Henning Mankell — an author who stood up to Israeli apartheid

October 15, 2015
'I experienced in South Africa how that monstrous system was destroyed. The same monster has been resurrected in Israel.'

Henning Mankell, the creator of the Swedish detective Wallander and activist for Palestinian and African rights, died at home on October 5 aged 67. He had been diagnosed with cancer early last year.

Many fans of crime fiction will remember Mankell best for his Wallander novels — dark Scandinavian crime stories featuring a cynical, aging detective. Yet his stand for Palestinian rights is also an important part of his legacy.

With an unconventional and sometimes chaotic upbringing, Mankell's political spirit showed early. Having become a merchant seaman at 16, he was in Paris for the 1968 left-wing uprisings which are a legend of European radical politics.

He was involved in leftist activism in Norway in the 1970s, and during the 1980s worked in revolutionary Mozambique – a country to which he returned regularly throughout the rest of his life.

And his passion for justice showed in his novels, which highlighted themes such as racism and poverty.

In 2010, however, Mankell's commitment to humanitarian values took centre stage when he joined the Gaza Freedom Flotilla aiming to break Israel's criminal siege of Gaza, which was attacked by Israeli troops, killing nine Turkish activists.

Mankell was not on the boat that was fiercely assaulted by Israeli commandos, but he was seized by Israeli troops and deported back to Sweden.

Given his global stature, his comments and opinions were widely reported, including by the Israeli press.

He criticised fellow writers and intellectuals, saying that: “You have to act, not just by writing, but by standing up and doing. For me, you cannot call yourself an intellectual if all you use your intellectual gifts for is to find excuses not to do anything. Which, sadly, is what I think a lot of intellectuals do.”

At the time of the flotilla attack, Mankell said he believed that the “Israeli military went out to commit murder”.

He pointed out that if the aim of Israeli troops was solely to stop the flotilla, they could have taken other action against the ships themselves, rather than attacking unarmed passengers.

He described seeing an “older man in the crew” of his boat who was “perhaps a little slow” and who was shot in the arm with an electric gun.

In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel, he branded the Israeli actions “piracy and kidnapping”.

He was also courageous enough to brand Israel an apartheid state. “The connection between Africa and Palestine is the apartheid system that the Israelis have established,” he told the naïve interviewers from Der Spiegel.

“I experienced in South Africa how that monstrous system was destroyed. The same monster has been resurrected in Israel, just in a different form. Palestinians are second-class citizens. When I see the hideous face of this apartheid, I have to do what I can to destroy it.”

Pointing out that the State of Israel had been founded — with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — in 1948, the same year that he was born, Mankell said that the occupation had “accompanied me my entire life”.

Before joining the 2010 Gaza flotilla, he had taken part in literary festivals in the occupied West Bank and visited other parts of Palestine.

In 2009, Mankell – who had been a theatre director in Mozambique – ran a theatre workshop for young people in Jenin, as part of that year's PalFest literary festival.

Mankell also used his experience of appearing at a literary festival in Hebron to refute the claims of the Der Spiegel reporters that Israel was a democracy.

He described how – before he had even had time to begin speaking – the venue was closed down by Israeli soldiers who told him that “there will be no discussion” and closed down the event.

In a 2011 article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he called the Israeli siege on Gaza an “illegal blockade” and the events on the flotilla a “Greek tragedy”.

Mankell also pointed out that Israel was largely able to get away with attacks on civil society “as long as it is protected and financed by the United States”.

He also condemned the Greek government at the time for “sell[ing] its national soul to Israel” by preventing some of the flotilla boats from leaving its ports.

And he criticised the Western media for not paying “attention until the commandos started killing people”.

He rejected claims he was a dupe of the Hamas authorities in Gaza. He wrote in his Haaretz article: “What comes first, oppression or rebellion? The Gaza blockade is not mainly about concrete, diapers or medicine. It's about the human dignity that Israel deprives its own citizens of.”

The Israeli state was a “global outcast,” he argued.

Perhaps most poignantly, though, in the Der Spiegel interview five years ago, Mankell said that, “For me, the thought that this conflict will still exist when I die is unbearable”.

Sadly — for him and most of all for millions of Palestinians — he was to face exactly that fate.

[Reprinted from Electronic Intifada.]

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