Why have the Palestinian Authority erected a 20-foot statue of Nelson Mandela?

Ben Clarke

Take a stroll through the wealthy Ramallah suburb of Al-Tireh. The streets are lined with huge white-stone villas that Palestine’s affluent elite call home. Gushes of hosed water flow down the roads, as aging and ever-bloating men shower their luxury BMW and Mercedes motor cars.

Synchronously, the World Health Organisation tells us that the average daily water consumption for Palestinians in the West Bank is 71 litres; well short of the recommended 100 litres per day. Across the pernicious divide, in the Gaza strip, between 95 – 97% of the water is now unfit for human use.

Navigate the sundry western-style cafés and bars, populated with garish Palestinian diplomats and flashy foreign journalists and NGO workers – go in if you like, but you could buy five falafel sandwiches at any given hole in the wall at the same cost of just one syrupy iced coffee.

Continue your journey down Al-Tireh Street and there you’ll find him, planted on the newly named Nelson Mandela Square. With his clenched fist raised in a symbol of solidarity and resistance, there stands Nelson Mandela: the freedom fighter, the revolutionary, the peace broker – all two tonnes and 20ft of him.

Held in Captivity

The bronze statue depicting the father of South African democracy was inaugurated on 26th April by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, currently enjoying the eleventh year of his four year term; an inglorious irony apparently not recognised by the beguiled government ministers and foreign ambassadors that attended the ceremony.

The Israeli authorities provided their own sardonically fitting tribute to the man who spent 27 years in captivity at the behest of an apartheid state, withholding the statue at the port of Ashdod for 30 days. Even in death, it seems Mandela has been unable to escape the strictures of state sponsored racism and discrimination.

When the 20ft symbol of freedom and independence was finally released, Abbas was gifted with a much-needed platform for acquiring political capital at a time when 64% of Palestinians want to see his resignation; any association with the pro-Palestinian champion would be sure to improve his public image.

That so, several officials of the Palestinian Authority were joined by Ashraf Seulieman, the head of the South African mission to Palestine, and the mayor of Johannesburg, Parks Tau, for the ceremony. The latter talked of extending solidarity from the people of South Africa to the people of Palestine, knowing too well the perils of living in a settler-colonial state defined by systems of ethnic and racially based segregation. But whilst Mandela achieved deific status negotiating the end of South African apartheid, the struggle continues for the Palestinians.

Often referred to as ‘the Bubble’, Ramallah finds itself somewhat shielded from the ongoing Israeli occupation. With a huge construction boom fuelled unsustainably by international aid and excessive borrowing, and myriad busy shops, cafes and restaurants, there exists a semblance of normality to life. This privileged existence is directly authorised and encouraged by the Israeli occupiers to prove to western visitors that the non-existent “peace process” is truly benefiting Palestinians – a classic neo-colonial structure that provides an exclusive fulcrum for the elite whilst the rest of the population are left to hazardously deal with the tyranny of occupation.

The esteemed political activist and social critic Noam Chomsky described this phenomena in ‘On Palestine’, his collaborative work with Ilan Pappe, “If you go back to the 1990s, Israeli industrialists openly and literally urged the government to shift from what they called a colonial program to a neo-colonial program,” he wrote, “which means establish this Third World-style entity with most of them rotting but with some kind of center for rich Palestinians, the privileged ones, the elite, and so on”.

If Ramallah is indeed this neo-colonial bubble, the suburb of Al-Tireh is undoubtedly its focal point. Nelson Mandela, the great hero of anti-colonial struggle and the embodiment of shrewd political sagacity, would not want to be rooted here would he?

A Sign of Hope?

Surely he should be standing strong in Gaza City, where an Israeli sponsored humanitarian crisis ensues. The world’s largest ‘prison’, in the most densely populated region in the world, under relentless and calculated attacks by one of the world’s most advanced military systems. A defenceless civilian population – children, women, men, schools, hospitals, electricity plants, water networks – targeted in indiscriminate carnage.

The 2014 offensive, so-called “Operation Protective Edge”, left over 10,000 homes in rubble, and international donors have failed to deliver on their promises of aid. No permanent housing has been rebuilt and a recent UN report predicts Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020.

Such brutality and callous breaches of international law are purposely designed to crush any faith the Gazans retain of a better future. So next time American-made white phosphorus rains down over the besieged land, surely Mandela should be standing in solidarity with the persecuted and penurious of Gaza; one tiny symbol of hope for a people who need it more than ever.

But Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza won’t even allow building material into the area, there is no way a 20ft, 2 tonne bronze structure will get through is there?

There are countless towns and cities in Palestine that have stoically endured the apartheid system placed upon them for decades. They have no blanket to remove themselves from the perennial suffering created by the occupation but still, they valiantly survive, one tragedy after another.

Nelson Mandela, a revolutionary who devoted his life to combating colonialism and fighting apartheid, would not want to be stuck in the neo-colonial bubble like Ramallah. If the Palestinian Authority truly wants to honour Mandela, he should be emancipated from the exploitative grips of Ramallah’s elite and be allowed to stand tall in the communities for whom it would mean the most – those who to continue to fight his cause every day.

About Ben Clarke 3 Articles
Ben Clarke is an independent correspondent and activist. A law graduate, he has previously worked in the West Bank and is currently based in New Delhi, India.