A few weeks ago I departed from South Africa for the Gaza Strip in order to take up a short-term voluntary post with a humanitarian organization there. As the Rafah border crossing with Egypt is effectively the only passage in and out of the besieged territory, flying to Cairo was my only option in gaining access to Gaza.
The Egyptian border authorities controlling the Rafah crossing have varying and often arbitrary requirements that must be fulfilled by anyone wishing to enter Gaza, which change regularly and without notice. The latest requirement is that any non-Palestinian wishing to visit Gaza needs to obtain prior written permission from their embassy in Cairo. This is ostensibly to ensure that foreigners have received the relevant travel warnings from their respective embassies and to absolve the Egyptian government of any responsibility for their health or safety once in Gaza.
While this appears reasonable, as I learned over the next few days, it is actually designed to prevent the entry of foreigners into the Gaza Strip. At the South African Embassy in Cairo, I quickly realized that my government was conspiring with the Egyptian and Israeli siege of the tiny coastal territory. After repeated requests with various representatives, my embassy refused to provide the necessary permission for me to enter Gaza. Indeed, I was told that the embassy was under “strict orders directly from the South African government not to facilitate the travel of any South African citizen to Gaza via Rafah.” Even when I contacted the South African Ambassador, Ms. Santo Kudjoe directly, my request for assistance was denied without any credible reasons. After this, the embassy simply began ignoring my telephone calls.
What enraged me further was that the embassies of every other country, except Sweden, were cooperating with their citizens and providing them with the necessary letters of consent. I personally saw American, French and Polish aid workers entering because they had the dreaded letter.
I had expected to encounter difficulty from Egyptian and Israeli authorities upon attempting to enter Gaza. But neither had interfered. After traveling thousands of kilometers, and now literally standing a few hundred meters away from Gaza, the sad irony was that it was my own government that was preventing me from entering. I couldn’t understand why South Africa, which claims to be sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, had adopted this policy.
Since the beginning of the Israeli-led siege on Gaza over two years ago, the territory has been plunged into socioeconomic chaos. According to the UN, 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants are directly dependent on aid for their basic staple foods. Local trade and industry has collapsed due to virtually all imports and exports being unable to bypass the almost-permanently sealed borders.
The list of 3,000 to 4,000 basic items that were permitted to enter the area prior to the blockade has now been reduced to between 30 to 40 items, with basic household necessities such as light bulbs, candles, matches, books, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, shampoo and conditioner prohibited from entering.
Almost no gasoline or diesel has been allowed in since November 2008, forcing people to run their vehicles and ambulances on cooking gas. Gaza’s only power plant has shut down several times after running out of fuel because the crossing used to import the fuel has been closed. Oxfam research shows that houses across Gaza are without electricity between 4 percent and 33 percent of the time.
In addition, the ban on import of pipes, pumps and other spare parts has caused the collapse of Gaza’s water and sewage network. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, Gaza residents receive only half of their required water needs, with 80 percent of that deemed unfit for consumption by international standards. WHO estimates that between 50-70 million liters of raw or poorly-treated sewage is released into the sea from Gaza daily, due to the collapsing sewage network. Some of Gaza’s sewage is stored in huge lagoons, one of which burst in 2007 causing at least five deaths.
The UN recorded that over 52,000 houses, 800 industrial sites, 204 schools, 39 mosques and two churches were partially or completely destroyed during Israel’s winter assault on Gaza. While international donors have pledged over $3 billion to help rebuild the devastated area, reconstruction efforts have been rendered impossible due to the blockade. As at June 2009, not a single pane of glass had entered Gaza from Israel, while only two truckloads of cement have been granted entry thus far.
Bearing this and our own recent struggle against oppression and apartheid in this country in mind, I find it utterly inconceivable that the South African government would stand in the way of aid workers attempting to render their time and skills in an area so desperately in need of assistance. I have heard several prominent political figures vociferously swearing their loyal support and admiration for the Palestinians on so many occasions, some even going as far as saying that “South Africa is not free until Palestine is free.” This however, unfortunately, appears to be nothing but lip service.
