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Campaigners call for Sheffield Council to take a stand against Israeli apartheid and divest from the war in Gaza

The move would mirror the 1980s, when Sheffield became the UK’s first city to reject racial segregation in South Africa.

The four musketeers

Members of the Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside the Town Hall in January, including Lena Mussa (nearest).

Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Sheffield residents campaigning for an end to Israel’s brutal war against Gaza have called on Sheffield City Council to declare the city an Israeli Apartheid Free Zone and investigate whether any of its operations have ties with the state of Israel.

Such a move would echo a similar campaign in the 1980s, which saw Sheffield Council become the first in the country to declare itself an apartheid-free zone in relation to South Africa. Ahead of the first Full Council meeting of the year this Wednesday (7 February), campaigners with the Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign say now is the time for the council to take a similar stance on Palestinian lives.

“After the International Court of Justice [ICJ] ruled effectively that Israeli action amounts to genocide, finally we can see Israel will be tried for genocide and is under investigation,” said Lena Mussa, one of two Palestinian women who camped outside the Town Hall for eight days in January to draw attention to the war.

"We ask Sheffield to declare itself an Israeli apartheid-free zone."

Israel’s relentless assault against the civilians of Gaza has already seen more than 11,500 Palestinian children killed, with the total death toll in Gaza standing at 27,365 as of 4 February.

The UN estimate that 360,000 homes – more than half of the total number in Gaza – have been destroyed or damaged, leading to 85% of the population being left without homes and trapped in Gaza, with 1.7 million people living in makeshift refugee camps.

Now the ICJ, which adjudicates on crimes against humanity, has ordered the Israeli government to stop taking action that could constitute a genocide, ruling that “at least some of the acts... committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the Genocide Convention.”

The case was brought to the court by the post-apartheid government of South Africa, which has long been a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights because of the country’s own struggle against the system of apartheid maintained by previous white supremacist governments in the 1980s and 90s.

At that time, Sheffield was a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism in the UK, with city councillor Mike Pye being one of the founding members of the nationwide Local Authorities Against Apartheid organisation.

In 1981 Sheffield became the first council in the country to pledge that it would end all links with apartheid, which included divesting its pension funds from companies with South African subsidiaries and barring South African sports teams from using its playing fields.

A motion passed by councillors at the time spoke of the council’s “abhorrence” of apartheid, adding that the “racialist system of South Africa is an affront to human dignity and a threat to world peace.” As a result of this motion, the council pledged not to purchase any goods originating in South Africa and to also implement this policy within its supply chains.

In 1982 the city council hosted speakers from the anti-apartheid African National Congress, and in 1993 awarded the Freedom of the City to its leader Nelson Mandela, who would go on to become South Africa’s first Black head of state a year later, after the overthrow of apartheid.

Despite strong similarities with the situation in the Middle East, where Israel has occupied Palestinian land and treated its people with extreme brutality on the basis of their ethnicity for 56 years, there have been few signs so far of a meaningful mobilisation from SCC like the one it carried out against racial injustice in South Africa. Even before the recent war, respected human rights organisation Amnesty International described Israel as an apartheid state.

1981 sheffield fwd

A report in Sheffield Forward, a local trade union paper, from October 1981.

Sheffield City Archives.

In October, the council raised an Israeli flag (later removed by protestors) above the Town Hall in protest against atrocities committed against Israeli civilians by the terrorist group Hamas on 7 October. But it did not fly a Palestinian flag after the Israeli government’s subsequent, vastly greater assault on civilians in Gaza.

In November, the council passed a motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, with all 31 Labour councillors defying their party’s national leadership to join Green and Liberal Democrat colleagues in backing it, after a sustained campaign by Sheffield’s Palestinian community.

But so far the city has not committed itself to cutting ties with apartheid in the same way that it did forty years ago.

Annie O’Gara, a spokesperson for the Sheffield Palestine Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, said that there “must be at a minimum a formal statement, declaring [the council] will break all links – financial, social and educational” with Israel. She said this could be “very similar to the one made in May 1981 by Sheffield Council about South Africa, when Sheffield became the first council to declare itself an apartheid-free zone.”

Learn more

The council meeting coincidences with a national Workplace Day of Action for Palestine on 7 February.

On 10 February, Sheffield is one of eight UK cities hosting a Big Ride for Palestine bike ride.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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