Speakers at Capetown meeting compare situation in Palestine with South African apartheid

Palestinian women and men waiting at Huwara checkpoint near Nablus (Arjan El Fassed, 2004)

CAPE TOWN — Representatives of civil society concerned with the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict met in Cape Town today to explore the role of civil society in supporting a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the morning meeting, a number of speakers described the similarities and differences between the Palestinian and South African struggles and urged the conference to call for a boycott of products from Jewish settlements as well as a boycott of the of the American Caterpillar Corporation which sells the bulldozers that raze Palestinian homes. International isolation, internal resistance, underground movement and armed resistance, pillars of the South African struggle, should be kept in mind when talking about a platform for a solution to the Palestinian question.

It was suggested that the extremes of the debate in the Palestinian Territory, Asia and Europe must be isolated and activists needed to find the common ground. There must be a common middle ground that was inclusive. It was imperative to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable rather than to seek the clarity of isolation. In particular they must isolate religion as a factor in the debate.

Participants also called for African civil society initiatives for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Panelists stressed the importance of an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territory and the establishment of an independent Palestinian State; the right of return of the Palestinian refugees; the freeing of all political prisoners; freedom of movement for Yasser Arafat; respect for the human rights of all Palestinians and an end to the destruction of the Palestinian Authority.

Participants in the morning session included Amjad Atallah, President of the Strategic Assessment Initiative, Washington D.C.; Simon Boshielo, International Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions; Naeem Jeenah, Spokesperson of the Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa, Johannesburg; Shannon Field, Fellow of the Institute for Global Dialogue, Johannesburg; Joshua Ruebner, Board Member, United States Campaign to Stop the Israeli Occupation, Washington; Max Ozinsky, representative of the Not in My Name Campaign, Cape Town; and Reverend Cedric Mayson, National Coordinator of the Commission of Religious Affairs, African National Congress, Johannesburg.

The Chairman of the Committee, Paul Badji, made an opening statement.

In the afternoon, experts considered the role of African civil society and world wide initiatives to support a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The role of civil society in the African experience of ending the occupation and nation building, mobilization for protection of the Palestinian population by the international grassroots movement, and participation in international campaigns to end the occupation were major themes.


Moderator IBRAHIM RAZOOL, Premier of the Western Cape, in an opening statement, said that during the struggles in South Africa, the best solutions were not always the obvious ones. A major problem in the Middle East was intractability. Anger towards the occupiers had grown and those who pursued negotiation were forced to defend their credibility. Unfortunately, Israel had been given license to pursue its own goals. Civil society should seek resolution and avoid excessive anger in their response as anger used precious energy that was needed to win the struggle. The challenge was to find potential for opportunity in what appeared intractable. The early departure of the United States from Iraq suggested that it had been called on to count the costs of its Middle East adventure and that the appetite for conflict was decreasing. After decades of unilateralism and pursuing military conflict the question was whether there would be more of the same or whether civil society would take the opportunity to change things. The extremes of the debate in the Palestinian territory, Asia and Europe must be isolated and activists must move away from the boundaries of those who felt ‘you are with us or against us”. There must be a common middle ground that was inclusive. Religion could not be a factor in the debate. It was imperative to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable rather than to seek the clarity of isolation.

AMJAD ATALLAH, President, Strategic Assessment Initiative, Washington D.C. described the Palestinian Authority as similar to the Iraqi Governing Council, a body composed of extremely respected individuals who had no legal mandate to exercise any sovereignty. There is no dominant Palestinian national movement but rather, many movements, each with its own aims, goals, and tactics. All suffered from a lack of transparency and accountability. The divergence in public and private diplomacy allowed enemies of either option to operate with greater ease and manipulate various segments of Palestinian society. The inability to distinguish between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority allowed the United States and Israel to marginalize Palestinian national aspirations. The confusion helped Israel to fragment the Palestinian national movement into a multitude of groups, movements, cells, cities, towns, villages, and even families each vying to direct Palestinian foreign policy based on their own opinions and interests. On the level of strategy, Palestinian diplomacy remained adrift. There was no single voice legitimate to demand that legal, moral, and effective methods of resistance be employed. All diplomatic efforts should be made on identifying the necessary mechanisms to end Israel’s occupation first and foremost. Anything less would continue to be counter-productive.

