Desmond Tutu's Palestine solidarity can never be erased

Desmond Tutu's solidarity with Palestine is a legacy that can never be erased
6 min read
04 Jan, 2022
No matter how much some in the West want to erase part of his enormous body of work on fighting for human rights, it will never be forgotten that Desmond Tutu was a staunch ally of the Palestinian people, writes Robert Inlakesh.  
Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu (L) listens to a survivor from the Al-Asamneh family in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on 28 May 2008. [Getty]

Anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu's legacy of advocacy for Palestinian human rights made him a target of pro-Israel groups. Some of Israel's biggest supporters, who attack those with similar views, joined in on praising Tutu following his passing, but are failing to purge the South African icon's legacy of its true character.

"When you go to the Holy Land and see what’s being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it’s the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa," Desmond Tutu told the Washington Post in 2013. Unlike some of his peers, Tutu's activism did not end with apartheid in South Africa but continued until the end of his days, and arguable the most controversial of all the causes he advocated for was the Palestinian struggle.

In an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper in 2002, Desmond Tutu made further comparisons between Israeli and South African Apartheid. At the time, it was controversial to call Israel an "apartheid regime", though this has now has become the consensus of various notable human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, and including Israel's own groups such as B'Tselem.

"Desmond Tutu, like former South African President Nelson Mandela, was praised after death by leaders throughout the Western world, but in an arguably dishonest way"

Tutu also wrote the following "controversial" take: "[T]he Israeli government is placed on a pedestal [in the US], and to criticise it is to be immediately dubbed anti-semitic; as if the Palestinians were not Semitic. I am not even anti-white, despite the madness of that group. And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures? People are scared in this country [the US], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful".

Tutu's points could get you expelled from today's Labour Party in the United Kingdom, and dragged through the mud as an anti-Semite.

Desmond Tutu, like former South African President Nelson Mandela, was praised after death by leaders throughout the Western world, but in an arguably dishonest way. For instance, the current leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, has a long history of condemning the Boycott Movement (BDS) against Israel and purging pro-Palestinian party members, and yet commented the following on the late South African icon: "Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man, and a leader of moral activism. He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations."

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When it comes to praising the likes of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who are popularly loved around the world for their efforts to end the racist regime in South Africa, they must be solidified in amber as gems of past struggles and robbed of their full and on-going legacy, which includes standing up for other marginalized communities around the world.

Unknown to many today, Israel was a close partner of South Africa's former apartheid regime and as a result of this, organizations such as the American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) joined the struggle against activists working towards the collapse of the racist system in South Africa. An investigation in 1993 revealed that the ADL participated in a mass spying operation conducted to surveil anti-Apartheid activists. For 40 years Roy Bullock, an operative for the ADL, conducted espionage and infiltrated anti-Apartheid political groups. Desmond Tutu was notably also spied upon by Bullock. 

In a book entitled "The Unspoken Alliance", on Israel's relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky wrote that "The ADL also became involved in the Israeli-South African propaganda war in a more covert manner, dispatching Bullock to attend the meetings of US-based anti-apartheid groups, collect their publications, and take down the license plate numbers of leaders' cars-including visitors such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African Communist Party leader Chris Rani."

Notably, Israel fell short of commenting on Desmond Tutu's passing in any official capacity, although some prominent Israelis spoke out. One example is Yishai Fleisher, the Spokesperson for illegal Israeli settlers in al-Khalil (Hebron), who said, "An anti-semite has died today. Tutu is gone but Israel is still here", provoking a backlash on social media. 

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In 2014 Archbishop Tutu wrote a comment piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, openly calling for an international boycott of Israel. He also spoke at a rally of around 250,000 people that year, in which he condemned Israel's killing of civilians in the besieged Gaza Strip. In a 2011 interview with Al-Jazeera, Tutu said that the situation endured by the Palestinians is "in many instances worse" than it was in Apartheid South Africa.

He also said the following about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians: "The Israeli politicians are aware they can get away with almost anything because the West is guilty. It feels guilty about what they didn’t do when the Holocaust happened, and they've given a kind of carte blanche. Now, if they are penitent they ought to be the ones who pay the price of that penitence. But the price is being paid by the Palestinians." 

Tutu also added, "Part of my own concern for what is happening there is in fact not what is happening to the Palestinians, but it is what the Israelis are doing to themselves…I mean, when you go to those checkpoints, and you see these young soldiers behaving abominably badly, they are not aware that when you carry out dehumanizing policies, whether you like it or not, quite inexorably those policies dehumanize the perpetrator."

"It will never be forgotten that Desmond Tutu was a strong ally of the Palestinian people"

Desmond Tutu also led a UN fact-finding mission into the 2006 Israeli attack on Beit Hanoun, in Gaza's north, later calling the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip "a gross violation of human rights". The fact-finding mission in Gaza was conducted after Tutu was denied entry into the territory by Israel and instead found his way in through Egypt, leading to a report which was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Desmond Tutu was one of the most passionate and dedicated prominent advocates for the Palestinian people and their cause. Whether it be his several trips to the occupied territories, his endorsement of a boycott of Israel, his UN fact-finding mission or his cold hard truths offered during countless public appearances at rally's and interviews, this legacy is here to stay no matter how some may want to leave it out of his enormous body of work on human rights. 

It will never be forgotten that Desmond Tutu was a strong ally of the Palestinian people. 

Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and has worked with RT, Mint Press, MEMO, Quds News, TRT, Al-Mayadeen English and more.

Follow him on Twitter @falasteen47

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.