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Why Palestinians embrace Mandela more as fighter than peacemaker – for now

While Palestinians have a special affinity for Mandela, who championed their cause, many say this is neither the time nor the place for Mandela-like gestures toward Israel.

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Pictures of late South African leader Nelson Mandela are seen during a special service in his honor at the Holy Family Church, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday Dec. 8, 2013. Palestinians mourned Nelson Mandela as a loyal champion of their cause, lighting candles for him in special church services on Sunday and holding up his picture in confrontations with Israeli troops in the West Bank.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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As people from all over the world honor Nelson Mandela as a leader who bridged a bitter divide between oppressor and oppressed, Palestinians share a strong affinity with South Africa’s most famous freedom fighter.

But much of Palestinians’ praise is for how Mandela pushed back against an apartheid regime, rather than on how he embraced the language, literature, and leaders of that regime in a search for national reconciliation.

So while they champion him, few Palestinians see Mandela’s model of leadership as providing useful lessons for their own struggle. For some, it comes down to frustration with Palestinian leaders who fail to deliver on their promises. For others, a deep-seated belief that Israel doesn’t want to reconcile.

But all seem to agree: This is not the time or the place for Mandela-like gestures toward Israel. 

“We have tried to take a lot of his values and apply them,” says Ali Saleh, who sells plants at a small nursery in Ramallah. “But our situation differs because all the world is supporting the Israeli occupation against us.”

To be sure, apartheid South Africa and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differ in many ways.

The central political fight here is not how to rule a single state but how to divide historic Palestine – 78 percent of which has already been claimed by Israel after successive wars with its Arab neighbors. And while critics say Israel's institutionalized oppression of Palestinians amounts apartheid, this so far has not spurred robust international action, such as the sanctions imposed on South Africa for its racist policies. 

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Harder battle in Levantine lands

In many Palestinian eyes, their successive losses of territory and Israel's international stature makes their battle harder than the one that Mandela and his supporters waged in South Africa.  

“The Afrikaners never said we want South Africa for whites and you are out of this country," says Jamil Rabah, a Palestinian pollster in Ramallah. "Without belittling Mandela, Palestinians are confronting a much more severe counterpart who is unwilling, especially under [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, to reconcile with Palestinians.”

Israeli leaders, too, have honored Mandela, although Prime Minister Netanyahu – not exactly known as a frugal spender, with his private ice-cream parlor and beds on overnight flights – has been roundly criticized for declining to attend Mandela’s funeral on account of the travel costs. And while Mr. Netanyahu took a decisive step toward peace with a 2009 speech committing to two states for two peoples, and more recently invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to visit the Israeli parliament, he is widely seen by Palestinians as unwilling to reconcile. 

“Why should [Israel] ease this process? Why? They are sitting on the top of the mountain,” Mr. Rabah says, comparing Palestinian peacemaking efforts to Sisyphus, endlessly trying to push a rock uphill. “The rock is not going to go over them, it will go over Palestinians if it fails.” 

Case in point may be Marwan Barghouti, a former peacemaker who became disillusioned in the wake of the 1993 Oslo agreement and became a leader of the second Palestinian intifada. That landed him in Israeli court, where he was convicted of murder and involvement in a terrorist organization and sent to jail.

A Palestinian Mandela?

While many cite the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or Mr. Barghouti as Palestinian Mandelas, few see a Palestinian on the current political scene who can lead like the late South African president.

“Mandela fought for his own homeland, while the Palestinian leadership is fighting to put money in their pockets,” says Isaa Abdulhalik, a building contractor from the West Bank village of Falah. “How can I compare light with darkness?”

But some suggest that part of the blame lies with the Palestinian public, which has become strongly opposed to any cooperation with Israel.

“We don’t have the caliber [of leader] who would reach out to the other side and not be called a collaborator,” says Anas Arouri, a young man in Ramallah sporting jeans and a red keffiyeh around his neck.

Most are skeptical that any Palestinian leader would offer gestures to Israel similar to Mandela, who as president had tea with the widow of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. He also visited Israel and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, showing empathy for the Jewish people’s struggle despite his criticism of the government over the years. Israel was a staunch ally of the apartheid government while Mandela was in prison. 

That ability to recognize one’s adversary as a human being, and embrace them as such, is particularly potent in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On both sides of the divide, people say the deepest issue is not borders or security or holy sites but simply a willingness to recognize the “other” as legitimate and equal.

Osama, an 11th-grader from Ramallah who studied Mandela in school last year suggests that after years of Israeli occupation, Mandela-like gestures could help the Palestinian cause.

“Maybe this is one way of liberating Palestine, by reaching out to the other,” he says.

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