Interview with Na’eem Jeenah
Interview by Ian Rocksborough-Smith
Peak Staff Interview conducted on Oct. 8, 2002.
How did the anti-apartheid II movement get started?
It was started by a number of us who were involved in the Palestine solidarity movement in South Africa and who have been anti-apartheid activists in the past. It was done in consultation with a few Palestinian organizations, and it was decided through this kind of process that this would be the way we would like to go. Last year, at the end of the UN conference on racism, held in Durban, South Africa, it was decided that we would launch — at least symbolically — the international anti-apartheid movement against Israel. We plan to hold a conference next summer in South Africa that will give substance to this initiative.
What in your view are the biggest similarities between the oppression experienced by the Palestinian people, and the oppression experienced by black South Africans under Apartheid rule?
There are a number of similarities. One of the important ones, is the way in which black South Africans had their citizenship removed by the Apartheid state, and were then dumped into bantustan states, under the homeland system. A similar kind of thing has occurred in the Palestinian context, except that in the Palestinian context those Palestinians that are now refugees from the 1948 area, have no right to exercise any kind of citizenship — in Israel or in any other place. So their citizenship simply doesn’t exist. Another big similarity would be the repressive tactics of both Israel and the South African apartheid regime. We find that a number of human rights abuses which occurred in South Africa, are occurring with the Palestinians now, such as: detention without trial, tortures in prison, judicial and extra-judicial executions. In the Palestinian context especially there has been a large number of extra-judicial executions that have taken place. In both contexts, many of these extra-judicial executions have taken place outside of the borders of the countries. Palestinians have been targeted in places like Europe, and similarly with South Africans. One big difference, however, was that in South Africa we never experienced collective punishment. Collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, is the daily experience of Palestinian people living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It takes a number of forms: house demolitions and the destruction of property, removal and relocation of people or "transfer" as it is called, imprisonment of family members, deportation, all these kinds of collective punishments occur all the time. We can see it on television and the world does nothing about it.
What in your opinion is the main factor behind why Israel has done what it has done to the Palestinian people?
Well this started well before 1948 [the year Israel became a state] with the formation of the Zionist movement, and the attempt to move Jews in various ways to Palestine. This was an attempt by the Zionist movement really to create an exclusionist Jewish State. Of course, I should make the point that the Jewish people [living all over Europe and around the world], were not consulted by the Zionist movement when it was formed about what it should be like, or what its objectives were. And if we look at the early part of the 20th century, Jews played enormously important roles in a number of progressive organizations and activities — culturally and intellectually that were entirely separate or in some cases opposed to the Zionist movement. Such people, for the most part, were not consulted by the Zionist movement, which claimed to be fighting for an exclusionist Jewish State on behalf of all Jewish people around the world. This attempt to create an exclusionist state also resulted in the need to justify itself by trying to propagate the lie that there was no such thing as the Palestinians — that in fact there was no population that existed in Palestine prior to Zionist settlement. There is an old Zionist dictum about this time which states that Palestine "was a land without people, for a people without a land." In a sense all the Zionist and Israeli activities are aimed at trying to make this lie a reality — they are trying to create a situation where there is no Palestinian people, where Palestinians are completely removed from Palestine and it becomes a land without Palestinians.
Has U.S. and Western support for Israel influenced the course of events and contributed to the creation of the oppressive situation we see today?
Yes, the state of Israel has been able to do what it has done to a large extent because of the kind of acquiescence and active support it has received from a number of powers in the world, especially the United States. The U.S. has played a very strong role on the side of Israel giving it the largest aid budget, as well as the most military aid for any country. The U.S. has also used its veto power in the U.N. Security Council on a number of occasions to counter resolutions condemning Israel for its conduct vis a vis the Palestinians. In many ways, the U.S. has provided the moral backbone for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak before him to continue with their repression of the Palestinian people with the promise that this would bring no negative consequences to Israel. In South Africa, what are the main issues the Palestinian solidarity movement is supporting for the Palestinian struggle? The Palestine solidarity movement in South Africa has four main demands which it voices on behalf of the Palestinian people. One is to end the Israeli occupation. Secondly, we demand the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, all of which are illegal under international law. Thirdly, the establishment of a sovereign, independent, and viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. And Fourthly, the implementation of the right of return for all Palestinian refugees.
Overall, how important would you say is the international Palestinian solidarity movement?
Well, thus far, Palestinian solidarity movements, internationally, have been operating with varying degrees of success, depending on which areas of the world you look at. The one big problem is that there hasn’t been sufficient coordination internationally between all of these groups. Whether these groups are composed of Palestinians in the diaspora, or whether they consist of solidarity activists from different countries, there hasn’t been sufficient co-ordination in taking forward a coordinated program and strategy against the Israeli state. What we believe, and are calling for from South Africa is for such coordination to begin taking place in a very real kind of way, so that our strategies internationally can be effective. We are suggesting that the model of the South African anti-apartheid movement of the past, and the strategies and tactics employed by that movement can actually be very useful in developing an internationally coordinated movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people today.
What is your overall vision for a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
Ultimately what we would like to see, is that all of the citizens who live in the region of historical Palestine today, as well as all of the Palestinian refugees, are able to live together in a single, democratic and secular state in Palestine.
Thank you for your time.