Because they’re worth It

Phumlaphi Masuku
Phumlaphi Masuku

Derry community relations worker Eilis HadEn reports from life as a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches in Hebron (Al- Kahlil) in Israel-Palestine. This week ahead of her trip home she met with South African colleague Phumlaphi Masuku and asked how boycott and sanctions affected him as his country struggled to win the war against apartheid in the 1980s

This morning Machmud Alani, a 16 year old school student and farmer’s son from Beit Umar woke up in a 10x12 foot cell in the institution he temporarily calls home. Whilst his family do not yet know the details of his treatment, they have already heard many tales of beatings and torture told by the boys in their village already streamed through this system or random incarceration.

You may remember that Machmud, whose story I shared with you in the Journal last month, was arrested whilst helping women and children to safety during an Israeli army incursion. He was subsequently forced (as many are through threats and beatings) to admit to a trumped up charge of stone throwing and will now lose two full months of his education whilst held in this grim institution (According to a recent report from their own Justice Ministry, Israel admits that Palestinian prisoners are subject to appalling conditions and regular torture).

As my team winds down operations in Palestine, our next task is to devise strategies for how to address Israeli human rights violations from within our home countries.

I have always believed that dialogue was the answer to everything but the longer I stay here, the more I realise that getting people to talk to one another has a time and a place and this is not it.

The view of most ordinary Palestinians and NGOs, whom I have met whilst here is that Netanyahu simply uses peace talks as a delay tactic whilst extending the occupation further by driving farmers from their lands and striking terror in the hearts of parents and children.

In addition, political negotiation is not working. Research from Palestinian youth organisation, Sharek (2009) revealed that more than half the young people here (52%) do not trust any political faction within their homeland. Further to this, only 30% trust in Fatah and 12% trust in Hamas.

This demonstrates that not only is there a general disillusionment with the political process but also those parties such as Hamas who may advocate violence are rapidly losing ground.

But yet young people are far from not caring about this situation. In a recent statement released by Sharek youth forum, young people from Gaza are quoted as saying “We are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, Fatah, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community. [Always] we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed... We cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want, sometimes we cannot even think what we want because the occupation has occupied our brains and hearts so terribly that it hurts and makes us want to shed endless tears of frustration and rage.”

Most ordinary Palestinians have given up their belief that either peace talks or violence will bring an end to this oppression, and so what are the answers? Perhaps our own elected European Government will save these people? Two months ago, I sat with Sergio Piccollo (E.U. Special Representative) on a mattress in the tent village of Susiya (Hebron area), watching his face light up as he answered my friend Jane and I’s questions about what solutions the EU could offer. At one point Piccolo described how the EU would always resist the Israeli occupation by giving continued aid to Palestinians on the ground. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked how repeatedly replacing water towers destroyed by the Israelis justifies standing by and allowing Netanyahu’s government to repeatedly flout International Humanitarian law.

This brings us to the question of what options are left to Palestinians so that they can reclaim their family farms and keep themselves safe from the threat of constant human rights violations. A woman called Hind Awad, Co-ordinator for the BDS national Committee in Ramallah believes she has the answer. Two weeks ago, I talked to Hind on the phone and she explained the Palestinian initiated process to me.

Simply put, the BDS campaign calls upon people and organisations all over the world to impose boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa during the apartheid era.

I first heard about the BDS movement from our own Goretti Horgan the People Before Profit Alliance in Derry. Whilst it sounded like it made sense, I was not totally sold on the idea as I worried about how it would affect ordinary decent Israeli and Palestinian workers with families to feed.

This morning over breakfast in the Capitol Hotel, East Jerusalem, I share my concerns with my South African colleague Phumlaphi Masuku. My first question is how boycott and sanctions affected him as his country struggled to win the war against apartheid in the 1980s. Surprisingly, Phumlaphi tells me that at first he barely noticed the movement. He goes on to explain that at the time, he was a young man from a shanty town, barely older than Machmud, and his first priority was just surviving the daily assault of movement restrictions, poverty and prejudice placed on the indigenous population. “But eventually we started to see change” he says. “All the Chevrolet cars disappeared from the streets, then Barkley’s Bank was no more, and soon everyone was talking about how the world was on our side...It was quite something. Within ten years of BDS first starting, de Clerk was feeling the pressure, he let Mandela out of prison and this was when we knew that apartheid was truly coming to an end.”

“But what was it like on a daily basis?” I ask. “And what do you think it will be like for people here, if Israel is driven into poverty?” Phumlaphi stares down at his food and draws a breath. “For those ordinary people who eat bread and tomato for breakfast, well this is what they will still eat even if the Israeli economy collapses. And so don’t worry, at end of day those who will suffer the most at the end of the day will be the profit makers. Yes of course there will be casualties but things always have to get worse before they can get better. Palestinians have been suffering under the Israeli occupation for many decades. If they can turn this around in less than 10 years of boycott and sanctions, then it will be a wonderful thing.” And besides, it is not up to you or anyone from Europe to decide whether or not this suffering will be too much for Palestinians. They have chosen this path and this is the only way forward that many of them can see.”

I ask Phunlaphi what were the greatest benefits that came from the world boycotting South African goods. “That’s easy to answer” he smiles. “The best outcome from the boycotts is that we now have the freedom to choose. Where I live, life is not perfect but I can choose the type of existence I want; I can choose to travel, I can choose to stay out of jail and be free, I can choose to work hard and have a career. This is what the people in Palestine still do not have.”

Last week I was delighted to hear from Machmud’s sister that he’s due to be released in late October. I can tell that she can’t wait to see him again and get him straight back into school. Already I have heard that Ala at the YMCA is keen to offer psycho-social support to the Alani family so that Machmud’s reintegration into normal life is as smooth as possible.

But what about his future? If Phumlaphi’s predictions are anything to go by, ten years of hard-line boycott and sanctions against Israel would mean that Machmud will probably have just left University at the time that things start to change. He will still be young enough to build a life for himself; a life where he does not have to get up at 2am to make his way to Israel to do a full day’s menial work for those profiting from the occupation. He can have a family and know that his children are free from torture and incarceration under false charges. He can know that his parents will be safe from army incursions as they grow old and too frail to run from the masked and armed soldiers who frequently storm their village in the middle of the night.

Of course BDS is not a perfect system. No system is, but it may be the only hope that the Palestinians have left. And best of all, since we are now feeling the pinch from the recession, it costs us nothing. All we have to do is read the labels when we do our weekly shop and maybe swap one brand of skin cream or shampoo or fruit for another, making sure that we do not buy Israeli. Being a good person has never been this easy!

n For more information on how to help our Palestinian friends through BDS simply go the following websites. And if you are still asking yourself why you would bother, well the simple answer is - because they’re worth it.

n Next week I will be at home between Derry and Donegal enjoying some much needed sleep before beginning my advocacy work. In November my friend Hamed from the United Nations will be coming to stay and I look forward to introducing him to you all so he can share his stories (Watch this space).

Until then Masalama.