Time to Renew an Old Promise? A Brief History of Global South Solidarity with Palestine

ANALYSIS, 17 Jun 2024

Bidisha Biswas | The Cairo Review of Global Affairs - TRANSCEND Media Service

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and former South African President Nelson Mandela wave upon Mandela’s arrival at Gaza international airport. Mandela arrived for a two-day visit to Gaza Strip to address the Palestinian Legislative Council. – PBEAHULREAN

Anti-colonial and post-colonial politics have shaped global understandings of the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, beyond the narrow vision of many Western countries.

Spring 2024 – Between May and June 2024, Spain, Ireland, Norway, and Slovenia announced that they would officially recognize the state of Palestine.  Predictably, this received dramatic condemnation from Israel. Just as predictably, the United States—which has consistently opposed statehood for Palestinians through both its veto power in the United Nations Security Council and implicit and explicit support for Israel’s expansionist policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)—expressed disapproval of this move by its European allies.

Lost in the Western media’s maelstrom about these developments was the important fact that, by May 2024, a majority of the world’s countries, more than 140, had already recognized Palestinian statehood—and had done so for years. In particular, Global South countries in Asia and Africa have long seen the Palestinian quest for self-determination as an extension of their own anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century. An examination of this history of solidarity can help us understand the ways in which anti-colonial and post-colonial politics have shaped global understandings of the Israel-Palestine conflict, beyond the narrow vision of many Western countries. In turn, this will provide us with much-needed context to the current situation.

At the time of Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948, much of Africa and Asia was still under the yoke of European colonial rule. One exception to this was India, which gained independence from British rule in August 1947. In June 1947,  Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become independent India’s first Prime Minister, explained his country’s nuanced position on the question of Israel and Palestine in a letter to Albert Einstein, who had written to him to seek support for Israel’s creation:

“You know that in India there has been the deepest sympathy for the great sufferings of the Jewish people. We have rejected completely the racial doctrine which the Nazis and the fascists proclaimed. Unfortunately, however, that doctrine is still believed in and acted upon by other people. You are no doubt aware of the treatment accorded by the Union of South Africa to Indians there on racial grounds….In raising this question [of South Africa] before the United Nations, we did not emphasise the limited aspect of it, but stood on the broader plane of human rights for all in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations…. With all our sympathy for the Jews we must and do feel that the rights and future of the Arabs are involved in this question…Why do they [Jews] want to compel the Arabs to submit against their will to certain demands? The way of approach has been one which does not lead to a settlement, but rather to the continuation of the conflict.”

In November 1947, India was one of only thirteen countries that opposed UN Resolution 1981, which paved the way for Israel to be established the following year. India went on to recognize Israel in 1950 (although full diplomatic relations were not established till 1992); but for many years remained actively supportive of Palestinian rights.

Nehru’s early concerns—regarding the parallels between Israel and South Africa, the marginalization of Palestinian rights, and tying the Palestine question to the broader UN commitment to supporting equal rights for all persons—continued to resonate over the ensuing decades. As countries across Asia and Africa gained independence from colonial rule, they extended vocal support to Palestine on the international stage. They did so through resolutions passed by the  United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and statements from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organization for African Unity (OAU). NAM was particularly outspoken on this issue, having created a Ministerial Committee on Palestine at its 1983 meeting in New Delhi, India. Ignored by the West, Palestinians viewed this step as an important  indication of global support. NAM and OAU (which converted to the African Union (AU) in 2002) would make repeated statements to the UNGA about the need to center Palestinian rights to bring a just and durable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many of these statements would draw comparisons between the oppressive policies of the South African and Israeli regimes.

An Independent State

In November 1988, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), declared Palestine as an independent state. Between 1988 and 1989, a number of countries from Asia and Africa recognized Palestine. Among those were India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Zambia, The Gambia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Vietnam, Cape Verde, Niger, Tanzania, Ghana, Togo, Zimbabwe, Chad, Uganda, Angola, Mozambique, Gabon, Botswana, and Kenya. Two central American countries, Cuba and Nicaragua, also joined this first wave. A 1989 OAU submission to the UN, authored by Kenya, was one of many which asked for Palestine to be recognized as a state, drew links between Israel’s oppressive practices and that of apartheid-era South Africa, and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the OPT.

