Mustafa Barghouti and Naledi Pandor embrace

Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti and South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor hold hands and talk at the Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine in Sandton, South Africa on May 10, 2024.

(Photo: Katlholo Maifadi/DIRCO)

'Watershed Moment': Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine Kicks Off in South Africa

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the movement to end Israeli apartheid is "following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela" and "will not rest until the freedom of the peoples of Palestine is realized."

As Israeli forces continued their devastating assault on the Gaza Strip and deadly occupation of the West Bank, human rights defenders from around the world gathered Friday in South Africa—which is leading a genocide case against Israel at the World Court—for the inaugural Global Anti-Apartheid Conference on Palestine.

The conference began with a moment of silence for the nearly 35,000 Palestinians—most of them women and children—killed by Israeli troops during the 217-day war and "complete siege," which has also wounded more than 78,000 people, displaced around 90% of the strip's population, and starved at least hundreds of thousands of others—dozens of whom have died.

Meanwhile, Israel's illegal occupation and settler colonization have intensified in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where soldiers and settlers have killed at least 467 Palestinians and wounded or arrested thousands of others—some of whom were tortured—over the past seven months.

"This conference must make sure that we mobilize the world... and free the people of Palestine," Rev. Frank Chikane of the African National Congress (ANC) and World Council of Churches said at the start of the symposium.

Thanking Chikane for "spearheading" conference organizing efforts, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor hailed the "watershed moment" of "anti-apartheid movements on Palestine from around the globe coming together and joining forces in the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people."

"It has never been so urgent for the progressive forces around the globe to come together in a collective effort to exert maximum pressure to end the genocidal campaign underway in Gaza, and to end the apartheid system in Israel and the occupied territories, which is worse than what we experienced in our own country," she asserted, echoing past remarks by other South Africans and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Pandor highlighted South Africa's December filing of a genocide case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a move supported by over 30 countries and regional blocs and hundreds of advocacy groups. In January, the ICJ found that Israel is "plausibly" committing genocide in Gaza and ordered its government to prevent future genocidal acts—an order human rights monitors say Israel has ignored, largely by blocking humanitarian aid. In March, the ICJ ordered Israel to allow more aid into Gaza.

"We will continue to do everything within our power to preserve the existence of the Palestinian people as a group, to end all acts of apartheid and genocide against the Palestinian people, and to walk with them towards the realization of their collective right to self-determination," Pandor said. "We continue to do so following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and will not rest until the freedom of the peoples of Palestine is realized."

Ronnie Kasrils—a communist who went from being a guerrilla fighter in the ANC's armed wing during the apartheid era to a government minister in a free South Africa—warned against compromising in the fight for freedom. He also reaffirmed Palestinians' legal right to "armed struggle, an international right of resistance against tyranny, against military occupation."

"There is no need to pussyfoot around the fact when we have our discussions about the rights of the Palestinians to resist with arms," Kasrils stressed.

Palestinian lawmaker, physician, and activist Mustafa Barghouti said that "we've woken the people of the world against genocide and injustice... and hypocrisy of international governments."

"Israel initiated this war but Israel will not be the one who decides how it ends," he added.

Lamis Deek, a New York-based attorney specializing in international human rights, called for "liberation of all the land from institutions of Zionist violence and supremacy, return, reparations, justice and accountability for every Zionist crime, and restitution."

Declan Kearney, a member of Northern Ireland's Legislative Assembly and national chairman of the Irish republican and democratic socialist party Sinn Féin, noted that "Palestinian and Irish freedom fighters share a special bond. Our commitment is absolute and unbreakable."

The Republic of Ireland said in March that it would intervene in the South African ICJ case and the country—along with fellow European Union members Spain, Slovenia, and Malta—is set later this month to join the nearly 140 nations that recognize Palestinian statehood.

The United Nations General Assembly voted 143-9 on Friday to approve Palestine's bid for full U.N. membership. The United States—Israel's leading international backer—and Israel voted against the proposal, which will head to the U.N. Security Council and an almost certain U.S. veto.

Kearney echoed other speakers who stressed the importance of international solidarity, applauding the "unprecedented" global outpouring of support for Palestine.

"We are with the Palestinian people on their long walk to freedom and will never abandon them," he vowed.

While many Israelis and their backers bristle at the apartheid label, Palestinians and individuals ranging from Carter to the late South African bishop and human rights campaigner Desmond Tutu to United Nations special rapporteurs have for decades called Israel's policies and actions in Palestine apartheid.

Major human rights organizations—including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israeli groups B'Tselem and Yesh Din—have also done so. So have prominent Israelis including a former Mossad chief, multiple former attorneys general and ambassadors, and a growing number of journalists, artists, veterans, and others.

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