A favorite professor of mine once told me that the more you learn about history, the more you realize how little you really know, and how much you still have to learn. Last night, I was both moved and angered to further learn about the ongoing destruction and blockade of the Gaza strip. The award winning Palestinian journalist, Mohammed Omer, showed photographs and told us many moving stories about his life and experiences in Gaza. These stories included the demolition of Mohammed’s home and loss of his brother and neighbors.
Many of the tragic experiences Mohammed shared occurred before the election of the Hamas government, the siege of Gaza and last year’s Israeli offensive, Operation Cast Lead. Mohammed described a major shift in Israeli military policy after Israeli settlements in Gaza were closed, in 2005. Following the “disengagement,” Israeli air strikes increased and carried out house demolitions. Prior to 2005, Israel had primarily used bulldozers. Before, the military would not have wanted to risk affecting Israeli settlers and their children, perhaps frightening the Israeli settlers’ children who would hear the sonic booms or, worse yet, catching Israeli settlers and their children in the cross-fire.
He also described how expert the children in Gaza are in identifying the different bullets and shells being used to destroy their neighborhoods and families. Many of these munitions are manufactured in America and given to the Israeli military.
It’s important that we learn from history by comparing U.S. support for Israel with U.S. support for a previous apartheid state. Desmond Tutu has helped people make such connections. In 2008, Desmond Tutu wrote a report for the UN Human Rights council that detailed the 2006 murders of 18 members of a single Palestinian family living in Beit Hanoun. Tutu concluded that these reckless attacks by the Israeli military possibly constituted war crimes and should be investigated further. In 1984, regarding South Africa, he testified before the U.S. congress: “You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric… You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.”
Few now dispute the manner in which the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” and “quiet diplomacy” enabled continued crimes by the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Reagan administration resisted change in South Africa and even collaborated with racist elements in Pretoria. After the decline of the Soviet Union, the popular liberation movement and massive surge in anti-apartheid protests within South Africa were no longer easily labeled as “clients of Moscow” or “terrorists.” International outcry and political activism within the United States were so strong that the Congress finally passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, initially introduced in 1972. Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, but then the veto was over-ridden by Congress, as there was bi-partisan support with many conservatives then beginning to speak out against apartheid.
Through years of constructive engagement, Reagan’s pro-consul for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, refused to meet with black leaders in the liberation struggle. Indigenous Africans’ experiences and opinions were disregarded while the State Department decided to base its strategy in a belief that the brutal, colonial white-minority government would gradually lead a peaceful transition to inclusive democracy.
This strategy was not only based on a fantasy, it was an insult to black Africans facing repression and had real implications in terms of human lives. During Reagan’s presidency, at least 3,000 people would die, mostly at the hands of the South African police and military. Another 20,000, including 6,000 children, according to one estimate by a human rights group, would be arrested under “state of emergency” decrees.
As Reagan was speaking of strategic interests, about minerals and how South Africa was such a “friendly nation,” people were suffering on the ground. It was no easy task to build the anti-apartheid movement from within the United States either. Pallo Jordan, a member of the ANC, wrote:
“The majority of South Africans see the people of the USA, who came to their support, as their friend. But he/she would be a very foolish South African who imagines that such support was a spontaneous response based on principles shared by democrats the world over. We sweated blood to mobilize support among the US population! Literally scores of African-American students were expelled from Universities and Colleges for agitating for their institutions to dis-invest from South Africa!”
The United States has faced and is facing a similar diplomatic question with the nation of Israel. The international community is well aware that Israel consistently abuses human rights. Discriminatory policies against Arabs and Palestinians are strikingly reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and fit the definition according to international human rights law. Israeli maintenance of a brutal military occupation of the Palestinian territories is nearing a half-century in duration. The Gaza strip has been under Israeli siege and blockade since 2007. Israel’s recent major military offensive, which occurred as President Obama was being sworn into office, was a 22-day attack on the civilian population and infrastructure in Gaza and caused over 1400 Palestinian casualties. The “security fence,” or “apartheid/separation wall,” continues to be built inside Palestine to annex further Palestinian land and resources. Additionally, in his recent trip to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unrepentant about the new Israeli settlements being built in the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem the West Bank.
With all of these indictments facing the Israeli government, what position has the Obama administration taken towards Israel? Media outlets have described the administration’s policy as one of “tough love.” Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made statements condemning Israeli settlement expansion, but they have also asserted that the United States’ commitment to Israel is “rock-solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.” Beyond words, the United States has just signed a $250 million arms deal with Israel on top of the annual $3 billion that the U.S. already gives to Israel in military aid. Given these factors, it seems that Obama’s policy of “tough love” towards Israel is even weaker than Reagan’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” towards apartheid South Africa. And just as Pretoria was never interested in complying with constructive engagement’s recommendations, Israel obviously does not seem too deterred by the Obama administration’s occasional slogans. They likely understand the largely theatrical role of the U.S. presidency.
Looking back at the sacrifices of those in the anti-apartheid struggle, its time that people in the United States step up our organizing, educational efforts and the level of risk we are willing to take to non-violently challenge this unabashed military support for Israel. We should also draw courage from our friends in Palestine, Israel and elsewhere who are facing much harsher consequences for non-violent resistance. If we are ever to challenge the status quo policy of “tough love,” we’ve got to have a vocal opposition movement that the Obama administration, the corporations and the Israeli government can see and hear. Its time we kick up the volume and cut off the funding. No more military aid to Israel!
Joshua Brollier is a co-coordinator with Voices for Creative Non-Violence in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.
 In testimony on Capitol Hill, 1984.
 “Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have and so forth?” Ronald Reagan
 Constructive Engagement? Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola, 1981–1988: J. E. Davies, 2007.