Johannesburg - Guilt trips and intimidation have left 16 South African youth leaders shocked after returning from a study tour of Israel and Palestine.
The tour, organised by pro-peace NGO the South Africa-Israel Forum (SAIF), was criticised by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee and Obed Bapela, a deputy minister in President Jacob Zuma’s office.
Youth leaders from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) and the South African Student Congress (Sasco) went on the tour.
BDS and the PSC viewed the “propagandist” trip as a way to “whitewash Israel’s blood-tainted existence under the smokescreen of getting to see both sides”.
Tour attendees ANCYL member Klaas Mokgomole and Sasco Wits branch chairman Nthabiseng Molefe said the group went in their own capacity and not under any ANC auspices.
“We went on our own, in our own capacity. We wanted to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the ground for ourselves. You can’t be a good leader without seeing two sides to the situation,” Mokgomole said.
“We did not come back from this trip pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, we came back pro-peace. We see the occupation of Palestine as wrong but we also see Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israelis as wrong too. Both nations just want peace.”
According to Mokgomole and Molefe, BDS made several attempts to stop the leaders from going on the trip.
“They kept sending intimidating e-mails saying that disciplinary action would be taken against us if we went. They tried to make us feel guilty,” Molefe said.
BDS also allegedly offered some trip attendees R40 000 to pay a trip waiver, if they pulled out. “Each participant had to sign an agreement: If we accept the invitation to go on the trip but pull out, the participant will have to pay back the cost of the trip which is R40 000,” Mokgomole said. “BDS offered to pay the waiver fee if we pulled out, but we refused. Trying to stop us from going on the trip proves BDS has something to hide,” Mokgomole added.
BDS spokeswoman Kwara Kekana denied the claim, saying BDS SA made no such offer. “It seems the Israeli lobby is trying to shift attention from the fact that they made students sign a contract which made them liable to pay R40 000 if they cancelled. They are obviously embarrassed by such coercion,” she said.
Kekana said BDS was critical of those who went because such trips went against the position organisations like Sasco and the PYA had taken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“They have subsequently suspended some of these members because they’ve gone against the resolutions and positions of their organisations. They lead these organisations at various levels. Some of them were chosen by the Israeli lobby based on the positions they occupy,” Kekana said.
Despite threats of suspension from Sasco, Molefe said she had not received any formal letters of dismissal.
“It’s all quiet. I’m still chair of Sasco Wits,” she said.
Mokgomole said there was no resolution banning South Africans from travelling to Israel or Palestine. “South Africa has strong diplomatic relations with both countries. Our government believes in a two-state solution.”
Trip organiser and SAIF executive director Dan Brotman said that despite BDS punting that the trip was “funded by the pro-Israel lobby”, that was not the case.
“I can say 100 percent that the money raised was funded by South African philanthropists from all walks of life. It was not a propaganda trip in any way. They went to Palestine and spent a lot of time in East Jerusalem interacting with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs on a day-to-day level,” Brotman said.
He said the SAIF organised the trip to give future South African leaders a legitimate opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We need to open dialogue, this is the only way peace can be achieved.”
Brotman added that the R40 000 trip waiver attendees signed was something any small NGO would do.