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the U.S.-led world order weakened NAM and OAU, both of which had received support from the Soviet Union. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Palestinian cause appeared to recede from the public eye in many postcolonial countries. Regular submissions to the UN on this issue assumed a depressing form of repetition, devoid of actual impact. Israel, for its part, was able to establish closer diplomatic, economic, and military ties with a number of post-colonial countries, including India.

The 1990s, however, also saw the growing prominence of another important voice of solidarity. As the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa gained steam, Nelson Mandela and others involved in the effort to change the country’s racist regime spoke firmly and unequivocally about their affinity with Palestinians. One of the first acts of the post-apartheid South Africa government was the recognition of Palestine in 1995. While South Africa continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, support to Palestine was a sharp reversal of the apartheid-era government’s close relations with Israel. South Africa would go on to become one of the most outspoken advocates for Palestinian rights in international forums, most recently filing a case in December 2023 against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for acts of genocide in Gaza. Since its creation in 2002, the AU, of which South Africa is a prominent member, has consistently raised the issue of Palestine as a central point of contention in its demands for reform of the global institutional regime that has long been dominated by the West.

In the 21st century, many countries in Central and South America extended recognition to Palestine, despite pressure from the United States to refrain. This was facilitated by the emergence of left-leaning governments in the region, which tended to see structural global inequality as being reflected in the Palestinian cause. Countries from the region that have recognized Palestine in the last few decades include Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, and Mexico.

It is in this broader context of growing global solidarity that Sweden’s recognition of Palestine in 2014—the first Western European country to do so—should be seen. It is notable that more than 125 countries—a majority in UNGA—opposed the United States’s 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Most countries have continued to criticize Israel’s actions in the OPT, including the expansion of settlements, an issue on which Western countries have tended to remain relatively silent.

Since October 2023, we have seen an unprecedented wave of public support for Palestinians across the Western world, most notably in the United States. Many protestors, including students and Black activists, draw explicit links between racist and colonial oppression and Israel’s actions. It is important in this context to remember that post-colonial countries have played a historical, pivotal role in supporting the decades-long effort by Palestinians to be heard in the UN and other international forums.

Most countries in Asia and Africa do not have the history of anti-Jewish hate and discrimination that have for centuries marked Europe and the United States. Nor are these countries—geographically removed from the Middle East—affected by the territorial disputes, displaced populations, and proximate anxieties that affect the region. Why then, have they chosen to so consistently focus on expressing solidarity with Palestine, even while being ignored or chastised by powerful countries like the United States? And what might be the motivations for these countries to continue to speak at international forums, which have been dominated by powerful countries and remained ineffective on the Palestine issue?

Anti-Colonialism: Beyond Geopolitics

One answer to these questions is, of course, geopolitics. Some countries might have felt that it was in their national interest to ally themselves, on this issue, with countries in the Middle East. Geopolitics cannot, however, provide an explanation for the consistency and steadfastness of this support, nor the language of global rights in which it has been framed. In much of the Global South,  support for the Palestinian cause has long been seen as a critical element of a shared, anti-colonial endeavor. It is this idea, one of solidarity between colonized and subjugated peoples, that was articulated by Nehru in his communique to Einstein in 1947. This same idea has been echoed by others, including Mandela, who have seen in the Palestinian struggle a continuation of their own efforts to create more equity in the world. It explains, as well, why such countries have turned to international organizations, as have the Palestinians themselves, over a decades-long effort to have their rights recognized in meaningful ways. And, today, these same ideas—of speaking up for those affected by colonial and racist policies and of driving change in the power structures of the world—are propelling current waves of popular solidarity with Palestine.

It is impossible to know if the current moment will pave the way for a sovereign Palestinian state that can provide a safe and secure life for its citizens, and ensure the same for its neighbors. It is also not clear that post-colonial countries, many of which have significant governance and foreign policy challenges of their own, can provide substantive models in this regard. Yet, amid the tumult of the changing world order, and the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East, a recognition of post-colonial solidarity toward Palestine reminds us of the centrality of the original, still unfulfilled promise of the United Nations—that it is a body committed to reaffirming “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”  and to establishing “conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”.

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Bidisha Biswas is a professor of political science at Western Washington University, USA. Her current research interests focus on Global South politics and international refugee flows.  In Summer 2023, Dr. Biswas organized media literacy workshops for Palestinian youth in the West Bank. She co-produced an award-winning short film, Creating Change, based on the experiences of the workshops. 

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