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Palestine, too, shall be free–the liberation of all oppressed people in the whole of Africa and the world

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on May 31, 2024 by Busani Ngcaweni (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy))  | (Posted Jun 04, 2024)

Last week international media reported that Norway, Ireland and Spain have resolved to recognise Palestine as a state, making May 2024 a watershed moment in the pursuit for a two-state solution to end the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another recent development is the decision by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan KC, to apply for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas’s leader in Gaza for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Even as bombs continue to rain in Gaza, it is important to note that the calls for the re-membering of Palestinians are gaining momentum. Their othering is a blot to the world that claims to be civilised. History reminds us that othering a people is just as insidious as labelling them; it fuels hatred and prejudice. It can easily justify massacres and genocide. If one considers others to be unlike themselves, subhuman or less deserving of even the most basic human rights, it makes it easier to justify their dispossession and mass murder.

Such is the situation occurs when one encounters the rhetoric saying, ‘there is no Palestine, at least in the Western sense of a nation state’. This is followed by phrases like ‘there was (and is) no such thing as Palestinians.’ In a recent Israeli Knesset session, Israeli’s Minister of Settlement and National Missions, Orit Strook, echoed the country’s fourth Prime Minister Golda Meir’s infamous phrase uttered in 1969 by saying: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… every cultured person in the world knows that this land is ours, for the Israeli people, and only for us.” It would not be the first time, or more likely, the last occasion. During a visit to France in 2023, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said:

Who was the first Palestinian king? What language do the Palestinians have? Was there ever a Palestinian currency? Is there a Palestinian history or culture? Nothing. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.

What other evidence does the world need to save a people from acts of dis-membering?

In a prominent journal on post-colonial studies in 2011, leading decolonial scholar Ramón Grosfoguel wrote: “We went from the sixteenth century characterization of ‘people without writing’ to the eighteenth and nineteenth century characterization of ‘people without history,’ to the twentieth century characterization of ‘people without development’ and more recently, to the early twenty first century of ‘people without democracy’.” This is an apt description of the ongoing tragedy in Gaza.

The Palestinians, who have and continue to endure untold suffering and historical injustice, are referred to as ‘a non-people’ because they neither have a state nor history. How much easier has it been for Israel, the self-proclaimed only democracy in the Middle East, to ethnically cleanse, dispossess and bomb to smithereens the peoples of the besieged Gaza Strip since the events of 7 October 2023. This happens as the global champions of liberty continue to turn a blind eye, seemingly treating human rights as an a la carte menu. Norway, Ireland and Spain, along with scores of other nations have crossed the Rubicon, seeking to correct this situation and make Palestinians feel like they belong.

Seeing others as non-beings is the genealogy of hate and violence. Israel, with its race-based biases, does not view Palestinians as human beings deserving of a state and life. This is demonstrated by the astonishing quantum of ‘collateral damage’ since Israel’s assault on Gaza began.

The senseless onslaught has not spared children, pregnant women, non-combatants, journalists, health workers, the elderly and people with disabilities. Besides, how do you identify and isolate a terrorist in a crowded refugee camp? It is the dress code, facial hair, height or just looking Arab?

Civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and universities, has been bombed and demolished. Water supply has been cut off. Millions of Palestinians have been forcibly removed from most of Gaza’s territory and forced to live in inhumane makeshift camps in the middle of nowhere. However, they are, after all, by Meir’s dictum, ‘a non-people’, hence there is moral justification for Anglo-American sponsored atrocities.

During the Anglo-Boer War of colonial aggression in South Africa, the contending British imperialist forces did to the Afrikaners what Israel is doing in Gaza—scorched earth. Everything the Afrikaners possessed was crushed and burnt down, sending them into refugee camps and destitution.

What is happening to the Palestinians is a manifestation of coloniality, colonialism and imperialism; the three systems whose defining logic is dis-membering. Its roots can be traced back to early European colonialism, transformed into contemporary Anglo-American imperialism to maintain western hegemony. These forces dis-membered non-Euro-Americans from their humanity, relegating them to subhuman status and to alterity, statelessness, without nationhood, history, culture and feelings.

The author of the book, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity, Saree Makdisi, writes that between 1790 and 1830, the history of over 150 million people was obliterated by the British through the romanticism of “empty lands”. This physical and epistemic violence has continued unabated, fueled by what the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called “the ideology of difference”. It is being perpetuated by the modernising imperial forces in the supposedly ‘empty’ territory where mass graves are being discovered though ignored by the Anglo-American establishment. Because, as Makdisi writes, they “participate in the very same colonial processes whose power lies precisely in their ability to cover up, to hide away, to claim and reinvent and re-name spaces that are not theirs, and violently to ignore what was once there.”

