Why South Africa should support Palestine at the United Nations this week

As I write this, leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations (UN) in New York to attend the General Assembly.  Among the many issues being addressed, the one story stealing the show is the possible declaration of statehood by Palestine, much to the distress of the United States and Israel.

The struggle for a Palestinian state and the freedom of its citizens is not dissimilar from that of South Africa.  For a start, many of the problems facing the region are of British origin, whether it is the Balfour Decleration in 1919, or their hasty retreat without resolving the issue in 1948.  The Palestinian lands are being illegally occupied (by UN definition) and its citizens persecuted by discriminatory policies and brutal and disproportionate repression by Israeli state security.  The worst of them all is the ambivalence shown by the international community and its liberal organizations that claim to stand up for and defend human rights.  Sound familiar enough?

The Gaza Strip is effectively a concentration camp, breeding extremists who are willing to give their lives in the name of their cause.  This is hardly unsurprising when many of these young Palestinians have watched their own family and friends killed by Israeli strikes.  I have never travelled to the Gaza Strip, but in many  ways it reminds me of Soweto in the 1970s: the air heavy with the smell of revolution and the feeling that world opinion was slowly turning in their favour.

The Arab Spring represents to Palestine what the 1974 Lisbon Coup, or even the fall of the Berlin Wall, meant to the struggle against Apartheid.  It changed the regional dynamics, whereby long standing threats disappeared overnight, but new ones appeared elsewhere.  The South African government, and the African Union for that matter, should embrace this new era and continue its policy it as shown with Libya, by pledging support for an independent Palestinian state.

This also represents an opportunity for South Africa to diversify its foreign policy.  South Africa has always leaned towards conflict mediation on the continent, although it is still trying to escape the failure of ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Zimbabwe.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a failure of talks, mediation and peace accords.  By South Africa supporting Palestinian statehood, they would be making a statement that although they support peace talks, there is clearly a limit to what they can achieve until something drastic has to be done.

This is also an opportunity for South Africa to forge a foreign policy that does not obediently fall in line with United States or British policy.  At a time when sub-Saharan Africa is divided on the Palestinian issue, a firm stance by South Africa could unite opinion and send out a strong message of unity and integrity.

The irony has not escaped me that the end of Apartheid was brought about through peace talks and not through declarations of statehood or all-out war.  But the dynamics were very different then.  The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union not only destroyed the threat posed to South Africa by Communism; indeed it showed that there wasn’t a threat at all.  The dynamics of the Hold Land have changed too in recent times; Israel no longer has allies in Egypt and Turkey and world opinion has never been stronger against their occupation of Palestinian territory.

There were many times in the fight against Apartheid that the struggle seemed dead in the water, when the global powers talked tough about helping but in fact were quite happy with the status quo.  The Palestinians must draw strength from the perseverance shown by the people of South Africa; their freedom will be achieved and the lives lost will not be in vain.  Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the Palestinian struggle has been their lack of leadership, a figure like Nelson Mandela who would unite all Arabs behind the cause.

But South Africa should not only support the Palestinian bid because of a historical context, but also of diplomatic and economic benefits that would come with it.  The Middle East offers major trade and investment opportunities, which would not come with the baggage that dealing with former colonial powers does.

But any move to statehood, if even made, is likely to be vetoed by the United States and possibly Great Britain and France, in another move to show just how out of date the UN Security Council is.  But South Africa should make a principled stand not only out of support for the beleaguered Palestinians, but as a sign of confidence for the region that represents serious opportunities for the future.

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Do you really believe giving Palestine statehood will solve the problem? You see, Palestine will not rest until the Zionists are gone, lets not overlook the religious aspects of this war, meaning giving Palestine statehood is a death sentence to the hope of an Israeli nation. They too have a right to the price of land that Hitler, the Turks and even the English in their crusades drove them away from. What happens to Israel when Palestine gets nation status? Do you think the war will end? Let’s not forget that the Muslims nations surrounding Israel have taken every chance they can to try annihilate Israel, and this may be the cue they’ve been waiting for.

    Please don’t get me wrong, some of the abuses by Israel have been excessive in the name of survival but is Palestinian Nationhood the solution?

  2. I think a two state solution is the only option. It won’t bring peace there overnight, but Palestinians and Israelis are going to have to learn to live with each other at some point. Both sides need to give in to a certain degree: the Palestinians need to recognise the right of Israel to exist, and the Israelis need to stop their settlement building and return some of the land. It’s a complicated issue, but I believe it would be a good starting point, saying as everything else has failed miserably.

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