Satyagraha to End Apartheid in Palestine

In 1993 the world witnessed the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa, vindicating names like Mandela, Tutu, Biko, and the millions of others who fought tirelessly in that struggle. Yet the same year saw a new beginning, a new life for an apartheid regime in Palestine, hailed and supported as a peace process – the Oslo Accords.

Israel’s apartheid policies are based on the following elements: The exclusive claim of one group to a country at the exclusion of non-Jews accompanied by their attempt to physically separate from them; displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population and the seizure of their lands and properties, confining them to small enclaves and transforming them into a permanent underclass; formalization of unequal power relations through discriminatory laws and policies, enforced by political means as well as by the military and security services; and the formulation of a meta-narrative that supports the claims of the dominant group over the others, demonizing and excluding the “others'” claims.

Given his unshakable faith in the theory that “high fences make good neighbours”, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has obviously made matters worse. The total separation that he advocated involves the building of overhead bridges in the West Bank to link the disjointed Palestinian entity and yet preserve the status quo; “us here and them over there”. The literally translation of the term “separation” in Dutch is “apartheid”.

This month India commemorates the anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi and the anniversary of his first imprisonment in South Africa in January 1908. It was in South Africa that he developed his philosophy of “satyagraha” (firmness in truth). In a sense, his last satyagraha was also in South Africa. Though he could not be physically present, he guided and inspired the great Indian passive resistance movement of 1946-48 and lent it enormous support.

In the many years that the struggle lasted with its ups and downs – jailings, beatings, torture and deportations of resisters, as well as the intervals when they were obliged to while away their time on the Tolstoy Farm – Gandhiji developed the concept of “satyagraha” which was later to inspire the national movement in India.

One does not need to be a Gandhian to recognize that the philosophy and example of Gandhi remain a powerful force in the world, spreading wider and adapting to the traditions and circumstances in different countries. The leaders of the freedom movements in many colonial countries acknowledge the inspiration of Gandhi. The civil rights movement in the United States, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by his example, as was much of the movement against the Vietnam war. Liberation theology, which has spread in Latin America, Africa and Asia, draws some of its inspiration from Gandhi.

None of the recent non-violent movements perhaps strictly follows the tenets of Gandhi, as understood by his disciples in India, but he has been an inspiration as people tried to choose the most peaceful and effective means of struggle against injustice and oppression in the light of the relevant conditions. The philosophy of Gandhi cannot be codified into immutable rules, but must always be creative. It evolved with his experience in forty years of struggle. He kept his windows open to receive inspiration from all sources. He learnt from the humblest in the resistance campaigns. He welcomed discussion and debate. He changed his views many times and never hesitated to admit errors.

Is non-violent resistance relevant to Palestine? Has “satyagraha” lost all relevance in Palestine as a means of resistance, especially since the rebirth of the Intifada on 29 September 2000. The answer is not simple.

The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).

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