Tactics that ended apartheid in S. Africa can end it in Israel

An Israeli soldier sits atop an army vehicle overlooking a protest by Palestinians at the Beit Iba checkpoint outside Nablus in the occupied West Bank, June 2008. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict often inspires a sense of powerlessness. What can average Americans do to bring an end to this decades-old conflict when our leaders have failed so miserably?

And what good is speaking out about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land as the primary obstacle to peace when even former President Jimmy Carter and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu are condemned for their criticism of Israeli policies?

This month in San Jose, California, average Americans will have the opportunity to take a stand for peace and justice in the Middle East. The Presbyterian Church US’s General Assembly began Saturday and runs through Sunday at the San Jose Convention Center. At the meeting, which takes place once every two years, delegates will make policy decisions for the 2.3 million-member denomination.

They will consider corporate engagement, up to divestment, with companies that profit from the obstacles to a just peace in Israel and Palestine. The church is considering approaches to Caterpillar, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies.

The TransAfrica Forum, an organization which I was honored to head, played a leading role in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Corporate engagement was one of the most powerful tools in our non-violent arsenal. It was the right moral decision then and it is the right moral decision now. Just as it worked in South Africa, it can work in Palestine and Israel.

Yet Presbyterian delegates are being pressured to vote against similar measures. Some say the tactic unfairly singles out Israel for condemnation. But it is not the country we condemn; it’s a system of segregation and inequality.

The Israeli government has established in the Occupied Palestinian Territories a regime of systematic discrimination. It maintains two systems of laws, and a person’s rights are based on national origin. Palestinian land is confiscated to build Israeli-only settlements and roads. Palestinians wait hours in line at more than 500 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, while Jewish settlers speed by on modern, well-lit highways.

As Carter, and many Israelis have said, as long as this dual system exists, any peace agreement between Israel and Palestine will be impossible. Palestinians compare Israeli policies to those of apartheid in South Africa. Former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair wrote in 2002, “In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That regime exists to this day.”

South Africans who led the fight against apartheid, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former United Nations envoy John Dugard, make similar comparisons.

To the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians, we provide financial and diplomatic support to maintain these separate and unequal policies. Israel is the number one recipient of US foreign aid: roughly $2.5 billion last year alone. Our government has cast more than 40 vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel from international condemnation.

Divestment from companies that benefit from the occupation is an opportunity for American citizens to do what our government leaders have refused to do: say that our money will not fund human rights abuses any longer.

With humbleness, with love, with compassion for Palestinians and Israelis, I believe in the possibility that both can live as neighbors with security, dignity and respect. As it did in South Africa, corporate engagement, including divestment, can help make that possibility a reality.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is executive editor of blackcommentator.com and former president of the TransAfrica Forum, which led the US movement to overthrow apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s. This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and is republished with the author’s permission.