If It’s ‘Apartheid,’ Then Who’s the Palestinian Mandela?

By Nir Eisikovits

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
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Of all humanistic disciplines, history is the easiest to exploit for the advancement of one’s political worldviews. Former president Jimmy Carter’s recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” is an interesting case in point.

Carter compares Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians to the notorious system of racial segregation that was imposed on blacks in South Africa. He is not the first to make such a comparison. Advocates of the Palestinian cause regularly raise the South African analogy. But Carter is the first prominent, mainstream American to make the comparison.

Since the term “apartheid” stirs up a host of bitter, angry associations, it is important to probe Carter’s accusation carefully.

The charge is not without merit. Key aspects of Israel’s occupation of Palestine are, indeed, analogous to the practices of South Africa’s National Party: A system of separate roads and road blocks facilitates the free travel of Jews while curtailing the movement of Arabs; the members of one group live in well-groomed, heavily subsidized communities, while many members of the other group live in degrading poverty.

In addition, young Palestinian are routinely detained without trial, often for prolonged periods of time. These detentions are justified by repeated government declarations of a state of emergency, just as similar arrests were rationalized in South Africa. Like South African courts, Israeli tribunals have been lenient with soldiers and policemen accused of committing human rights violations, failing, in essence, to exercise judicial review over the application of political power.

These similarities are frightening and should worry anyone who cares about Israel’s commitment to democracy. And yet, Carter and many Palestinians use the South African analogy selectively. The comparison suffers from a glaring omission: If many of Israel’s policies resemble the practices of the white government in South Africa, how do the Palestinian armed organizations measure up to the South African resistance movement, the African National Congress?

For one thing, although both the ANC and the Palestinian organizations have targeted civilians, the ANC did so more sporadically and more reluctantly than the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. For almost five decades after its establishment, the ANC espoused nonviolence, arguing that armed struggle would alienate whites.

The ANC adopted armed resistance in the early 1960s only after its repeated attempts to negotiate had failed. For several years, the group restricted itself to acts of sabotage against property. It was only when this policy proved fruitless that the organization turned against security forces and, eventually, against civilians.

The Palestinian armed factions, by contrast, have shown little interest in nonviolence. The more extreme organizations have consistently refused to distinguish between Israeli military personnel and civilians. They have targeted women and children, for much longer, much more consistently and with far more devastating results than the ANC.

Furthermore, the leadership of the ANC forcefully pursued compromise with whites when the opportunity for peace arose in the early 1990s. The Palestinians, on the other hand, snubbed the dramatic peace proposals put forth by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the summer of 2000. While the ANC remained committed to a peaceful settlement with whites in South Africa throughout the struggle against apartheid, the Palestinians have voted into power a government that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, has called for its destruction and has aligned itself with Holocaust-denying Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah.

If historical analogies are to be politically instructive, those making them must consider all aspects of the case under discussion, not only those parallels that bolster their agendas. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa can, in fact, teach us valuable lessons about the Middle East conflict.

It can show us that war does not end before both sides give up on the maximal formulation of their claims. It suggests that enemies who acknowledge and account for their record of human rights abuses are likelier to reconcile than those who insist on burying the past. It indicates that peace depends on a rare mixture of fatigue among combatants, daring local leadership and significant international pressure.

Perhaps most importantly, the South African analogy shows us that hate is not a force of nature beyond the reach of human influence. As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it: “No one is born hating another person. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

Americans, Israelis and Palestinians could benefit greatly from studying South Africa’s tortured past. But as long as we are focused on simply exploiting history to win arguments, these lessons are likely to be lost.

Nir Eisikovits, a professor of philosophy at Suffolk University, is a fellow at the International Institute for Mediation and Historical Conciliation.

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