dec 13, 2008


The Indypendent talks to authors and anti-apartheid activists Eddie Makue, Diana Buttu and Breyten Breytenbach about the situation in Palestine.

By Jaisal Noor

Recently the United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockman joined a growing number of international figures when he equated Israeli policies with that of apartheid South Africa. “Although different,” he said, “what is being done against the Palestinian people seems to me like a version of the hideous policy of apartheid. That can not, should not, be allowed to continue.”

D’Escoto Brockman also suggested that, “the U.N. should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations”

The comparison of the Israeli occupation to apartheid remains a controversial one, especially within the United States. Recently Palestinian-Canadian activist Diana Buttu and South African anti-apartheid activist Reverend Eddie Makue completed a two week, anti-apartheid speaking tour through eleven U.S. cities. Their trip was sponsored by the organization, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. I asked them to discuss the link between apartheid South Africa and the conditions in Palestine, the reasons behind their tour and their advice to activists hoping for change under the Obama administration. Here is an excerpt of the interview.

Jaisal Noor: Could you briefly describe apartheid in South Africa for those not familiar with it? Why do you find it important to make a link between apartheid in South Africa to the conditions in Palestine today?

Eddie Makue: Apartheid in South Africa was a formalized system of discrimination based on race, where the official policy of the government was separating people in society. The main sufferers under the system were the native black people of the country who particularly suffered separation under the basis of land, and on the basis of the movement of people in the country through some very rigid laws that were developed. And important to note is the fact that the system was rejected by the world calling it a crime against humanity. The rulers of the apartheid system considered themselves a law unto themselves and refused to be judged by any people, other then themselves.

What we find in Palestine in the moment is that there are very many similarities with apartheid South Africa in the sense that again it is a formalized institutionalized separation practiced by the Israeli authorities against the people of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Where there are a whole range of mechanisms, like for example the apartheid wall, the use of the military and Israeli police in order to prevent the free movement of the Palestinian people, and that is — like in the case of apartheid South Africa — done against the will of the people that are the victims of the system.

JN: Why did you decide that now was the time for an anti-apartheid tour in the United States?

EM: We never anticipated that America with its own bad civil rights record would reach a situation where a black person would be appointed as the president. We believe that it is therefore appropriate at this time, when these changes are happening in the United States that this tour be undertaken.

When you talk about strategy — we have learned that often when the people lead that the leaders follow. [It’s essential] to build a critical mass the same way that the people of the United States supported anti-apartheid movements, that the people will again stand up to the challenge

Diana Buttu: This issue of apartheid is becoming quite mainstream in the U.S. In Israel itself, Israeli leaders are talking about how this is a case of apartheid. They are not willing to recognize that it is apartheid, but they are saying that is increasingly tending towards that direction.

JN: How might the situation be affected by president-elect Barack Obama’s appointments to key foreign policy positions. Which individuals poised to join Obama’s inner circle are you most concerned about?

DB: The appointment of Rahm Emanuel indicated to me that he simply doesn’t get it. Here is a person who has voted in favor of every single pro-Israel resolution since he’s been in office. The same individual who has even voted in favor of war in Lebanon, a war that was condemned by human rights organizations around the world. In addition to the fact that he has served in the Israeli army. It kinda just doesn’t get any worse than that in terms of being hawkish when it comes to Israel. So his appointment indicates to me either that Barack Obama is simply not interested in dealing with this issue or that if he is, going to deal with the issue, that he is going to take the same position that the Clinton [administration] took, which was to continue to blame the Palestinians, which he already did during his election campaign, to continue to put more pressure on the Palestinians to concede even further on their territory, to accept this apartheid framework, so that is very alarming.

What I think it then calls for activists to do is really start pushing the framework of apartheid and start demanding that a different framework and different approach be used when it comes to addressing this issue.

The solution is not to simply put an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader in a room together and just pray and hope they get along. There is an occupation here; there is a denial of freedom and there is an apartheid system — not just for the Palestinians who are living in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip — but also for the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel as Israel defines itself as a Jewish state.

So the challenge for activists is not to just be content with idea of people sitting in a room, nor is it to be content with framework of negotiations that has been put forward by the Clinton administration, but to really start to push for global change in terms of the way that people are addressing this issue. Start demanding equality for the Palestinians. And this is why we have focused on the same tools that have worked in South Africa, that of boycott, divestment, sanctions. The three tools that worked in South Africa worked in the sense that it got global awareness as being tools that could similarly work to get more global awareness and push for an end to the apartheid that Israel is carrying out.

JN: What are some specific ways for activists to get involved?

