"Why Do South Africans Hate Israel?" Matan Rosenstrauch on the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike

Haaretz 18 May 2017.

On Sunday 14 May, 12 South African ministers and deputy ministers started a 24-hour hunger strike as an act of solidarity with the striking Palestinian prisoners, in an attempt to increase economic and political pressure on Israel. This was initiated successfully by the Kathrada Foundation, named after late Apartheid fighter Ahmed Kathrada and aimed at “supporting projects that promote non-violence and a more just society.”

“This is the first time in South Africa’s history that such a significant number of ministers are taking part in a hunger strike of this kind,” said several leaders from the BDS movement. And although the BDS movement is not the primary instigator, when such an act is undertaken by government ministers, support for the boycott Israel movement is boosted by gaining the most political show of solidarity there is.

Hunger Strikes in 1989 South Africa and 2012 Israel/Palestine
Image found on Visualising Palestine.

“What Palestinian prisoners are undergoing reminds us of our own struggle against Apartheid, when we used hunger strikes as a tool to fight the system,” said South African Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi. Among the strikers was also Rob Davis, Minister for Industry and Commerce, who in 2012 announced SA’s decision to label products from the settlements, and Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa, one of Mandela’s confidants and potential successor to President Jacob Zuma. Nelson Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Mandela, known as The Mother of the Nation, pointed out in SA’s media that “We sit and think of those mothers on hunger strike with their sons [incarcerated] in Israeli prisons, who have fought so long for the liberation of Palestine.”

It seems that beyond the argument about details – how many Palestinians are held in Israeli administrative detention, how many of those are children, and so forth – the greatest struggle between the boycotters and the Hasbaraists is over Israel’s image: is it indeed a democracy that grants Palestinian security prisoners their rights, or is it an Apartheid state that arrests innocent children and political activists? That is why the ministers on strike repeatedly refer to the current hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners with the ones that they, the South Africans, had used in the past, with theZionist Hasbara on the other side.

The BDS movement presents the motives for support for the act as follows. Beyond the numeric facts of Israeli detention of Palestinians (including about 300 Palestinian children, and over 400 Palestinians arrested for posts on social media in the last year), it points at those Israelis whose actions undermine – to put it mildly – any Hasbara: “In response to the hunger strike, Israeli civilians lit up their BBQs outside one of the prisons, so that the hunger strikers would ‘enjoy the smell of the smoke and suffer from the smell of the meat, [we] will show them that we will not surrender to their demands!’”

However, while one group of Israelis could always be dismissed as radical and non-representative, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman exacerbated the government’s Hasbara challenge by saying that, “Regarding anything concerning terrorists on hunger strike in Israeli prisons, I suggest adopting Margaret Thatcher’s approach,” which allowed Irish hunger strikes to die in English prisons.

A response condemning the BDS movement came from the South African Friends of Israel, a coalition of Jewish Zionist and pro-Israel Christian organisations that form a Hasbara platform for Israel in SA and which rejects BDS. The Zionist Federation of SA, at he coalition’s helm, requested members of the Jewish community to post ‘the true facts’ in their name on social media, as published by the NGO Monitor.

The central message of Zionist Federation’s statement was based on the principle difference between hunger strikes during the Apartheid regime and that of Marwan Barghouti, convicted of killing 5 civilians. “This comparative attempt, adopted by the BDS [movement], is inappropriate and cheapens the struggle of Apartheid fighters and our history. We encourage a constructive discussion, but sadly the call for solidarity with the hunger strike is not a positive engagement, but one aimed at further entrenching the conflict.” This response, incidentally, appears as the first result on a Google search on “South African ministers hunger strike”, as a paid advertisement. Someone paid for it to be seen first.

A senior leader in the Jewish community in SA remains unmoved by the fact that ministers in his government are on hunger strike as a show of solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners. In his view, they’ve fallen into the BDS trap, which managed to recruit them to a doomed fight. “Just like the academic boycott, the economic and cultural boycotts haven’t worked, and acts of solidarity won’t either.”

To him, attempts to compare Israel to Apartheid are “one big lie,” since, “while in SA few of the hunger strikers had blood on their hands, in Israel many of them do.” When I asked why this act of solidarity creates a greater distance between the two sides, he replied: “whoever says killing Jews is legitimate makes Israel stop talking to them. How do you expect SA to be a relevant partner of people in the conflict when it supports murderers?” What is clear is that nobody in SA is trying to be relevant to the State of Israel, in order to promote what it thinks will help end the conflict. But the Israeli ambassador sits in Pretoria and the diplomatic relationships continue undisturbed.

We talked about the federation’s response, we talked about Barghouti, but when I asked whether Lieberman’s comments will help Israel’s image, I was given a moot answer: “That’s irrelevant. It’s arbitrary.” There are some sentences you can agree with, others you cannot, and some you simply cannot respond to. And good luck to the foreign ministers and the Zionist federations.

The head of the Zionist Federation isn’t calling Palestinian prisoners ‘terrorists’, he calls them ‘murderers’ and points out this distinction. Perhaps because he knows that Jews during the Yishuv period also used terrorism to gain political rights. But does he remember that many Jews also sat in jail as political prisoners?

“I wake up in the morning dreading the long hours of the day, alone, endless time with the terror in my head. I go to sleep at night in fear of hours of sleeplessness… All I have left are my skin, my bones and my moral energy” (From letters written by Alfred Dreyfus to his wife from solitary confinement on Devil’s Island).

I understand that South African Jews must not compare Israel to Apartheid. I wonder: may we compare Dreyfus to Barghouti?

The author is an activist in the SISO movement (Save Israel Stop the Occupation), AIDS researcher, and writer for Ha’aretz.

Hebrew original: http://www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/matanstr/1.4103696

Translated by Keren Rubinstein for the Middle East News Service edited by Sol Salbe, Melbourne, Australia.

Read the Australian Jewish community’s solidarity statement with the Palestinian prisoners.

Read more from Just Voices #13, June 2017 – Israel/Palestine.

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