A BDS South Africa banner at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, site of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.(BDS South Africa)
Mahmoud Abbas, de facto leader of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, has made his clearest statement in opposition to the global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
His comments have drawn strong condemnation from Palestinian and South African activists.
It has also emerged that South Africa’s chief rabbi, who spoke at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, is a committed supporter of Israel’s colonization of occupied land, a denier of its abuses of Palestinian rights and lived in a radical Israeli settlement.
Abbas opposes BDS
“No we do not support the boycott of Israel,” Mahmoud Abbas said at a press conference in South Africa, which he has been visiting to attend the Mandela memorial, The Star newspaper reported on 11 December.1
“But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal. … But we don’t ask anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”
It is unclear what Abbas meant by “mutual recognition.” While Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization have recognized Israel, Israel does not recognize a Palestinian state or indeed any Palestinian rights whatsoever and continues to aggressively steal Palestinian land.
“Oblivious” to Palestinian struggle
Abbas’ comments conflict “with the Palestinian national consensus that has strongly supported BDS against Israel since 2005,” Omar Barghouti told The Electronic Intifada.
A founder of the BDS movement, Barghouti emphasized that he was commenting in a personal capacity.
“There is no Palestinian political party, trade union, NGO [nongovernmental organization] network or mass organization that does not strongly support BDS. Any Palestinian official who lacks a democratic mandate and any real public support, therefore, cannot claim to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people when it comes to deciding our strategies of resistance to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid,” Barghouti said.
The Palestinian civil call for BDS urges “people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era” and does not limit such campaigns only to settlement goods.
“Any Palestinian official who today explicitly speaks against boycotting Israel – particularly in a country like South Africa, where the ruling party, leading trade unions, churches and other civil society groups have warmly endorsed BDS – only shows how aloof he is from his own people’s aspirations for freedom, justice and equality, and how oblivious he is to our struggle for their inalienable rights,” Barghouti added.
Israel and its lobby in South Africa will be particularly pleased to hear Abbas’ comments, which come just weeks after South Africa’s foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said that her country was reducing its ties with Israel.
Akin to Bantustan leaders
Salim Vally, spokesperson of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in South Africa, told The Electronic Intifada that Abbas’ comments were “shocking” and represented an “attack on the global solidarity movement.”
Abbas’ words were “akin to what our erstwhile bantustan leaders would have said and this has the potential of undoing much of the work of the solidarity movement which is supported by the vast majority of South Africans,” Vally added.
Bantustans were nominally independent “states” set up by the apartheid regime with subservient leaders to disguise and legitimize apartheid. “Mandela and his movement fought against the Bantustan leaders all their careers,” Vally said.
Undermining Palestinian struggle
This is not the first time Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have sought to undermine the increasingly high-profile BDS movement.
In 2010, the PA launched a short-lived campaign urging Palestinians to boycott settlement goods. While welcomed by many, as I wrote at the time, its true purpose appeared to be to undermine the broader BDS movement.
Abbas himself took part in that campaign while urging trade with Israel. “We are not boycotting Israel, because we have agreements and imports from it,” he said.
Trade with Israel directly benefits Palestinian elites and the Palestinian Authority, which is entirely reliant on Israeli goodwill.
A now-defunct PA website supposedly meant to encourage the boycott of settlement goods even stated that “Regarding trade with Israel, the Palestinian Ministry of Economy confirms continuing its cooperation as it was agreed at the  Paris summit.”
The Abbas-led PA is deeply entrenched in the Israeli occupation and relies on Israel for weapons to use in its crackdown against any form of Palestinian resistance.
As recently as October, Abbas boasted about the work PA security forces have done on behalf of the Israeli occupation army.
“The Palestinian Authority has achieved 100 percent success rate at security coordination with Israel,” Abbas said.
Abbas has also been leading a tenacious campaign against the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Refugee rights are a key pillar of the BDS call.
South Africa’s Chief (settler) Rabbi
This week, South African chief rabbi Warren Goldstein was one of the official speakers at the public memorial service for former President Nelson Mandela, lauding the late freedom fighter’s “mighty power of forgiveness.”
Goldstein, it turns out, earned his education at a radical religious school in an Israeli settlement on occupied Palestinian land. He “is a graduate of the Beth El Yeshiva, the organization that founded and maintains Arutz Sheva.”
Arutz Sheva, which reported this, is a far-right pro-settler and anti-Palestinian media organization.
Beit El is a colony near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. The Beit El Yeshiva (alternatively spelled Beth El) was founded in 1977 by radical Jewish settlers from the Mercaz Harav religious school in Jerusalem.
“The foundations for the religious settlements in the West Bank were forged in Mercaz Harav,” according to Haaretz and it was from there that the earliest settlers to colonize the occupied territories set out after the 1967 war.
The Beit El Yeshiva was established with the support of the Israeli occupation army which provided housing for the settlers on one of its bases.
Last Saturday, Palestinian schoolboy Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, 14, was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. According to the boy’s father, the shots that killed his son were fired from a Beit El watchtower overlooking the adjacent Jalazone refugee camp where the family lives.
In keeping with the Beit El Yeshiva’s extreme teachings, Goldstein himself has taken strongly anti-Palestinian positions. He even denies the occupation.
“The … untruth is the accusation of illegal occupation of Arab land,” Golstein wrote in a letter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Calling South African Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim “unfit to hold public office,” Goldstein demanded he resign over the South African government’s support for Palestinian rights.
Goldstein even accused Ebrahim of “apartheid-style control of information and censorship” for calling on South Africans to avoid visiting Israel due to its ongoing human rights abuses.
In a recent interview, Goldstein called any comparison between Israel and its occupation on the one hand, and apartheid South Africa on the other, a “modern blood libel.”
Baleka Mbete, national chairperson of the African National Congress and master of ceremonies at the Mandela memorial, would disagree.
Last year she declared that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was “far worse than apartheid South Africa.”