Palestinians remember Mandela as ‘most courageous who supported us’
RAMALLAH // To Palestinians, he was nothing short of a beloved icon.
Nelson Mandela was an outspoken critic of Israeli policies who notably proclaimed in a 1997 speech that his people’s “freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
In their struggle to end Israeli occupation, Palestinians draw inspiration from Mandela’s efforts to bring down the apartheid regime that ruthlessly repressed black South Africans for 46 years.
He spent 27 years in white-run jails, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been subjected to Israeli ones. His example has encouraged a growing Palestinian embrace of boycotts and sanctions against Israel that also were used to end white-rule rule in South Africa.
To many here, Mandela’s message will endure long after his death.
The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, yesterday praised Mandela as a “symbol of freedom from colonialism and occupation”.
Calling him the “most courageous and important of those who supported us”, Mr Abbas said the Palestinian people would never forget his “historic statement that the South African revolution will not have achieved its goals as long as the Palestinians are not free.”
“His name means so much to us on so many levels, as a man who led a successful revolution against Apartheid and as someone who spent many, many years in jail for his beliefs — just as Palestinians have,” said Khalida Jarrar, a Palestinian Legislative Council representative and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
“Every Palestinian knows who Nelson Mandela is.”
Like the other national liberation movements that emerged in the post-colonial era, the PLO leadership under the late Yasser Arafat espoused similar ideals as Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which waged a decades-long struggle to end white domination in South Africa.
One of the first foreign leaders Mandela met after being released from prison in 1990 was Arafat. Meeting in Zambia, the South African leader praised the PLO chairman as “a fellow freedom fighter”.
When Arafat died in 2004, Mandela called him “one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people”.
His embrace of Arafat — and the Palestinian cause in general — did not earn him much applause in Israel.
If anything, Israel and South Africa’s apartheid leaders had found common cause against the struggles championed by Mandela and the Palestinians. As a result, those two governments developed especially close diplomatic and military relations during the Cold War.
In 1976, Israel invited the then apartheid prime minister, John Vorster, a known Nazi sympathiser, on a state visit. During that tour, Israel’s then premier, Yitzhak Rabin, toasted Vorster at a banquet and praised “the ideals shared by Israel and South Africa: the hopes for justice and peaceful coexistence”.
Vorster also happened to be justice minister during the infamous 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial that sentenced Mandela to life in prison.
“I think that among Israelis, there’s a wilful ignorance about the depth of the ties between the apartheid regime and Israel,” said Noam Sheizaf, editor of Israel’s left-leaning +972 online magazine.
“These issues are not discussed.”
But if he held any grudges against Israel, Mandela, who in 1994 was elected South Africa’s first black president, did his best not to show them.
In the 1997 address in which he lent his people’s support to the Palestinian cause, he called for their self-determination and statehood and spoke about how Palestinians experienced the sort of “injustice and gross human-rights violations” that blacks endured under apartheid rule.
But, he also praised Yitzhak Rabin — who in 1995 was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli who opposed his decision to sign the Oslo peace accords with Arafat two years earlier — as someone “who paid the supreme sacrifice in pursuit of peace”.
That sort of magnanimity helped Mandela achieve the seemingly impossible task of ushering in democracy for South Africans of all creeds and colours.
But for Palestinians, his success also is a painful reminder of their inability to forge a similar path to freedom despite a peace process with Israel that has repeatedly failed over the past two decades.
Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist in the West Bank who supports non-violent measures to end Israel’s occupation, said the failure of the Oslo peace process was a failure to “stick to principles”.
He credited Mandela and the ANC for refusing compromises with apartheid leaders that were anything short of equal rights for blacks and whites.
“The most intelligent thing they did was that they understood dynamics of power. They did not allow the racial apartheid system to continue in any form — that wasn’t open to negotiations,” he said.
The Palestinian leadership under Arafat, however, signed onto the Oslo process without any concrete agreement to end Israel’s occupation. Instead, negotiations over so-called final-status issues — borders, Jerusalem, settlements, Palestinian refugees — were supposed to take places after a five-year time period.
That never happened, and Israel’s settler population ballooned.
“Under Oslo, the principled stance would have been to not conclude an agreement with the occupation still standing and with the settlements still there,” Mr Quran said.
Oslo’s failure helped hasten the rise of militancy, such as the Hamas movement, which calls for Israel’s destruction and carried out scores of suicide attacks on Israeli buses and cafes.
But perhaps the most significant legacy of the accord’s demise is the rising popularity of comparing Israel’s Palestinian policies to apartheid South Africa.
That has helped rally Palestinians and international activists to the non-violent tactics of internationally backed boycotts, divestment and sanctions that were brought to bear against South Africa’s apartheid regime and its enablers.
“In South Africa, it was not the economic boycott that brought apartheid down. It was the fear of this movement that made white elites reflect and begin to change, and I see the same pattern developing in Israel,” said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a writer and activists in Bethlehem who promotes such non-violent measures against Israel.
But missing from this equation is a unifying figure such as Mandela, said Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist from Hebron.
“There’s just not the level of support internationally and inside Israel for Palestinian human-rights defenders like there was in South Africa.”