A recently published report conducted by the Palestinian grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign and endorsed by a broad range of humanitarian organizations, accused the South African government of “complicity in Israeli occupation, colonialism and apartheid.” The report highlights a striking inconsistency between South Africa’s constitution, its obligations under international law, and stated foreign policy on the one hand, and the government’s trade relations with Israeli companies that are directly linked to settlements, checkpoints and the “separation wall” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories — all deemed illegal under international law — on the other.
South Africa’s main power utility, Eskom, for example is accused of having close ties to the Israel Electric Company. According to a speech given at the Israeli Knesset by a South African government representative earlier this year, the Israel Electric Company will participate in the design of new power stations in South Africa. According to the report, the Israel Electric Company is the sole provider of power to all of the occupied West Bank’s illegal settlements.
In addition, Eskom has signed many large contracts with Alstom, a global giant in the transport and energy infrastructure industry, to upgrade its existing plants, as well as build new power stations. Alstom is the same company that is currently being sued in a French court for its involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project built on Palestinian land illegally, and threatening the destruction of many more homes.
Transnet, the South African government’s owner and operator of all national rail and port infrastructure, is also linked to the Israeli video surveillance company NICE Systems. In several multi-million dollar projects, NICE Systems is supplying Transnet with thousands of video surveillance cameras and ancillary equipment throughout the country. According to the report, NICE Systems is heavily involved in wiretapping and surveillance for the Israeli government, with close ties to Israeli intelligence.
South Africa’s state diamond trader Alexkor, is involved primarily in the mining and sale of rough, gem-quality diamonds on the South African Diamond Exchange. Being the world’s largest importer of rough diamonds, Israel is known to buy up a large percentage of South Africa’s rough diamonds. Alexkor is accused of doing business with Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev. Leviev, a Ukrainian-born billionaire is heavily involved in the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Due to his extensive role in illegal settlement construction, Leviev has been boycotted by the British government, who refuse to rent property from him for the British embassy in Tel Aviv.
It is well-known that the former South African apartheid regime had close military ties with Israel. But according to the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign’s report, there are still extensive military ties between the two countries. These include the sale of explosive detonators, military aircraft, satellites, as well as spare parts and components for other military vehicles to Israel. In 2005, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that a high level delegation of South African defense ministry officials visited Israel in order to discuss military cooperation.
The report goes on to detail the involvement of numerous other South African State organs, including Telkom, in large-scale transactions and business deals with companies directly involved in the occupation, settlement construction as well as the separation wall.
In a written submission to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004, the Republic of South Africa clearly stated that it considers the separation wall and settlements illegal. It has therefore acknowledged the applicability of international humanitarian law to the case of Palestine, and thus implicitly accepted the obligations which flow from these laws. Furthermore, the Department of Foreign Affairs has affirmed that “respect for and adherence to international law underpins [South Africa’s] foreign policy.” In South Africa’s case as a third party, the most important obligation is thus to ensure that these laws are enforced.
Why then, do the South African government’s actions and trade relations conflict so drastically with their stated foreign policy and legal and moral obligations? It appears that the government is playing a double game by appeasing the public with lofty rhetoric on the one hand, while violating its own founding ideals as enshrined in the constitution on the other.
Due to their support of South Africans struggling against apartheid, Palestinians likewise expect the same level of support from the now free and democratic South Africa. It was largely because of the pressure exerted by the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that the apartheid regime was forced to abolish its racist policies. The least we can do is to return the favor and avoid short-term financial gain from blurring our moral responsibilities.
Having only recently broken free of the humiliation and degradation of apartheid, South Africa should be at the forefront of ending similar injustices wherever else they are found. And if our government is truly a peace loving democracy as it claims to be, then its economic policies should reflect its stated ideals accordingly.
Sayed Dhansay is a South African writer and political activist who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006-2007.