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The Wall, Apartheid and Mandela

In previous CounterPunch articles I have suggested that Israel’s Apartheid Wall is potentially an asset to the Palestinian quest for freedom and justice. The idea is that world opinion is, or will be, an important factor in determining enduring boundaries and laws; that destruction of The Wall must be easier than construction; and that destruction will be newsworthy.

The International Court of Justice rendered an opinion
that The Wall was illegal. The Wall is hideous in its own right and a natural symbol of separation, despair and hatred. If sections of it were pulled down, either by industrial equipment or by children with long ropes, the impression on world consciousness could be considerable.

Certainly, I am being a parlor general here, and though no one has accused me, I am aware of how easy it is to spout notions such as this from the comfort and safety of a far-away country, when other people’s bodies will have to be put on the line in order to achieve anything.

But during my visit to Palestine and Israel in the summer of 2005, one of the most inspiring talks I heard was by a Bethlehem community leader committed equally to nonviolence and to ending The Israeli Occupation. Among other things, he said (approximately), ‘We have to find creative ways to take it to the Israelis. We are forever reacting to what they do, and that is necessary, but we must also find ways to take the initiative.’

There is a good precedent for attacking nonliving targets, and if Palestinians can claim affiliation with it, this too could have effect on world opinion.
During his years of struggle in South Africa, Nelson Mandela offered ideas worth examining closely, especially when considering that he and his followers defeated the very condition that Palestinians face today, Apartheid.

Except for the first paragraph in quotes, which is taken from an earlier Mandela trial, and some caveats of my own at the end, the remainder of this is from Mandela’s ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech, given from the dock as the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, April 20, 1964. All of it is copied from the book, Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words, Little Brown And Company, NY, 2003; first published in South Africa by Jonathan Ball & Co., 2003.

“I hate the practice of race discrimination, and in my hatred I am sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of mankind hate it equally. Nothing that this Court can do to me will change in any way that hatred in me, which can only be removed by the removal of the injustice and the inhumanity which I have sought to remove from the political and social life of this country.

“I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence. Some of the things so far told to the Court are true and some are untrue. I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.

“Firstly, we believed that as a result of government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism. We who formed Umkhonto were all members of the African National Congress, and had behind us the ANC tradition of non-violence and negotiation as a means of solving political disputes. We believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white.

[Mandela quotes his leader, Chief Luthuli, who became president of the ANC in 1952 and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.]

Who will deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately, and modestly at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of moderation? The past thirty years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our rights and progress, until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all.

“What were we, the leaders of our people to do? Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it and, if so, how?

“It must not be forgotten that by this time violence had in fact become a feature of the South African Political scene. [He cites a number of examples.]

“In the manifesto of Umkhonto, published on 16 December 1961, we said:

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices- submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, our freedom.

“The avoidance of civil war had dominated our thinking for many years, but when we decided to adopt violence as part of our policy we realized that we might one day have to face the prospect of such a war

“Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision.

“The initial plan was based on careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communication, would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling voters of the country to reconsider their position.

“Attacks against the economic lifelines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people. In addition, they would provide an outlet for those people who were urging the adoption of violent methods and would enable us to give concrete proof to our followers that we had adopted a stronger line and were fighting back against government violence.

“In addition, if mass action were successfully organized and mass reprisals taken, we felt that sympathy for our cause would be roused in other countries, and that greater pressure would be brought to bear on the South African government.

“Umkhonto had its first operation on 16 December 1961, when government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban were attacked. The selection of targets is proof of the policy to which I have referred. Had we intended to attack life we would have selected targets where people congregated and not empty buildings and power stations.

“The whites failed to respond by suggesting change; they responded to our call by suggesting the laager.

“In contrast, the response of the Africans was one of encouragement. Suddenly there was hope again. Things were happening. People in the townships became eager for political news

“But we in Umkhonto weighed up the white response with anxiety. The lines were becoming drawn. The white newspapers carried reports that sabotage would be punished by death. If this was so, how could we continue to keep Africans away from terrorism?

“Already scores of Africans had died as a result of racial friction. [He gives a list of attacks and massacres.]

“Experience convinced us that rebellion would offer the government limitless opportunities for the indiscriminate slaughter of our people. But it was precisely because the soil of South Africa is already drenched with the blood of innocent Africans that we felt it our duty to make preparations as a long-term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force. If war were inevitable, we wanted the fight to be conducted on terms most favourable to our people. We decided, therefore, in our preparations for the future, to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare.”

In the case of Israel and Palestine, of course, there have already been wars and there has already been terrorism, in which, undeniably, Israel participates and further incites by aggressive tactics (witness Nablus and Jenin in recent days).

But Palestinian tactics should be limited to nonviolence and violence against non-living things. Terrorism, guerrilla warfare and open rebellion are not realistic options because, apart from moral considerations, the Palestinians, as an occupied people, are effectively under armed guard.

Any attacks Palestinians make on Israeli life are exactly what Israeli authorities want, in order to justify ever-crueler acts of oppression and ethnic cleansing. To provide them a basis for propaganda supporting their acts of collective punishment is to play into their hands.

As painful as it must be, in the light of all past injustices, Palestinians have to keep working to win world opinion. Attacking The Wall might also be good for morale.

Peter R. Harley is a writer living in Newfoundland and now visiting Norway. He can be reached by email at:


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