Madiba in Ramallah
What Nelson Mandela means to Palestine’s struggle.
Nelson Mandela was not only the symbol of the great South African struggle against apartheid — he was a global symbol of freedom, reconciliation, and justice.
If he could speak to us today, he would likely ask that the enthusiasm exhibited during his memorial service be translated into real support for the causes he struggled for — above all, the abolition of the world’s last surviving apartheid system, imposed by Israel on the people of Palestine.
Mandela was a lifelong supporter of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. The Palestinian issue, he said, is "the greatest moral issue of our time" — and one that has repercussions for oppressed people the world over. As he put it after South Africa threw off the chains of apartheid, "our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."
I deeply respect that Mandela never shied away from supporting the Palestinian struggle or any other fight for justice, even when he became one of the world’s most prominent leaders. On the contrary, he used his status and visibility to advocate for the struggles of others.
Mandela not only gave Palestinians his moral support, but the South African people’s struggle against apartheid provided us with the best example for how to combat the Israeli occupation. Their popular, nonviolent struggle is an inspiration for us — and it evolved, as in the Palestinian struggle, after realizing the limitations of armed resistance.
Palestinian activists have learned from the South African experience in building grassroots organizations and support. They are basing their own Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign around the world on that of the South Africans, which was instrumental in bringing down the apartheid system.
President Barack Obama praised Mandela this week by saying that he "freed not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well." This is exactly what we believe in Palestine, and what we say to the Israeli soldiers who arrest and assault us. We are pushing them to free themselves from a system of discrimination and violence that has no place in the 21st century.
Indeed, the whole Arab world has much to learn from Mandela’s legacy. Particularly at a time of great disappointment because of the failure of many Arab democratic revolutions, his experience shows how we can build unity and overcome our differences, and how to accept democracy as the best way of resolving disputes. Mandela represents an exemplary model of how a movement can stage a comeback regardless of numerous obstacles. Just like in South Africa, democratic reform is inevitable if our societies are to move forward.
There are many examples of great leaders who lost their way in the middle of vicious struggles for power. Mandela was not one of them. Power and authority was not his priority. His willingness to cede power led directly to moral authority — and in turn to his tremendous position of global leadership.
The road to freedom is never an easy one, especially when one encounters a powerful opponent like the apartheid regime of South Africa or the powerful Israeli occupation army, with its formidable backing in Washington from the Israel lobby. What people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mandela proved is that no power in the world can stop progress as long as the people who demand freedom are ready to keep moving. The real challenge is not to give up hope and to live by Mandela’s words: "It always seems impossible until it’s done."
The suddenness with which Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 and transitioned South Africa to a democracy with equal rights for all is a powerful signal to Palestinians that we, too, can transform the injustice we confront. And it could happen suddenly and dramatically if we all continue to work as diligently as Mandela did.
But one question remains: Is there an Israeli leader willing to see the writing on the wall and work with us to secure Palestinian rights, or will they fight us every step of the way?