Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 | 11:27 a.m.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinians mourned Nelson Mandela as their most loyal champion, lighting candles in special prayer services Sunday and holding his picture like a shield in confrontations with Israeli troops.
But the death of the South African leader who famously said that "our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians" also reminded many here of how far they are from establishing a state of their own.
U.S.-mediated talks between Israelis and Palestinians on the terms of such a state have reached their mid-way point and appear bogged down.
"I don't think our leaders or the Israeli leaders or the American leaders will make peace here," Wael Shihadeh, 52, said Sunday while chopping eggplants in the kitchen of a Ramallah restaurant. Palestinians lack a leader of Mandela's caliber, he said.
Palestinian activists have compared Mandela's struggle against apartheid to theirs against Israeli occupation — a parallel Israel rejects — and some increasingly look to South Africa for help in pressure campaigns against Israel.
Many South Africans also equate the Israeli treatment of Palestinians with their former apartheid regime's abuse of blacks.
Last year, South Africa's government decided that goods imported from Israeli West Bank settlements cannot not be labeled "product of Israel." In 2011, the University of Johannesburg became the world's first to impose an academic boycott on Israel.
In October, veteran anti-apartheid leader Ahmed Kathrada, who was convicted alongside Mandela in 1964, launched a campaign from Mandela's former prison cell for Marwan Barghouti. The Palestinian uprising leader was jailed 11 years ago and is serving five life terms after being convicted of a role in the uprising-related killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Asked about the use of violence by the Palestinians, Kathrada noted that Mandela's African National Congress also turned to it at one point.
"When everything failed, every peaceful method failed, we also had to resort to armed struggle, realizing that the main struggle will be where masses of people were involved," the 84-year-old said by phone from South Africa.
"We cannot prescribe to the Palestinian people how they should conduct their struggle," added Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison, or a year less than Mandela, much of it in the same place.
Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. More than 20 years of intermittent talks with Israel have been fruitless. A decade ago, Palestinians waged an armed uprising that was met by Israeli retaliation, and the fighting left more than 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,600 Palestinians dead.
The violence subsided after Mahmoud Abbas, who views negotiations with Israel as the preferred path to statehood, was elected Palestinian president in 2005, replacing one-time guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat. Two years later, Palestinians split politically, with the Islamic militant Hamas seizing Gaza, refusing to renounce violence and calling for an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.
Mandela's ANC and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization have cooperated closely since the 1960s, including in joint military training.
Hanan Ashrawi of the PLO said ANC activists told their PLO colleagues they believed the Palestinians would reach their goal first. "The ANC would always tell us, 'when you are independent, when you are free, you mustn't forget us'," she said.
To Mandela, support for the Palestinians was "a personal commitment, a moral commitment," she said.
Kathrada said that after Mandela's release from prison, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush urged the anti-apartheid leader to cut ties with Arafat, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
"Mr. Mandela's response was that when we came to you, the Americans, the British and other Western countries and asked for assistance, you called us terrorists," Kathrada said. Mandela told Bush that "it would be immoral and ungrateful" to break with old allies, Kathrada said.
Alon Liel, Israel's ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1994, said Mandela told him he would never forget Israel's close ties with South Africa's apartheid regime, but was willing to move forward. Mandela said South Africa would have normal and even good relations if Israel moves toward an agreement with the Palestinians, Liel recalled.
Mandela was eager to mediate.
When Arafat and then-Israeli President Ezer Weizman attended Mandela's 1994 inauguration, Mandela arranged an impromptu meeting.
Arafat and Weizman talked for three hours, Liel said, noting that "this was his (Mandela's) first working meeting as a president."
Mandela offered his services again in 1999, during a visit to Israel after he had already left the presidency. Liel said Israel's prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, turned Mandela down, telling him that "you are so close to them (the Palestinians) and we need somebody who is balanced between the two sides."
Relations between Israel and South Africa were cool during long years of deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Solly Tshivhula, a South African diplomat in Ramallah, said his country's relations with Israel are shaped by South Africa's empathy for the Palestinians.
"The complication in South Africa's relations with Israel, in the context of Palestine, is derived from the fact that we see the struggle of Palestine as similar to that of ours against apartheid ...," he said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said both sides are working hard to improve the relationship.
Palmor and other Israeli officials have rejected the portrayal of Israel's rule over the Palestinians as a type of apartheid.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967, while the West Bank remains under military occupation. Some 350,000 Jewish settlers live in more than 61 percent of the West Bank, in areas under sole Israeli control. The rest is home to some 2.2 million Palestinians and is run by Abbas' self-rule government. However, Israel restricts the Palestinians' trade and movement, citing security concerns.
Since Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95, Palestinians have remembered him in small gatherings.
On Friday and Saturday, groups of protesters held up his picture in demonstrations against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank, which eats up Palestinian farmland along its route, though Israel presents it as a security fence.
On Sunday, churches in three West Bank towns held special prayers for Mandela.
In Ramallah's Holy Family Church, about 200 worshippers sang hymns as two children held candles in front of a large Mandela photo leaning against the pulpit.