SIMON BOSHIELO, International Secretary, Congress of South Africa Trade Unions, Johannesburg, said that if the Israeli Government moved to implement the resolutions of the United Nations, it would be a sign of strength rather than weakness. It would serve the interest of all humankind who wanted to see the dispute resolved. He called on all civil society to realize that the foremost task was the establishment of the Palestinian State. There was no intention to subdue anyone with a contrary view but the most realistic approach would be to establish the Palestinian sovereignty alongside the Israeli state. A debate on whether Israel should be existent was sterile. The two-State solution was the most realistic, because it evolved from concrete reality. The world belonged to the brave. Cowards invoked military artillery against the world peace movement. History had proven that military might on its own would never deliver peace but instead hardened attitudes, killed women and multiplied orphans. Brave were those who call and implement peaceful solutions against the tide of militarization and war.

NAEEM JEENAH, Spokesperson, Palestine Solidarity Committee of South Africa, Johannesburg said that despite the similarities between apartheid in South Africa and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Palestinians were subjected to worse conditions than the oppressed in South Africa had been. To overcome that situation, there must be a common platform acceptable to all and based on international law. International law should be applied to Palestinians as it was to others. The international community must call for an immediate end to occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an immediate dismantling of the apartheid wall and complete dismantling of all the illegal settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to their homes and to compensation. The establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital was a platform on which all could agree. He recommended that international isolation, internal resistance, underground movement and armed resistance, pillars of the South African struggle, should be kept in mind when talking about a platform for a solution to the Palestinian question. Consumer boycotts, disinvestment campaigns, sanctions and sports, academic and economic boycotts had been successful tools of South African resistance. South Africans fighting in the Israeli Defense Force should be charged, prosecuted and incarcerated.

SHANNON FIELD, Fellow, Institute for Global Dialogue said the impact of academic institutions and think tanks was important. Most information came from the biased media. Network broadcasts gave Israel an identity and a story with which most people could sympathize. On the other hand, Palestinians were usually portrayed as terrorists and little was seen about the difficulties of their daily existence. The BBC was lobbied heavily by the Jewish groups. Arabs in Britain had a less effective public relations effort. There was a growing Muslim population. Perhaps they would demand better coverage. There was a plethora of myths about the Middle East situation and a lack of independent research done on the Palestinian issue. Government policy- makers must be engaged to develop educational programmes and to debunk existing myths. Many think tanks tended to be funded by special interests and the results were likely to be biased towards Israel. There should be an independent assessment of the Palestinian right to resist occupation. The Israeli Government did not want a dialogue as it would threaten unilateral withdrawal.

JOSHUA RUEBNER, Board Member of United States Campaign to Stop the Israeli Occupation, Washington D.C. said the organization was a diverse coalition of more than 140 local and national organizations in the United States that worked together to educate and mobilize the public to change United States policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to support peace, justice, human rights and international law rather than military occupation. Residents of the United States had the responsibility to help end Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territory because it did so much to sustain that occupation. Too often the United States used its position not to promote human rights but to undermine them. The United States often sided with Israel and stood against the entire international community when it condemned abuse of Palestinian human rights. The United States provided Israel with roughly $600 million in economic assistance and two billion dollars of military assistance each year. Most Americans were unaware of the extent of United States support to Israel. Civil society ‘s role was to educate people and to give them the tools to change the pattern. Civil society must challenge the one-sided portrayal of the conflict. A change in United States policy would come only when large numbers of citizens demanded it. Such a strategy would work because it fit the pattern of every significant movement for progressive change in United States history. He called on the Forum to launch a global boycott of the Caterpillar Company. When people realized that profits were being made off the blood of innocent people they would force the Caterpillar Corporation to cease its business with Israel.

MAX OZINSKY, representative of the Not in My Name Campaign (NIMN), Cape Town said NIMN was a loosely structured group of South Africans of Jewish origin calling for the withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territory and the creation of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel. In 2001, NIMN had issued a statement protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinians and calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territory. A major focus had been to support the war resisters - the Refuseniks - in Israel. NIMN had been able undermine the impression that all Jews uncritically supported the Israeli State in its occupation of Palestinian land. It had also shown that the Palestinian struggle was not a religious struggle against the Jews. While initially rejected by the Jewish communal organizations, those groups were now more prepared to consider NIMH’s views. It was important to ensure that the issue of Palestinian solidarity was not seen simpy as a Muslim issue. He expressed concern about the growth of Christian Zionism, in particular among Pentacostal Christians. In that regard, it was important to explain the position of Christian Palestinians. They needed also to guard against political sectarianism in the solidarity movement. There must be room for discussion, debate and difference in the solidarity movement but it must focus on the issues that united them.

