A sustained world-wide campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions aimed at Israel is needed, just as it was in apartheid South Africa, to end the many decades long oppression of Palestinians by the State of Israel. [Also see article by Pervez Hoodbhoy in this issue]
Israel’s helicopter raid in international waters on the flotilla bringing relief supplies to Gaza, killing 9 peace activists, has been severely condemned by the entire world, barring the pro-Israel lobby in the US, for which there is no atrocity Israel can commit that it would not try to justify. India’s reaction, however, was extremely disappointing. A general condemnation of violence serves little purpose in this situation where the issues are clear cut and leave little room for obfuscation.
A decade ago, the former US President Jimmy Carter provoked a storm of criticism in the US for writing a book with the title “Peace Not Apartheid.” The Israel lobby, which seems to control both the legislative and the executive branches of government in the US, is treated with deference by the media, and is kowtowed to by both liberals and conservatives, severely castigated Carter for daring to equate Israel with the liberals’ bête-noire, apartheid South Africa. However, Carter’s mild rebuke of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians in the now over four decade long occupation was hardly something to get too worked up about. A few minutes of observation in the bus station behind Jerusalem Old City’s Damascus Gate, where the mini-buses leave for Ramallah in the West Bank reveals far more than any book can about what apartheid in Israel is like.
Ramallah is a few miles away from Jerusalem, a journey that should take no more than perhaps 15 minutes but can easily stretch to an hour or two or more depending on the mood of the soldiers at various “checkpoints” along the way. Boarding the bus, which has 30 or so seating capacity, one finds 20 odd Palestinians and a few foreign visitors. While the driver waits to start the bus, it begins to rain; a few minutes pass and then two Israeli soldiers with Uzis, kids of 19 or 20 by their appearance, board the bus shouting “hawaiyya, hawaiyya” (Arabic for ID card) at the passengers. It is probably the only Arabic word they know or need to know. The look on their faces as they examine each card is one of utter contempt as if looking at lesser life forms. Suddenly one of the Uzi-toting kids gestures to an elderly Arab man to get up from his seat and get out of the bus into the rain. Something is wrong with his ID card, maybe the stamp is not perfectly aligned in the column or space it is supposed to be in. A young mother with an infant in her lap and a small girl next to her receives the same command and is forced to obey. The Palestinian man sitting next to me clenches his fists on the back of the seat in front of him but cannot argue with the Uzi. It is very possible that the Uzi-carrying kids playing God perhaps immigrated to Israel a few weeks ago, were drafted into the military and after a few weeks of propaganda (aka training) are now kicking the Palestinians around like so many pieces of dirt. The bus starts and we pass the old man and the young woman with her children standing forlornly in the rain. This scene is repeated many times each day. It is the face of the occupation carried out routinely by its functionaries. In all essential aspects it is no different from the apartheid formally practiced earlier in South Africa. It is also common knowledge that Israel was one of the few countries in the world collaborating closely in all matters, political, economic, military, with the apartheid regime when many countries were boycotting it under UN sanctions.
Gaza is commonly referred to as an open-air prison; everything that enters or leaves is controlled by the Israeli military. Occasionally, brutish assaults like the one in December 2008-January 2009 are launched further destroying the infrastructure, schools, hospitals, buildings, etc., that remains. UN reports that are critical of Israel’s actions, like the Goldstone report, are summarily rejected. There is hardly any other country in the world that can get away with this kind of behavior but Israel is secure in the knowledge that the US veto in the UN Security Council will protect it from having to face any consequences for its actions.
The flotilla was designed to break the Israeli blockade on humanitarian goods, food, clothing, building materials, fuel, entering Gaza without being subject to the arrogant actions and “approvals” of the occupier, analogous to the actions of a prison warden. The night raid by Israeli commandos in international waters was nothing but an act of piracy. It deserved severe condemnation and many countries that were formerly neutral or even apathetic to Israeli occupation seem to have finally woken up. India’s response was an exception and disappointing. No doubt India has established over the least two decades a military relationship with Israel in procuring advanced weaponry and Israel is eager to find export markets for its products as well as cultivate relations with India that were earlier frozen when India was an unabashed supporter of the rights of the Palestinian people. While the exercise in realpolitik by India in establishing diplomatic, commercial, and military relations with Israel is justified to some extent by considerations of national interests, there is a limit beyond which such exercises can become merely cynical and corrode India’s national and international interests.
As the pre-eminent military power in the area, possessing hundreds of nuclear weapons, Israel has long become accustomed to acting with complete impunity. But the climate that allowed Israel to get away with committing atrocious acts, like assassinating political opponents in foreign countries, seems to be changing. There is now a concerted call for BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) by many civil society groups in the West; Israeli society having been fundamentally (mis)-educated by Zionist propaganda for many decades is becoming more and more right-wing and the religious zealots who form the core of the settler movement occupying Palestinian land at their whim are steadily becoming more powerful. Instead of evolving into a liberal democracy, Israel is headed in the opposite direction. The current regime in Israel is commonly referred to as consisting of the right-wing, the extreme right-wing, and the beyond-the-fringe right wing. It’s Foreign Minister, Lieberman, who has called for the forcible expulsion of the Israeli Arab population, is widely acknowledged to be both a racist and a fascist.
The desperate corner into which the Palestinians have been pushed by the oppressive occupation has, understandably, led to equally desperate and suicidal responses. To avert a disaster, the world needs to act with a sustained BDS movement that will send a message Israel cannot ignore. It took a long time but eventually worked in South Africa and, hopefully, it will do so in historic Palestine as well.