An Open Letter to Nelson Mandela

Ali Al-Azhari

Ali Al-Azhari is a veteran activist. He lives in Jaffa.

In the fall of 2005 I wrote a private letter to Nelson Mandela. I was motivated by the violence perpetrated by Israeli forces against the Palestinians and Israelis engaged in non-violent protest against the separation wall. Recent events bring me back to that letter, which, alas, seems to have lost none of its relevance. South Africa's Jewish Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, has expressed some very severe criticism of Israel, and supports the COSATU trade union movement's call for the government of South Africa to sever diplomatic relations with Israel and impose an economic boycott against it. What could be more non-violent than a boycott? Despite the despair among Palestinians and in the Israeli "peace camp" of ever reaching a solution that will end occupation, or perhaps because of that despair, I cannot, as a person and as a Palestinian, remain indifferent to these voices, loud and clear, coming from today's South Africa. After all, who can tell us better than the citizens of South Africa, black and white, about the efficacy of the boycott in fighting tyranny and oppression? And who hopes and yearns for it to be applied more than the Palestinians?
I consider this letter's publication today my humble contribution to the mosaic of documentation and protests marking the 40th anniversary of the occupation.

Dear Mr. Mandela:

For a very long time I have wanted to write to you, to greet and salute you, years before you and your associates and all Africans succeeded in toppling the apartheid regime. When, in the 1970s and '80s, I wanted to hang the picture of Yasser Arafat in my flat in Tel Aviv to express my people's longing for political freedom and equality with the Israelis, but did not dare, I hung your picture instead. This was not just a trick solution to avoid persecution by the Israeli authorities; it was an acknowledgement that from your place in the Robben Island prison you represented not only your people but also me and all who longed for freedom.
One of the happiest and most moving days of my life was May 10, 1994, when you were sworn in as the first president of a free South Africa. Coming from a religious Muslim family, I could not but think of the most decisive moment in the history of Islam - the Prophet Muhammad's conquest of Mecca at the end of January 630 AD. Muhammad entered the city at the head of a victorious army, eight years after he had been forced to leave the place with a small band of his first followers, who had been persecuted for their Muslim faith. Before purifying the Kaaba, which had been the main pagan shrine of the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad addressed his erstwhile enemies, the polytheistic crowd that had gathered around.
'How do you expect me to treat you?' he asked.
'Mercifully,' they said, 'for are you not our merciful brother?'
Said the Prophet: 'Go in peace, you are free men.'
Had I been present on that occasion 14 centuries ago, I would probably have been among those who converted to Islam that day, moved by this great and rare magnanimity. Instead, I had the good fortune to watch the astounding and deeply moving historical moment of your swearing in as president of South Africa in the Union Building in Pretoria, the very fortress of apartheid. I was awestruck by the magnanimity shown by you and your companions of the African National Congress (ANC), your ability to overcome the historical rage and desire for vengeance against the whites, to be reconciled with them and to forgive them the terrible evils they did to your people during hundreds of years. The vision, the nobility, the restraint and humanity you demonstrated could not simply flash overhead without leaving an indelible impression on all minds and souls. On that day I converted to Mandela-ism.
For all the differences between the racial conflict that raged in your country and the prolonged national conflict in ours, I, as a Palestinian, am continually inspired by the fulfillment of your dream of reconciliation between the races in your land. It makes me dream, think and act in the light of that vision, here in the country in which I was born and in which I live. To my mind, implementing Mandela's vision here, making it a reality in this strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, means ending the Israeli occupation, dismantling all the settlements and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state in the territories Israel seized in the 1967 war, with its capital in East Jerusalem, side by side with the State of Israel within the borders of June 4, 1967, with West Jerusalem as its capital. Jerusalem would never again be divided, and will be open to both nations and all three religions. At the same time Israel would undergo a reform that will convert it into a state of all its citizens, a state whose citizens and inhabitants would all enjoy equal human, national and civil rights.
Inside Israel - within its 1967 borders - live over a million Palestinians who suffer from discrimination both personal and national. The undersigned is one of them. Although my family remained within the borders of the State of Israel when it was established in 1948, the state forbids us to return to our lands and our village, which it destroyed after the 1948 war, and where it created a settlement where only Jews may reside. There are in Israel about a quarter of a million citizens like me, who live as refugees in their own homeland, facing the remains of their villages and lands which were given to Jews. If the State of Israel mends its ways, ceases to be a partial democracy based on national, or religious-national (i.e., Jewish) origin, and becomes a state of all its citizens, then I would be willing to renounce what is most precious to every Palestinian: I would relinquish my right of return. Yes, I personally would give up my parents' dream and mine of returning to the village where I was born, Saffuriya in the Galilee (the biblical Sephoris, birthplace of Saint Anne, mother of Virgin Mary). I would regard the realization of complete equality with the Jews in Israel, and between the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine, as acceptable compensation for the loss and the suffering that the creation of Israel has caused me. I would ask for no other compensation.
Unfortunately, though, it seems that Mandela's vision grows more distant every day. In the occupied territories things are getting worse. As you know, for the past two years Israel has been constructing a separation wall between itself and the Palestinians in the territories it captured on the West Bank in 1967. Israel justifies building the wall as essential for the protection of its population from Palestinian terrorism. But if Israel were really interested in reconciliation and peace, rather than annexation and settlement, it would have built the wall along the border of June 4, 1967, instead of deep inside Palestinian territory. The aim is plain to see - the expropriation of remaining Palestinian lands and their annexation by the Jewish settlements, in preparation for the future annexation of most of these settlements to Israel. As it rises, the wall creates enclaves and ghettoes enclosing thousands of people, and in some areas it cuts off tens of thousands of villagers from their cultivated lands, which provide their subsistence. The wall may eventually create cantons and Bantustans which will make it impossible to establish a Palestinian state. No wonder that the International Court of Justice in The Hague determined last year that the wall is illegal and that those sections of it not built on the Green Line (i.e., Israel's June 4, 1967 border) must be demolished. You have probably heard that in the past decade Israel has also built a network of roads crisscrossing the West Bank, for the exclusive use of the Israeli settlers.
Against this background and in parallel with these developments, a new kind of Palestinian resistance has emerged: joint Palestinian-Israeli non-violent demonstrations. Thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis take part in these actions. The Israeli army of occupation reacts with violence, and has so far killed about a dozen demonstrators and wounded hundreds, including Israelis.
As one of the activists in this struggle, I should like to tell you, Sir, about a dream shared by the demonstrators from both peoples - it is to see Nelson Mandela in our midst in one of our demonstrations, joining hands with us and strengthening our morale. Now more than ever we need you, when the Sharon government, behind the smokescreen of the so-called "disengagement" from Gaza, is speeding up the construction of the wall, the expansion of Jewish settlements and restrictions on the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank. No one in the world is as experienced as you are in toppling walls of separation and hatred between races and peoples. If you came here, it would focus Israeli and international public opinion on the situation in the occupied territories, and encourage Palestinians and Israelis to develop a joint struggle for coexistence in equality and peace.

May I hope that you would consider such a step, such a visit?

I wish you, from the bottom of my heart, good health and many more fruitful years of life!

Yours, with profound respect and admiration,

Ali Al-Azhari