Rev. CEDRIC MAYSON, National Coordinator, Commission on Religious Affairs, African National Congress, Johannesburg said that despite the fact that the apartheid regime had ruled the money, arms, industry, the universities, media, police, government, voters and despite powerful support from major overseas power, there had been a peaceful transition to democracy. That resulted from clear policies: the African National Congress had sought unity, not power; South Africans pursued a policy or reconciliation based on non-violent realism; and it realized that comfortable people do not change so the oppressors must be made uncomfortable, ungovernable and unsustainable. Before the end of apartheid, other countries had a vested interest in supporting apartheid for racist, political and economic reasons. The economic impact of sanctions was a major factor in breaking the oppressive regime but the moral and political effect was that it enabled people to see themselves as supporters of oppression. The spirit that drove South Africa was the certainty that they would win.

TERRY BOULLATA, representative of the Popular Campaign against the Israeli Occupation Wall, East Jerusalem, said she lived in the shadows of the Occupation Wall. In a power point presentation she illustrated how the Wall interrupted daily life. During the day, people looked for the lowest part of the wall to climb over in order to go to school, work and the market. Stop the wall, end the occupation and move ahead with the peace solution, she said. The wall had nothing to do with security but was all about land grab, the expansion of settlements and entrenching Israeli control of water. It ended the possibility of the viability of a Palestinian State. She called on civil society to help in the dissemination of accurate and verifiable information locally and nationally. They had also to expose the deceptions disseminated in the Israeli community that the war was about Israeli security. Campaigning and lobbying efforts should always start with the decision makers. She called on eminent persons and celebrities to visit the Occupied Territory as it brought attention to the situation there.

SOYATA MAIGA, Chairman Association of Women Jurists of Mali, Bamako, said Africans had an obligation to remobilize public opinion against armed conflict and support the Palestinian people. She reviewed African contributions to a better understanding of the Palestinian question, efforts in which civil society organizations had occupied an increasingly important place. She called attention to a decline in African Government support for the cause of the Palestinian people at the very time when such massive and constant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law were taking place. This situation might be explained by the increasing number of conflicts in Africa, the pursuit of selfish material interests by certain States and American pressure. At the same time, African civil society had expanded and grown stronger. To forge and consolidate concrete actions in support of the Palestinian people and, beyond them, of the peace process in the Middle East, that role must be based on relevant and up-to-date information and the necessary material and financial resources.

RICHARD KUPER, Spokesperson, European Jews for a Just Peace, London, said his group worked toward encouraging both Government intervention and the mobilization of civil society. The stronger the latter, the more likely the former was to come about. They worked alongside others fighting for Palestinian rights, where Jewish groups played an important role in deflecting unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism. The struggle was engaged at many levels. Lobbying at the national and European level was important to encourage the European Union to take a stance independent of the Untied States. Involvement of Jewish groups in that activity was crucial because guilt over the persecution of Jews in Europe, most notably in the case of Germany, led to unwillingness to express justifiable criticism of Israeli Government actions. They supported Israeli organizations and movements engaged in related struggles. That was a direct link to their work in the Jewish community to develop a genuine pluralism of opinion and an active human rights and social justice movement with Palestinian-related issues at its core. As Jews, it was their task, to distinguish between the multiple interests of Jews in the Diaspora and those of the citizens of Israel.

FUAD SAMAAI, Representative of the Muslim Judicial Council, Stellenbosch , said that Israel prided itself as being the only democracy in the Middle East while excluding its citizens from the vote. He charged that conferences such as the current one served no other purpose than to give legitimacy to the State of Israel. How did the United Nations respond to the virtual non-existence of the international community, he asked. The United Nations did not enjoy serious grassroots support, at least not among the Palestinian people and its million of supporters around the world, including South Africa. The world organization had failed the Palestinian people in its mission of international peace and security. There was no sign of any action such as sanctions against Israel. The only option for civil society was to pressurize their Governments to do what the United Nations had failed to do – impose economic and other forms of sanctions against Israel. The United Nations must furnish valid reasons for its failure to implement its own Charter of Human Rights as well as Security Council resolutions. He called for “Justice before peace”.

