By Sayed Dhansay
It has been just over three months since Israel unilaterally declared an end to operation Cast Lead and withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip following its 22 day onslaught there. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a total of 1,434 people were killed in the operation, approximately 960 of them civilians. Of these, nearly 300 victims were children. This, in addition to the 5000 plus who were injured, and the growing number of deaths due to the ongoing siege.
Other reports have indicated that over 20,000 buildings have been partially or completely destroyed, leaving an estimated one sixth of Gaza ruined and entire neighbourhoods obliterated. The already overburdened and crumbling infrastructure of Gaza is now on the brink of total collapse, exacerbated by the refusal of Israeli and Egyptian authorities to allow construction materials into the besieged territory.
Shocking as these few figures may be, of much greater concern is the manner in which our political leaders responded to this catastrophe as it unfolded.
Israel’s operation Cast Lead was a defining moment in recent history, bringing to light many truths about the condition of the society in which we live. The most obvious of these was the complete and utter failure of so-called world leaders and modern political diplomacy at a time when it was needed most.
While the IDF systematically violated seemingly every tenet of international law, our supposed leaders sat by and left the defenseless people of Gaza to face the fury of the world’s third largest army on their own. Aside from the sheer scale of the Israeli army’s attacks on Gaza, the most astounding phenomenon of those 22 days was the inability of the world’s leaders to take a united stand to bring about an end to the violence.
While the UN Security Council worked and re-worked a resolution to ensure its “appropriate wording” (read: not offend Zionist sensitivities), the Arab League bickered about which side of the Palestinian political divide they were actually on. It took the Arab League days before they could even reach agreement on such a simple task as releasing a statement condemning the violence.
And when the editing and arguing was finally complete in the plush halls of New York and Doha, the hopeful masses around the world were only further disappointed, nay disgusted, with the lackluster results of our elected representatives’ efforts. While we waited for our leaders to exert real diplomatic pressure on Israel, all they had were watered down words of discouragement. They urged Israel to “exercise restraint” and expressed “concern” at the unfolding catastrophe on the ground, while Gazans were screaming for help.
Not a single influential head of state had the guts to openly criticize Israel or ask them to stop. And of course, when any half-hearted statement indirectly suggested that the IDF’s conduct was becoming a matter of concern, it was quickly qualified with the same standard line: that Hamas should cease firing rockets. Just to remind everyone that Hamas had actually started the fight, and that it really was up to them whether it would continue or not. When Hamas had respected the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire for the preceding six months while the IDF continued its incursions into Gaza, this was however not recognized. As usual, the Palestinians were again being blamed for bringing the latest massacre upon themselves.
In its opening paragraphs, the United Nations charter states its determination to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, and establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising out of international law can be maintained.” After Israeli forces bombed several UN facilities in Gaza, including a school housing refugees and a warehouse containing food and relief aid, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon decided to pay Gaza a visit.
His press conference made for quite dramatic viewing as he addressed journalists in front of the blackened and still smoldering UN warehouse. Appearing angered, he labeled the incident “an outrageous and unacceptable attack on the United Nations”, and called for a full investigation into the matter, as well as an explanation from Israeli authorities. Bold words indeed.
Released last week, that report concluded that Israel was directly responsible for attacking seven UN facilities during the offensive. It accused the Israeli army of “varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to UN premises and to the safety of UN staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries and extensive physical damage and loss of property”.
Though Ki-moon commissioned the investigation, he was rather quick to distance himself from its findings. Instead of laying out the report’s damning details, he praised Israel for its co-operation, stressed that its findings were not legally binding and said that he had no plans to act on the report’s recommendation to launch a broader investigation. One wonders what the purpose of calling for an investigation in the first place was then. Perhaps it was just an attempt to deflect criticism from the UN at the time for its embarrassing inability to uphold its basic founding ideals as outlined above, or protect its own employees and property for that matter.