DB: One of the tools that worked in South Africa was getting universities and colleges with investment funds to divest from those companies that were doing business with apartheid South Africa and so to there’s been a growing movement within the United States to push for the same thing. An initiative that is happening in New York is protesting Lev Leviev, who has a number of diamond stores in the New York area. This is an individual who himself has been funding a lot of the settlements and promoting this idea of Israeli-only roads, Israeli only housing in the West Bank. There have been a number of protests put on by Adalah-NY [The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East] in order to protest the work he is doing. Also, one of the tools that worked in Ireland was that people stopped consuming food coming from apartheid South Africa. If you look with bar codes beginning with a number 9-7-2 those are Israeli products.

EM: The two companies identified with the Campaign to End the Occupation to stop doing business with Israel are Caterpillar and Motorola, not only in cell phones, but supplying fuses for the bombs and equipment for the observation which inhibits the free movement of the people in the Occupied Territories. When we look at Caterpillar, we are encouraging people to look at the shares that they hold in Caterpillar, so that they don’t support through shareholding the companies operations in the Occupied Territories; but secondly also for people to attend meetings because they have shares in the company and to raise the concerns with regard to the way in which Caterpillar is conniving with the Israeli Defense Force in the destruction of the homes of people in the Occupied Territories.

When we talk about Motorola, we are requesting people to hang up on Motorola and there is a website, And in that particular initiative, we are saying to people that they can stop buying Motorola cell phones because Motorola is allowing its surveillance equipment to be used in the situation there and successes have been achieved before with Motorola where they supplied similar equipment to apartheid South Africa and also recently to Burma and the pressure from the consumers have made a difference, and we are requesting for that to continue.

Although he also is critical of the occupation, South African anti-apartheid activist and poet Breyten Breytenbach rejects equating Israeli policy to apartheid. I asked him to explain his position.

JN: In your 2002 open letter to [former-Israeli prime minister] Ariel Sharon, you said that Israel’s actions should not be equated with apartheid. Do you still hold that opinion? Why or why not?

Breyten Breytenbach: There are obviously many similarities between the laws, beliefs and practices that defined apartheid, and the Israeli policies pertaining to the occupied territories of Palestine — and even, to an extent, to Palestinians living in Israel as Israeli citizens. The informing principle in both instances is racism, born from Western colonialism; the essential purpose is economic exploitation and territorial theft; the instruments are segregation and state terrorism — death, humiliation, incarceration, etc.

My objection to equating Israeli policies to apartheid are as follows: It does not advance our understanding of the specificity of these historical and political phenomena (and a pre-condition for effective resistance is to clearly see the enemy ideology and politics for what they are). In this regard, I have said many times that “apartheid” was not “Nazism.” These facile equations may have some propaganda impact — because we all recognize the international revulsion caused by apartheid. And referring to the “known” is a shortcut in trying to make a statement and a bid for support, but we in effect weaken our case because the differences (in method or scale or even intention) can be too easily pointed out and thus undermine the purpose of our denunciations.

Each one of these horrendous paradigms are defined enough in their own specificity and history for us not to need facile equations, which take the place of deeper and closer analysis and understanding. The purported similarities between apartheid and Israeli/U.S. policies also suggest that similar tactics can be used to combat them — I think this is only marginally true. The historical context of these two phenomena are different and the international perceptions and thus possibilities of mobilizing solidarity are not the same either, despite lip service condemnation. The Israeli state is effectively supported from abroad, especially by the USA and significant parts of Europe — for geopolitical, financial and cultural or religious reasons — which was not the case with the SA [South Africa] regime, at least not to the same extent. Finally, in important ways the Israeli occupation actions are worse than those of apartheid — the hatred, the cynicism, the cruelty, the need to humiliate … are more intense and “intimate” than anything we ever saw during apartheid. And then, of course, the Palestinians have neither an ANC [African National Congress], nor a figure of the stature of Nelson Mandela.

JN: What actions must Americans take to help end the Israeli occupation?

BB: For obvious reasons, the USA is the power that could help end occupation and the bringing about of justice — equitable territorial partition (If the “two states” solution is adopted, although I believe that there should be enough political courage and moral imagination to bring about a single-state accommodating both communities), restitution, the return of the exiles, an end to land grabs and blockades, etc.

It could do so because of the intertwinement of U.S. and Israeli interests at both national and personal or community levels, and because of Israeli dependence on the U.S. Israel’s economy is largely artificial, a “war economy” fueled by American aid. What American citizens can do is for them to decide. Greater solidarity from Americans — exchanges, making the situation known, explaining that the Israeli occupation is pivotal to an understanding of the recurrent larger conflicts in the region, having more Americans physically present in the occupied territories to help build, to bear witness, to be “shields” if necessary — all of these will be useful, as long as it is clear that these acts of solidarity are not instrumentalized by religious differences or confrontations and are not anti-Semitic, either implicitly or overtly.

There is always the temptation to demonize the other, the “enemy” — and this is not only stupid, but ultimately self-defeating. No two peoples are as similar and have as much of a shared communality as the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is why it is also so very important for Americans to work with Israeli activists and opposition or even resistance groups, of whom there are quite a number.

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