On 21 March 1960, a crowd of about 3,000 black South Africans gathered outside a police station in the township of Sharpeville, south of Soweto. They had come to protest against the pass laws and pass book which severely, and humiliatingly, restricted their freedom of movement. After a scuffle broke out and stones were thrown, the police opened fire, killing 69 people and wounding some 180 others. Amongst the dead were children and people shot in the back.
Sharpeville was a turning point in international reaction to apartheid and led to South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth a year later. But now try this: Sharpeville was a deliberate provocation by the Pan African Congress (PAC) who organised the demonstration and who cared nothing for the possible bloodshed. The 300 or so police were defending the fence around the police station and had every right to uphold law and order and protect themselves. They did their best to minimise civilian casualties in self-defence. The South African State had every right to defend its citizens and its integrity against unruly threatening demonstrators.
I’ve elaborated somewhat to capture the key themes of the oft-repeated refrain. But, yes, if you find it convincing, you’d believe anything. And the apartheid regime was not believed.
There are reasons not to compare Sharpeville with the killing of some 58 Palestinians and the wounding of over one thousand protesting at the border fence separating Gaza from Israel on Monday 14 May. The circumstances were different: a conscript army did the killing not the police; the soldiers were on the receiving end of Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices; the fence was a protective border and not a police perimeter, and, probably, a handful of armed men were using the mayhem as cover. But, like Sharpeville, the vast majority of protesters were unarmed civilians brought to their emotional limits by restriction of their freedom, humiliation, deprivation, and lack of control over their lives. Yet the killings in Gaza will not be a turning point in international relations with Israel.
And there are other differences between the Sharpeville and Gaza massacres: the PAC bore little resemblance to Hamas, and the Gaza protests had been ongoing since the end of March involving tens of thousands of people. But this does not make the Israeli State’s explanation for the 14 May killings more credible. The bombastic response, appeals to self-defence, protecting sovereignty and citizens, seems like the last gasps of a quest for legitimacy in a body politic where the oxygen of moral concern has run out.
This should not frame Israel as a solitary moral pariah from the rest of the international community. The refrain is far too common for that. The USA has just appointed a “penitent” exponent of torture as the head of the CIA. Its political leadership cannot really be said to lie because, like Netanyahu, Sisi, Putin, and Erdogan it seems to have lost any firm grasp on the concept of truth. Does anybody care anymore when accounts of the causes of events occupy the realm of fantasy?
Another strong reason for not talking about Sharpeville in the same breath as Gaza is that accusations of antisemitism will not be long in coming. Yet who benefits from such conflation of condemnation of the actions of the Israeli State with antisemitism? Not the thousands of Jews in Israel and around the world who deplore how the moral core of the Zionist vision is being hollowed out by Israel’s contemporary politicians. Not those who care about the rich spirituality of Judaism bequeathed to Christianity and Islam, and see it being overlain by a preoccupation with the Israel-Palestine conflict in the public life of Boards of Jewish Deputies and comparable bodies in Europe.
To continue the comparison – which is admittedly anathema to the Israeli government: did young black radicals under apartheid also fail to distinguish between government and people? Yes, sometimes. There was some excuse. During the worst years of the 1980s, apartheid South Africa relied on a conscript army and on retaining the popular vote. So does the Israeli government. When bad things happened you would hear people telling for example how “the Boers had killed a child in Soweto”, but you would also hear in more reflective moments “the System” being blamed.
Sharpeville galvanised international reaction to apartheid, and led to South Africa’s expulsion from the Commonwealth a year later. The Gaza massacre has resulted merely in widespread “concern”, a call by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (IOC) for a protection force for the Palestinian territories, and a UN Human Rights Council investigation already discounted by the Israeli government. Sound and fury signifying not a great deal.
This will not be a turning point in resolving the conflict. There will be no new exclusion, no sanctions imposed, no initiative by the Israeli government to calm the situation, no attempt to negotiate seriously. On the contrary, with the opposite of restraint being modelled by the White House, the situation will get worse.
The Jesuit liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino, called El Salvador in the 1980s “a Crucified People”. The description fits the Palestinian people in their homeland today. Avraham Shalom, who was head of the Israeli secret service, Shin Bet, in the 1980s, ended an interview in the remarkable 2012 film, The Gatekeepers, by saying sadly that he had warned occupation “would make us cruel”. The now routine authorisation for live ammunition fire on protesters by the Israeli Defence Forces starkly bears out his warning.