The only two countries of which I am aware that took genuine punitive diplomatic measures were Venezuela and Mauritania, who closed down their Israeli embassies and expelled the ambassadors. But for the most part, the international community turned their backs on Gaza.
When leaders fail to act, a natural reaction is for ordinary people to rise up and take matters into their own hands. In the history of all struggles against oppression, there is usually a defining moment, or tipping point which sparks a wave of change that ultimately changes the course of history for good. This was the case on 21 March 1960 in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa.
Fed up with Apartheid policies, and specifically Pass Laws, thousands of black youth converged on the Sharpeville police station, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying the pass books that the Apartheid government required all blacks to carry. Outnumbered and feeling threatened, the 20 or so police officers present opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring nearly 200.
The ensuing uproar saw mass protests, strikes and riots across the country, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency and detain thousands of people. A storm of international protest followed the shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries and condemnation from the United Nations.
After receiving complaints from 29 member states, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 134, voicing the Council’s anger at the actions of the Government, and calling upon it to abandon Apartheid. The Sharpeville shootings also played a pivotal role in South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations the following year, as well as the shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by the ANC and other political parties.
This was South Africa’s tipping point in the struggle against Apartheid. From that point onwards, the Apartheid regime found itself increasingly isolated and boycotted by the international community. The most damaging aspect of this isolation however, was the economic, sporting and cultural boycott implemented by ordinary people across the world.
Pressure by American students on their universities to divest from South Africa saw billions of dollars of educational trust fund assets being withdrawn from the South African economy. Nelson Mandela is in fact quoted as saying that the University of California’s divestment campaign played a significant role in the abolishment of white-minority rule in South Africa.
Additionally, economic sanctions and the withdrawal of several multinational corporations pushed the South African economy and government to near bankruptcy.
Much like Sharpeville, I believe that the tipping point in Palestine’s struggle against decades of repressive Israeli occupation was operation Cast Lead. In an unprecedented outpouring of support and sympathy for Palestinians not witnessed in years, millions across the world took to the streets in protest at the Israeli army’s brutal attack on Gaza. The world finally appears to have woken from its slumber.
And much like the events following Sharpeville, the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is once again being spearheaded by ordinary people of conscience across the world. Following protests and ‘occupations’ of several university campuses in the US and UK, the trustees of these universities have for the first time been forced to agree to start divesting educational trust fund money from Israel.
In August last year, the Free Gaza Movement successfully docked two boats in Gaza’s main port, the first international boats to dock in Gaza in more than 40 years. This was also the first time in 60 years that Palestinians had entered or left their country without having to undergo Israeli interrogation. This was followed up by six more successful aid boat voyages to Gaza, with another planned for June this year.
In February, Durban dock workers refused to offload Israeli cargo from a ship, while an Australian dock workers union resolved to support the international BDS campaign and boycott all vessels coming from or going to Israel. A recent poll in Israel found that 21% of Israeli exporters have been directly affected by boycotts since the beginning of 2009. And it was recently reported that French transport giant Veolia has lost some $7.5 billion in contracts due to its involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project which is threatening Palestinian homes.
In March, British MP George Galloway and his Viva Palestina aid convoy took 110 vehicles and over $1 million of aid through the Rafah crossing into Gaza after an 8,000 km trek across Europe. From all corners of the globe, ordinary people are doing extraordinary things. The world’s most powerful governments are being put to shame as regular folk are achieving what diplomacy has failed to achieve in decades.
It is unfortunate that often, only after the worst of calamities has occurred, that the best qualities of the human spirit become visible. The outright moral failure of our leaders regarding Gaza is being matched only by the creativity and determination of the global solidarity movement. The momentum gained over the last few months needs to be maintained and increased, until freedom, justice and normality is returned to Palestine, as it was to South Africa. And the message to our leaders is loud and clear: If you do not act, we will.
– Sayed Dhansay is based in South Africa. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.