Nelson Mandela’s Views on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In 2001, Nelson Mandela wrote to the US columnist Thomas Friedman an open letter about the state of Israel, which he believed was racist and organised on the basis of Apartheid policies.


Dear Thomas,

I know that you and I long for peace in the Middle East, but before you continue to talk about necessary conditions from an Israeli perspective, you need to know what’s on my mind. Where to begin? How about 1964.Let me quote my own words during my trial. They are true today as they were then: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Today the world, black and white, recognize that Apartheid has no future. In South Africa it has been ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security. That mass campaign of defiance and other actions could only culminate in the establishment of Democracy.

Perhaps it is strange for you to observe the situation in Palestine or more specifically, the structure of political and cultural relationships between Palestinians and Israelis, as an Apartheid system. This is because you incorrectly think that the problem of Palestine began in 1967. This was demonstrated in your recent column “Bush’s First Memo” in the New York Times on March 27, 2001.

You seem to be surprised to hear that there are still problems of 1948 to be solved, the most important component of which is the right to return of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not just an issue of military occupation and Israel is not a country that was established “normally” and happened to occupy another country in 1967. Palestinians are not struggling for a “state” but for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa.
In the last few years, and especially during the reign of the Labour Party, Israel showed that it was not even willing to return what it occupied in 1967; that Settlements remain, Jerusalem would be under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, and Palestinians would not have an independent state, but would be under Israeli economic domination with Israeli control of borders, land, air, water and sea.

Israel was not thinking of a “state” but of “separation”. The value of separation is measured in terms of the ability of Israel to keep the Jewish state Jewish, and not to have a Palestinian minority that could have the opportunity to become a majority at some time in the future. If this takes place, it would force Israel to either become a secular democratic or bi-national state, or to turn into a state of Apartheid not only de facto, but also de jure.
Thomas, if you follow the polls in Israel for the last 30 or 40 years, you clearly find a vulgar racism that includes a third of the population who openly declare themselves to be racist. This racism is of the nature of “I hate Arabs” and “I wish Arabs would be dead”.

If you also follow the judicial system in Israel you will see there is discrimination against Palestinians, and if you further consider the 1967 Occupied Territories you will find there are already two judicial systems in operation that represent two different approaches to human life: one for Palestinian life and the other for Jewish life. Additionally there are two different approaches to property and to land. Palestinian property is not recognized as private property because it can be confiscated.

As to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there is an additional factor. The so-called “Palestinian autonomous areas” are Bantustans. These are restricted entities within the power structure of the Israeli Apartheid system.

The Palestinian state cannot be the by-product of the Jewish state, just in order to keep the Jewish purity of Israel. Israel’s racial discrimination is daily life of most Palestinians. Since Israel is a Jewish state, Israeli Jews are able to accrue special rights which non-Jews cannot do. Palestinian Arabs have no place in a “Jewish” state.

Apartheid is a crime against humanity. Israel has deprived millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. It has perpetuated a system of gross racial discrimination and inequality. It has systematically incarcerated and tortured thousands of Palestinians, contrary to the rules of international law. It has, in particular, waged a war against a civilian population, in particular children.

The responses made by South Africa to human rights abuses emanating from the removal policies and Apartheid policies respectively, shed light on what Israeli society must necessarily go through before one can speak of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East and an end to its Apartheid policies.

Thomas, I’m not abandoning Mideast diplomacy. But I’m not going to indulge you the way your supporters do. If you want peace and democracy, I will support you. If you want formal Apartheid, we will not support you. If you want to support racial discrimination and ethnic cleansing, we will oppose you.

When you figure out what you’re about, give me a call.

Quotes from Nelson Mandela about Israel and the Palestinians

“If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied [Palestinian] territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.” (Nelson Mandela, 1990)

“What we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. Nobody talks about that. Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.” (Nelson Mandela, 2002)

“”Why are they [the USA] not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?” (Nelson Mandela, 2003)

12 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela’s Views on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  1. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing my own heart goes out to this region who have suffered in conflict for so long… I found your post very enlightening upon the subject..

    I came via Karen’s reblog


  2. First I’d like to thank you for posting about Israeli-Palestinian conflict 🙂
    Secondly thanks to Mr. Mandela for his strong letter I think he had clarified his opinion as a normal person who is against injustice against killing children against killing civilians and against all kind of the crimes that Israel commit against Palestinians…
    The entire world knows what’s happening in Gaza, they see the burnt kids every day, they see the shelling every day, and they see the destruction, the siege and so on however no one is blaming United states for its complete support to Israel… Now I’m out of words…I shall wonder, Why are they [the USA] not seeking to confiscate weapons of mass destruction from their ally Israel?


    1. Thanks, Lina, I did reply earlier but it seems to have disappeared. I hope that more people speak up about the atrocities in Gaza, but the US won’t take action because it values Israel too much as its policeman in the Middle East.


  3. Lina – a pleasure to have been able to assist the Palestinian cause for justice in some small way. A very simple reason why the US won’t touch Israel, nothing to do with so-called sympathy for Israel and Jewish people – Israel exists as a forward post and policeman for the US to police the region and keep its tentacles extended throughout the MIddle East. However the usual pro-Israeli propaganda is starting to fall apart as Israel behaves like a thug and is open about its murderous activities.


  4. ‘The Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history.’ – The Venerable Malcolm X


      1. As long as we choose to be a voice – regardless of how small – for the voiceless for the sake of exposing the truth, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ – Edmund Burke


  5. Truth finds a way – things that people hide become apparent and in this conflict there can only ever be more on the losing side and those who survive now have so much hatred they feel their options are limited.


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