When Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), visited South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial, he aroused controversy at a press conference on 11th December by declaring:
‘No we do not support the boycott of Israel … But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal. … But we don’t ask anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel’ (Quoted in The Star, South Africa, 11th December 2013).
Despite the growing influence of the BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) campaign against Israel (for example, on the 9th February, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that ‘Netanyahu convenes ministers to discuss growing Israel economic boycott threats’) Abbas and the PA have never supported it – so his comments were a confirmation of this stance. This flows from the Oslo Accords of September 1993 (Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements) to which Abbas is strongly wedded. Article XI concerns Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation in Economic Fields; Annex III concerns the Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation in Economic and Development Programs and Annex IV concerns the Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Concerning Regional Development Programs.
Given Oslo’s stress on cooperation, acts of non-cooperation such as BDS are excluded. Pioneered in apartheid South Africa, the aim of BDS by civil society is to apply non-violent measures – including rigorously and consistently exposing the crimes of the targeted regime – to fight against injustice and repression where the government concerned refuses to undertake meaningful reforms, and where international institutions are unwilling to robustly intervene. Effective BDS, therefore, implies harming a regime in order to force change. Abbas and the PA diligently adhere to this interpretation so not only do they oppose BDS, they also refrain from diligently publicising the myriad breaches of international laws and conventions by Israel.
It is somewhat ironic that Mahmoud Abbas made his position clear in South Africa whilst his hosts and people across the world were mourning the loss – but also celebrating the life – of a man and his movement which had most forcefully pushed for BDS against the apartheid regime and helped bring it down. Another irony is that the apartheid structures were dismantled soon after the signing of the Oslo Accords of 1993; clearly Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership had chosen a very different path to that taken by Mandela and his ANC colleagues. Indeed, rather than emulating Mandela, both Arafat and Abbas followed the path of Mandela’s rival, leader of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
During the 1980s, as the anti-apartheid struggle intensified, buttressed by an international campaign for BDS, Buthelezi’s IFP not only opposed BDS against the apartheid state, but collaborated with the South African Defence Force – which provided training for Zulu militias. Buthelezi had bought into the logic of autonomous ‘homelands’ for the African populations – known as ‘Bantustans’. All rulers of homelands were reliant on the South African state and economy for their survival but, for such collaboration, they were denounced by anti-apartheid campaigners both at home and abroad as agents of the apartheid regime, particularly Buthelezi since he was by far the most powerful leader of a Bantustan (KwaZulu).
Abbas and the Palestine Authority have adopted a similar position: the PA relies on the Israeli economy to fund it, and its leaders have benefited from such Israeli largesse. However, unlike the IFP, the PA’s security forces do not and have not received training from the Israeli Defence Force as this would be deemed too politically risky given that it would display open collaboration with the forces of occupation. So, in the main, Americans (via the United States Security Coordinator (USSC)) train and equip the Palestinian Authority Security Forces. It matters little, however, given that Israel benefits from the security umbrella provided by the PA in the West Bank which has, de facto, taken over responsibility for the occupation from the Israel Defence Force, largely paid for by the Americans with help from the EU.
There is another important similarity: just as the South African state used Buthelezi and the IFP as an ideological shield against proponents of BDS, so Israel is similarly finding Abbas and the PA helpful in this regard.
Buthelezi’s politics quickly unravelled following the release of Mandela in 1990 and South Africa’s first democratic elections of 1994 which led to the dismantling of apartheid structures and concomitant Bantustan policy. However, in order to ensure a peaceful transition, the new ANC government made generous concessions to Inkatha, including significant provincial autonomy to KwaZulu and making Buthelezi Minister of Home Affairs. But all involved in the anti-apartheid struggle were agreed that Buthelezi and his IFP had played a treacherous, anti-liberation role. Indeed, as far back as 1980, on the 25th anniversary of its Freedom Charter, the ANC accused Buthelezi of complicity in the crime of apartheid, and labelled him a ‘police agent’, ‘a collaborator’, and ‘jail warder’.
So it is paradoxical to find that the main organisation in the world’s oldest liberation struggle – that of the Palestinians – is following the path of a man and his organisation that those at the forefront of the great anti-apartheid struggle had so clearly and cogently denounced as an enemy agent. They might not expect Mahmoud Abbas to be another Mandela but they would most likely be bemused by him being another Buthelezi.
Yet, the similarity between Abbas and Buthelezi throws up an enormous difference between the two liberation struggles. On the one hand, Buthelezi’s collaborationist politics were pretty marginal – the IFP could not block the isolation of South Africa and of it being reduced to a pariah state, brought about by the BDS campaign. In stark contrast, the collaborationist politics of Abbas are conducted by the leader of what has historically been the largest Palestinian organisation (PLO/Fatah) and, in terms of relative size, equivalent to the ANC. That said, a core reason as to why Fatah lost to Hamas in the 2006 elections was precisely because many of its supporters realised that it had completely abandoned resistance for collaboration. Moreover, in the absence of elections since, its support will doubtless now be a fraction of what it had been.
It is fair, therefore, to argue that the ‘Buthelezi path’ taken by Mahmoud Abbas and the PA has led to the continuing deterioration in the situation of the Palestinians, with no sign of an independent Palestinian state in sight. Moreover, the illegal Jewish settler population in the West Bank has risen steadily: from 111,000 in 1993 to about 500,000 at the beginning of 2014. But, such counter-productive politics are not just the preserve of the present leadership. In an article in a 2001 issue of the New Left Review written towards the end of his life, the Palestinian-American academic and activist Edward Said pulled no punches regarding the degradation of the PLO/Fatah:
‘As for the Oslo “peace process” that began in 1993, it has simply repackaged the occupation, offering a token 18 per cent of the lands seized in 1967 to the corrupt Vichy-like Authority of Arafat, whose mandate has essentially been to police and tax his people on Israel’s behalf. After eight fruitless, immiserating years of further ‘negotiations’, orchestrated by a team of US functionaries which has included such former lobby staffers for Israel as Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, more abuses, more settlements, more imprisonments, more suffering have been inflicted on the Palestinians’.
However, it is important to acknowledge that the problems do not stem from the Oslo Accords but go back much further. For example, in his book Confronting Empire, the writer and activist Eqbal Ahmad (who had been a close ally of Edward Said) relays meetings he had had during the 1970s with Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders (at Arafat’s request). He arrives at the following conclusion following a meeting in the mid-1970s (the exact date is not given):
‘They [the PLO leadership] listened respectfully … Some gave lectures that were essentially ignorant … I had seen enough. They defeated themselves more than the Israelis did’.
This might be an unduly harsh judgement but is one that South Africans who had been at the forefront of their liberation struggle would not find too surprising: on the contrary, they would argue that had they followed the collaborationist path of Buthelezi and the IFP, apartheid would still be in existence today. This hugely important lesson has not been learned by Mahmoud Abbas and the PA.
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, UK, and author of Dangerous Liaisons: The Clash between Islamism and Zionism (2013)