No Room for Justice: Bethlehem, like Sharpeville, has become a symbol of oppression

From the archive (legacy material)

Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain | The Guardian | 21 December 2002

Bethlehem is a familiar talisman of peace in Christmas festivities, but this year the innocent image is gone, perhaps for ever. Today Bethlehem’s residents are entombed in their houses 24 hours each day. When the Church of the Nativity was besieged for weeks by the Israeli army in April – the International Red Cross refused entry; misinformation about priests held hostage put out by the Israeli government; wounded Palestinians incarcerated by Israeli forces; others killed and dozens deported to Europe or bussed to Gaza – Bethlehem became, like Sharpeville, a name for injustice.
The parallels between the Palestinians’ 50 years of struggle for their own land and the anti-apartheid movement’s decades of military and civil campaigns for majority rule are seen as obvious in Southern Africa, where liberation wars successfully ended colonialism and racial oppression. That took much too long; but the international community is even further behind in expressing outrage and taking action against Israel than it was against the apartheid government.
Sanctions played a key role in changing perceptions, both inside South Africa and in the rest of the world, and were one key to obtaining majority rule. As early as 1946, before its own independence from Britain, the Indian government called for the breaking of all links with South Africa; in 1955 Bishop Trevor Huddleston called for a cultural boycott; in 1959 the African National Congress called for a general boycott; in 1961, after the Sharpeville massacre, South Africa was forced to leave the Commonwealth. In the early 1960s the UN security council called for a voluntary arms embargo, and in 1977 made it mandatory.
Social, sporting, cultural and academic boycotts were greeted with outrage when they began at the grassroots in Europe and the US. But by the mid-1980s, when it appeared that South Africa could implode, powerful economic sanctions were embraced by influential US politicians opposed to the Reagan administration. The writing was on the wall for apartheid. In 1988 the apartheid regime was forced into genuine negotiations. It will be the same for Israel.
The apartheid state sought a military solution, as General Ariel Sharon has always done. The white-led army occupied Namibia and southern Angola, created proxy forces in neighbouring countries, carried out sabotage raids and bombings in Angola, Mozambique and Zambia, assassinated key leaders of the African National Congress in neighbouring countries and as far afield as Paris. Inside the country the police ran a reign of terror in black townships. Harassment, arrests, torture and assassinations were so common that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sat for two years from 1996 and heard only part of the appalling evidence.
White South Africa was brutalised by what was done in its name. Some young whites fled abroad rather than be conscripted; others, who served in Angola, still suffer the pain and guilt of what they did. Israel has its own refuseniks now, and its own coming problems with the terrified or arrogant youths who man checkpoints, ransack and demolish houses, use civilians as human shields and target F16 fighters on packed civilian homes.
Ian Hook, the British UN worker who was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier in Jenin last month, may come to be a symbol of a brutality which has to be ended. Outside Palestine few will have heard the names of others who died around the same time, similarly unarmed and defenceless: 95-year-old Fatima Mohamed Abeid, who was shot dead in a stationary taxi at a checkpoint on her way home from shopping; or 24-year-old Johad Muhammed An-Natour from Nablus, riddled with bullets as he walked to wake his neighbours to eat before the day of Ramadan fasting; or the deaf 68-year-old from Beit Lahour in Gaza who was crushed “to the thickness of a chocolate bar”, according to his son, Maher Salem, when the Israeli army, ignoring the family’s pleas to rouse him, bulldozed their six-storey home.
All these people came from families who are victims of the Israeli policy of closures which, since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, has left 75% of Palestinians below the poverty line of $2 a day, cut average incomes by 30% since the Oslo accord a decade ago, and led to 21% of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition.
The vast majority of these children are deeply traumatised by experiences such as the sight of 12-year-old Muhammad Durra, shot dead as he crouched beside his father at a Gaza checkpoint in the first days of the intifada. Durra became the Hector Peterson of Palestine. Peterson was the 13-year-old schoolboy shot dead in the Soweto uprising of 1976 whose picture flashed around the world, belatedly waking consciences.
The trigger for the revolt of Peterson and his friends was the apartheid state’s entrenching of second-class education for black children. In the West Bank and Gaza education has fared even worse as a target for destruction, disruption and harassment by the Israeli defence forces. In the school year 2001-02, 216 students were killed and 2,514 wounded. Schools have been damaged or occupied, Ministry of Education records destroyed. Bir Zeit University routinely faces curfews, roadblocks and road destruction, often making it impossible to reach.
Throughout 50 years of oppression, the Palestinians have demonstrated a determination to make whatever sacrifices are needed for education. Today, primary school children walk hours to school over back roads and fields to avoid checkpoints, and ad hoc schools have been set up in homes when curfew keeps schools shut for weeks or months.
The Israeli journalist Amira Hass has written about the settlers and others who reveal the policy behind all this brutality when they “post thousands of leaflets and placards calling for the expulsion of Arabs; they put it rather more bluntly: ‘Them there, us here’.” Hass suggests that people like them would be described in Europe as “fascists”, or “racists”, or even “neo-Nazis”, and asks whether Israeli professors, historians and those who support centrist parties and movements will “remain silent until after the ethnic cleansing has taken place”. She could have put the same question to the international community that has turned its collective back on the misery of Manger Square.
· Ronnie Kasrils is minister of water and forestry in South Africa; he writes in a personal capacity. He was a member of the ANC underground for 30 years and a senior commander of its military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe. He recently gave the keynote speech at a conference in London on divestment and sanctions against Israel. Victoria Brittain, who is a research associate in development at the LSE, chaired the conference.