KEITH A. VERMEULEN, representative of the South African Council of Churches said that in the past, the United Nations had afforded special forums on apartheid where the Council of Churches was represented with other churches. The Council welcomed the role the Government was taking in putting Palestinian rights on the agenda. Governments were unable to implement political will if it did not have the support and understanding of the civil society. In Africa, the Churches had a role to play in assisting and strengthening the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict. He urged the participants to listen to the solutions. The conflict in civil society had caused many rifts in the apartheid struggle. The choice to resolve those rifts had resulted in independence. The same must apply to the Palestinian cause. The South African Council of Churches supported the Palestinian resolve to live together whatever form that solution might take.

IVOR CHIPKIN, Fellow, Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, Johannesburg said the 1955 South African Freedom Charter had provided a vision of an alternative to apartheid that was not simply the opposite of apartheid. It had destabilized the idea of the principle of homogeneity and entertained the notion that it was possible to establish a new kind of community based on difference. There was no commonality of language, race or religion. What they had in common was that they had nothing in common. He expressed concern that there was no “compelling vision” of a Palestinian State, of an alternative to the State of Israel. It was one thing to decry the situation in the Middle East and to talk about the atrocities, but such comments usually stopped short of a compelling vision of the future. The challenge was to give expression to a compelling vision of a Palestinian State beyond the political aspiration, of a Palestinian State that was more than the opposite of the Occupied Territory. It was critical to continue with the campaigns of solidarity but it was equally important to find places for the expression of the Palestinian vision. He asked why such a vision had not been articulated. Why was it not automatic? What would it mean to have a two-State solution? What kind of society would that be? The recent settlement in Iraq presented a great dangerous precedent, because it carried out the idea that one could not leave it up to Arabs to establish a democracy. It was up to Palestinians in the Palestinian Territory to express their vision and it was up to the solidarity movement to support that vision.

Roundup of Meeting

Representatives of 56 Governments, 1 intergovernmental organization, 4 United Nations agencies, 40 non-governmental organizations and 32 representatives of the media attended the two-day meeting. Held at the Conference Center of the Arabella Sheraton Hotel, the meeting was divided into three plenaries and involved the participation of 40 experts.

The African Meeting, was followed by the Forum of Civil Society in Support of Middle East Peace. Both events were convened in accordance with General Assembly resolution 58/19 of 3 December 2003 by which the Assembly requested the Committee to continue to promote the realization of Palestinian rights, to support the Middle East peace process and to mobilize international support for and assistance to the Palestinian people. It also asked the Committee to continue to support Palestinian and other civil society organizations in order to mobilize international solidarity and support for the achievement of Palestinian rights and a peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine. The Assembly also asked the Committee to involve additional civil society organizations in its work. General Assembly resolution 58/19 specifically addresses the organization of meetings and conferences in various regions with the participation of all sectors of the international community.

The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, opened the two-day meeting, which began on 29 June. Plenary I heard presentations by experts on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Among the topics discussed were Israeli strategies to create facts on the ground, the destruction of the Palestinian economy and the humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the responsibilities of the occupying Power, strengthening Palestinian institutions and realizing a shared vision of peace between Israeli and Palestinians.

Plenary III was devoted to international efforts to salvage peace in the Middle East and African support for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Under that item speakers addressed issues such as ending the occupation as a key prerequisite for achieving peace; current approaches to advancing a negotiated settlement; preserving and building on prior achievements in the peace process; and strategies to garner public support for renouncing violence and returning to political dialogue.

Committee background

The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was established by the General Assembly resolution 3376 (XXX) of November 1975. By that resolution, the Assembly mandated the Committee to recommend a programme to enable the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable rights as recognized by General Assembly resolution 3236 (XXIX) of 22 November 1974. In its first and subsequent reports to the Assembly, the Committee has stressed that a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine, the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, must be based on the relevant United Nations resolutions and the following principles: the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, and from other occupied Arab territories; respect for the right of all States in the region to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized boundaries; and the recognition and exercise of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination. Each year the Assembly has renewed the Committee’s mandate and requested it to intensify its efforts.

The Committee is composed of the following Member States: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Cyprus, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine. Observers to the Committee are Algeria, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Nicaragua, Niger, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Viet Nam and Yemen. Palestine, African Union, League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are also Observers of the Committee.

Related Links

  • Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People
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