At the centre of this active colonial dominance was a pursuit of a Eurocentric vision, which according to scholars such as Samir Amin, Walter Rodney and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, entailed the triumph of European science and knowledge over others. Outside Europe lay ‘empty lands’ that had nothing to offer to humanity, whereas Europe (and now also North America) is the future of the world.

Like British romanticism, Israel, as a settler coloniser, perceives Palestine as ‘empty land’, empty of people, culture, history and a future. In Joseph Conrad’s words, it is the Heart of Darkness. There are in fact striking similarities between Israel’s ideology of racial subjugation by a ‘God-chosen people’ and apartheid South Africa’s belief in racial and religious superiority over an inferior black race. Just as there were signs in South Africa saying: “blacks only”, there are road signs near Israeli checkpoints saying: “This road leads to area ‘A’ under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.” Or ‘swart gevaar’; ‘black danger’, as the apartheid government used to say.

The defining locus of war, concomitant with the strategic imperative of imperialism is to see the other as non-human. Once their humanity is stripped, the moral license to annihilate them is granted. Academic Rachel Busbridge writes that since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have always regarded “Zionism as a colonial settler ideology that has sought to expel them from their land, with the expansionist aim to claim all of historic Palestine as a Jewish state”. According to Busbridge, the difference between colonialism and settler colonialism is that the settler coloniser is motivated by the intention to subjugate the native, whereas the coloniser is mostly driven by, and concerned with, exploitation of natural resources.

Among these reasons, South Africa submitted a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging possible acts of genocide by Israel against the Palestinian people. Drawing from its own experience at the altar of dis-memberment of the majority of the population, South Africa, is correctly challenging the global community to re-member Palestine into humanity and the global community of nations.

We can assert therefore that South Africa’s case at the ICJ is an act of re-membering the people of Palestine, as much as the latest actions of Norway, Ireland and Spain. It is the correct course of action as many countries have joined South Africa in rejecting colonialism and all forms of oppression around the world, and more are expected to emulate the re-membering by Norway, Ireland and Spain. For South Africa, this is a historical mission that dates back to the formation of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC promised that democratic South Africa would stand in solidarity with all people whose struggle continues.

For his part, then ANC president, Chief Albert Luthuli, remarked in 1953 that, “our interest in freedom is not confined to ourselves only. We are interested in the liberation of all oppressed people in the whole of Africa and in the world as a whole… Our active interest in the extension of freedom to all people denied it makes us ally ourselves with freedom forces in the world.” Democratic South Africa’s founding father, Nelson Mandela, famously said:

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.

What has been happening at The Hague since South Africa launched its humanist act replayed the scenes at the United Nations during the anti-apartheid struggle days, when the liberation movement and its supporters pleaded with the global community to intervene and put an end to a crime against humanity. It was a long walk to freedom, resulting in the isolation of the apartheid regime, which eventually crumbled through the sweat, blood and wisdom of peace-loving people in South Africa and around the world. In its dying days, as we see in Israel today, it became more deadly and desperate. In the end the paradigm of peace prevailed over the paradigm of war.

Palestine, too, shall be free. We do note that many other countries have joined the South African case at the ICJ, where the plausibility of the genocide has been established. Prominent legal academic and South Africa’s former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela recently said:

The ‘fog of war’ narrative Israel is trying to hide behind does not apply. The ‘fog of war’ applies when opposing armies exchange fire and accidentally hit civilians as collateral damage. In this case there are no two armies firing at each other. Only Israel is deliberately firing at residential areas where it sent civilians for safety. History will judge global leaders of our time harshly for this inhumanity.

In this regard, what is happening at university campuses around the world between months of April and May 2024 is yet another indication that, while the Anglo-American empire may choose indifference and the convenience of geo-strategic considerations over human life, solidarity with the people of Gaza is growing. Even China, which prides itself on not interfering in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations, has issued a strong statement affirming the Palestinians’ “right to resist”, as well as calling for a permanent ceasefire and for the creation of two states coexisting peacefully side by side.

The quest for justice for the Palestinian people will endure until their liberation is achieved, as was the case with apartheid South Africa. Acts of re-membering are not single events but rather a continual process until all vestiges of coloniality, colonialism and imperialism are dismantled and buried. The struggle is not against the Jewish people, but a government that uses lethal force that violates any rules of war. The Jewish people deserve to be safe, just as the Palestinians have the right to life and statehood.

Busani Ngcaweni is visiting professor at Fudan University in China from South Africa where he is a public servant.

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