South Africa's Largest Trade Union Seeks to Boycott Israel

Union to launch campaign this week to persuade Pretoria to boycott all Israeli goods, end diplomatic relations.

South Africa's largest trade union federation will launch a campaign against "the Israeli occupation of Arab lands" this week, demanding that Pretoria impose a boycott on all Israeli goods and break diplomatic relations. South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, who is Jewish, told Haaretz that he actively supported the initiative - which contradicts the policy of his own cabinet.

The president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Willy Madisha, announced the launching of the campaign last week in Johannesburg, calling on the government to cease all diplomatic relations with Israel after its attacks on Palestinian leaders.

"The best way to have Israel comply with United Nations resolutions is to pressure it by a diplomatic boycott such as the one imposed on apartheid South Africa," Madisha said. Cosatu belongs to a recently-formed coalition of organizations operating under the banner "End The Occupation."

Kasrils' anti-Israeli organization Not In My Name belongs to the coalition working toward an embargo on Israel. This runs contrary to South Africa's official stance, and to President Thabo Mbeki's decision to strengthen trade ties with Israel. Mbeki, who heads the ANC ruling party, even appeared as a guest at Israel's Independence Day celebrations in Durban last month.

Kasrils, a member of the ANC, told Haaretz that his support for severing all ties with Israel was not in opposition to his cabinet's policy. "Cosatu is an ANC ally in the coalition against the Israeli occupation. Most elements of this coalition call for boycotting Israel, although the ANC does not," he said.

"We respect their right to encourage people to boycott Israeli goods. As a South African consumer I personally will not purchase Israeli goods until Israel changes its present policy regarding the Palestinians."

Cosatu's spokesman, Patrick Craven, said Kasrils was involved in directing the campaign for imposing a political and economic embargo on Israel. "This is intended to include the diamond trade," he added.

Craven acknowledged that his organization's primary objectives did not pertain to the Middle East, noting that while Cosatu's main goal was improving the material conditions of its 1.8 million members, "it could not stand idly by as Israel perpetrated atrocities in Palestine." Adding that he anticipated "some short-term damage" to South Africa's economy following the boycott, Carven said the damage was "vastly outweighed by the importance of stopping injustice."

The campaign that Cosatu has helped mount will begin Friday, with sermons in South Africa's mosques on "the plight of the Palestinian people". The Christian organizations of the coalition will begin addressing the issue in churches Sunday.

The organizers intend to picket across South Africa next week, including a picket by members of parliament and a candlelight vigil outside the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg. The ANC ruling party has called for a parliamentary debate on "Israeli occupation."

Campaign activists will also hold pickets outside selected stores selling Israeli goods. The events will culminate in mass marches and rallies on Saturday, June 9, both in Cape Town and Johannesburg.