A Palestinian woman reacts after seeing her destroyed house in Beit Hanoun, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Picture: Suhaib Salem

The mantra for us has been ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’. How come we can’t apply that there, asks Ahmed Kathrada.

Johannesburg - I have been prompted to write after viewing the nightly television images of the horrendous, ongoing atrocities committed by Israel in Gaza. Utilising highly destructive weapons, the main victims have been defenceless civilians; women, children and men.

Israel’s aggression has been violent, merciless and uncivilised. Based on its actions, it will not solve its problem with the Palestinian people, and it certainly will not bring peace to its own citizens.

While writing this, my thoughts go back to August-September of 1951, when I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. I find myself asking: “Has apartheid Israel so quickly forgotten the millions of Jews, communists and gypsies who were exterminated by the Nazis, that they now commit the same crimes?”

The indiscriminate bombings and destruction of infrastructure has resulted in the disruption of electricity and water supplies in Gaza. The human casualties increase at a rate that can only be described as genocide.

Statistics of Palestinian casualties from July 8, when Israel’s most recent attack began, unti July 30, shows:

* 1 269 killed.

* 7 100 injured.

* 23 160 homes damaged.

* 133 schools damaged.

* 13 hospitals damaged.

* 38 health personnel injured.

* 8 mosques destroyed.,

* 2 churches partially damaged.

* Over 240 000 people displaced.

What worries me is the sheer impunity with which Israel acts. It reminds me of the many years that apartheid was allowed to flourish in South Africa with little constructive action on the part of the major powers such as the US, France, Germany and the UK, including some of the leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It is not the first time, certainly not with Israel, that the world has “certified” the blatant disregard for international law and international humanitarian law, allowing it to continue unchallenged with its acts of military violence, occupation and modern day colonialism.

Following Israel’s recent attack on a UN-designated safe area, UNRWA’s Chris Gunness was right when he said: “The world should hang its head in shame.” The feeble and weak-kneed responses by political leaders to the collective punishment of Palestinians and the slaughter of the innocent makes them complicit to the great crime under way.

It is clear that the real voices of protest are on the streets; they come from ordinary, peace-loving citizens in Johannesburg, London, Paris and elsewhere.

While we welcome the strong statements from our own government and the ANC against Israeli aggression, we must ask: Has the time not come for South Africa to take a firmer stand against the pariah Israeli apartheid state? Should my organisation – the ANC not be doing more, like we did in getting the world to isolate apartheid South Africa? Should it not be mobilising our people to boycott Israel? Should we not expel the Israeli ambassador and recall our ambassador? Should we continue to eat Israeli fruit? Should we continue to trade with this rogue country? And has my organisation forgotten Madiba reminding our people that we cannot be free while the people of Palestine are not? In this regard, I hope that once the two South African observers confirm what the world already knows that we will see more decisive action by the government of South Africa.

A South African who is not white, does not need more than one day’s stay in Palestine to be thrown back to pre-1994 and realise that apartheid is very much alive under Israel as a colonial power. I spent a week in occupied Palestine, and was taken aback to personally relive a time, in some ways, worse than my apartheid days.

South Africans living under apartheid, having experienced this complicity first hand, especially by the West, should therefore speak out more strongly than others. We should lead the global moral brigade against the Israeli apartheid state.

Our government should be the moral voice on the international platforms on which we serve. South Africa can use its good standing internationally, and its position in Brics and the AU, to exert greater moral and diplomatic pressure against apartheid Israel and to urge other countries to do the same.

We should not forget that during apartheid, some Western countries termed our freedom fighters as “terrorists”. For many years they demonised and ignored the ANC. However, it was the ordinary people of those countries who supported our quest for democracy and justice. They participated in initiatives such as the Free Mandela Campaign, while their governments backed the National Party.

If the recent protests from New York to Japan are anything to go buy, global activism against apartheid Israel is intensifying. The global and mass protests against Israel’s military attacks, and in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, is a step in the right direction.

A very positive development recently is that the Palestinian “unity deal” has held under Israeli military aggression. In a recent statement issued from his prison cell, Marwan Barghouthi – known as the “Palestinian Mandela” – has stressed the importance of preserving Palestinian unity. This new “unity government” must be supported and defended by the peace-loving peoples of the world.

While some may argue that the two-state solution is still relevant, Israel’s own action has betrayed its intentions.

As I observe the growing number of Jewish people in the protests, I find myself asking, why is it not possible, for Israelis to contemplate living with Palestinians? Afrikaners have adapted and learnt to live with Africans in a united South Africa.

Minorities around the world have integrated with the various communities in which they stay. Why should it be different for Jews and Palestinians in Israel and Palestine?

Why should they not be able to live in harmony and equality in a single state with Palestinians? What is this insistence on a state for Jews only? The mantra for us here, has been, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

Surely, Palestine – and when I say this I refer to the land encompassed in pre-1948 Palestine – should belong to all who live in it.

While I, and many others, have these thoughts, I recognise that this issue of the one or two state solution is something that Palestinians need to make a determination on. It is this context that I was extremely happy with the moves towards Palestinian unity.

As Gaza prepares more shrouds over the next few days, and the wanton destruction continues, many will try to dictate what Palestinians “should be doing”. When a state acts with impunity, as Israel continues to do, it becomes easy for others to criticise the victim for not reacting in a certain manner.

South Africans who resisted apartheid, know that they chose the method with which they fought back, be it through passive resistance or the armed struggle.

While peaceful solutions will also be the preference, the time comes when oppressed people might prefer dying than to continue living on their knees.

We must remember that the root cause of this conflict at all times, namely: the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination; the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands; the indiscriminate targeting of civilians – particularly women, children, the aged and the disabled; and the flagrant disregard of international law and international humanitarian law.

To conclude, just as I dedicated my life to eradicating apartheid in South Africa, so too will I dedicate what remains of my life to campaigning for peace and justice in Palestine.

* Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years in prison, 18 of which were on Robben Island, under the apartheid government. He served as parliamentary counsellor to Nelson Mandela, and today, aged 85, remains an activist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent