The UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, last year saw a walk-out by Israeli and American delegates. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that ended on September 4 in Johannesburg generate any more support for either government. On September 4, a protest disrupted US secretary of state Colin Powell’s speech, creating an uproar that drowned out much of his message. The protests in the plenary session, on the last day of the summit, were the culmination of a growing undercurrent of anti-American feeling over the US stand on renewable energy sources and the US’s flagrant breaches of human rights.
The booing began with the African delegations when Powell said: “In Zimbabwe, the lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law has exacerbated the factors that are pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.” Powell’s words were drowned out as the hall erupted into booing and jeering by protesters and delegates. And when the thickskinned US secretary of state mentioned “climatic change”, activists in the back chanted: “Shame on you, shame on Bush.” One delegate who tried to burn a US flag was whisked out before he could light it.
Jacob Scherr, of the Natural Resources Defence Council, one of the US-based groups that organized the protest, said that the whole world was frustrated because Bush was favouring corporate interests over the environment and people. Scherr said that many people were distressed by Powell’s remark that “Sustainable Development begins at home.” Said Scherr: “It’s as if the US is not located on this planet. It [sustainable development] has to start in the US.”
The summit was also a moral victory for pro-Palestinian sympathizers as protests, boycotts and memoranda gained momentum during the course of the summit. However, the anti-Israel wave reached its peak on the arrival of Shimon Peres, Israeli foreign minister, on September 2. That same night, police used water cannon to disperse pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the Johannesburg College of Education. Peres was due to address members of Johannesburg’s Jewish community at the invitation of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation. The protesters chanted “Death to Peres”, “Peres is a criminal” and “Arrest Peres”, and carried placards that read “Sharon is a terrorist”, “ Zionism is racism” and “Free Palestine!” They also set fire to an Israeli flag.
Meanwhile, the university authorities criticised the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation for hosting the event without following normal booking procedure. After these developments, another event arranged by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) at Wits education campus, where Peres was also to speak, was cancelled. The authorities held talks with the SAIIA and the SA police services to discuss the university’s commitment to freedom of speech and the principle of public safety and security. The cancellation of the second event was hailed as a major success by pro-Palestinian protesters.
Peres’ first day in South Africa thus ended on a bitter note. His second day was not good either. On September 3, one Ms Sasha Evans instituted an action against him, through the court of South Africa (Witwatersrand local division), for payment of $13.5 million as security for being a non-South African, failing which she threatened to apply for a warrant for his arrest and detention. Ms Evans was a resident and employed in Occupied Palestine in the period from September 1997 to December 2001.
“The witnessing by myself of the brutality and violence perpetrated by the agents and servants of Mr. Shimon Peres... caused and still causes me severe anguish, trauma and stress, which represent the basis of my action,” she said in her press statement. “I wish to point out that I have instituted this action not on my own behalf but in order to empower the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. I further wish to point out that when I succeed with my action, I will donate all my payments due to me to the appropriate Palestinian charities, in a small attempt to help erase the suffering of a dispossessed, severely oppressed and occupied Palestinian people.”
The National Auqaf Foundation of South Africa held an event in parallel to the WSSD under the banner “The 1st Muslim convention on Sustainable Development” at Erasmia, Pretoria, on September 1. At the end of the event, water and forestry minister Ronnie Kasrils led a ceremony in which five olive trees were planted in memory of the martyrs of Palestine. Kasrils and officers of many NGOs were present at the parallel event to discuss the Muslims’ contribution to sustainable development. Many international guests, including Palestinian delegations, witnessed the expression of solidarity.
The olive trees were named after Palestinian villages massacred by the zionists. Kasrils dedicated the first tree to the Palestinian village of Lubya. Dr Uri Davis, a visiting Palestinian Jewish activist, planted the second tree and dedicated it to the memory of the village of Haran Sayyiduna Ali. The Media Review Network (MRN) dedicated the third to Deir Yassin. The Auqaf Foundation of SA, which hosted the event, planted the next tree in memory of the village of Tantura. Al-Ghazali College dedicated the fifth olive tree to the village of Duwayana.
Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, urged Peres to consider allowing a six-nation commission to oversee the peace process in the Middle East. “Violence, whether it is perpetuated by Israel or Palestine, has brought death to many people. We have reached a stage where negotiation is the only solution,” Mandela said. Mandela also reminded Peres that he had outlined his idea to US president George Bush last November, suggesting that countries on the international commission should include the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Bush had suggested that Russia also be on the body, an idea which Mandela supported. Mandela said that there were two other conditions for lasting peace in the Middle East: firstly, that Israel should withdraw from Arab lands captured in 1967; secondly that Arab states recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.
Peres said that he accepted some of Mandela’s ideas for solving the conflict, claiming that if Mandela were in the Middle East there would have been peace. Peres asserted that Israel had agreed to a Palestinian state, the return of 97 percent of the land the Palestinians had requested, and would do a swap on the remaining 3 percent; Israel was also prepared to do a deal on Jerusalem. “No one in Israel, Europe and the US understands why Arafat said no and returned to violence,” Peres complained.
Mandela’s six-nation commission and Peres’s wish for a Mandela in the Middle East, however, do little to erase Israel’s brutal crimes. It would be rather better to let the people of Palestine decide their own future for themselves. The sacrifices of the shuhada can never go in vain either. ‘Israel’ will one day be only a memory.