Reflections of a S. African Muslim in Israel/Palestine

If we do not understand the conflict, we cannot constructively engage in its resolution.

dome of rock 88 (photo credit: )
dome of rock 88
(photo credit: )
On the November 9, 2005, I left for Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on a fact-finding visit to explore the conundrum that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The week that I was there was truly a tumultuous week. The three bombings of hotels in Amman, Jordan dominated the news as I landed. November also marked the first anniversary of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's death and the tenth anniversary of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - Arafat's partner in peace. The week that I was in Israel also witnessed the unseating of Shimon Peres as Labor Party leader by the populist leftist Amir Peretz as well as Omri Sharon's pleading guilty on various illicit campaign finance charges. Palestinian politics is very much in flux as the various political formations vie for power in the upcoming elections. The visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was another factor in this volatile mix. All these variables raised questions in my mind as to how we, as South African Muslims, are attempting to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is undeniable that if we do not understand the conflict then we cannot constructively engage in its successful resolution. In the first instance, we have a very simplistic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and do not seem to understand the complexity of tensions emanating from various factions inside Israeli and Palestinian society. Let us take Israeli politics and the fact that Omri Sharon has pleaded guilty on the three charges leveled against him. Not only is Omri Sharon a senior Likud lawmaker, but also he is his father's most trusted advisor. What are the implications of this for his father? Will this weaken Ariel Sharon in his battle with Binyamin Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud and what implication will a Netanyahu victory have for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process given the fact that Netanyahu was vehemently opposed to Sharon's unilateral disengagement from Gaza? And what of the victory of new Labor Party leader Peretz and its impact on Israeli politics, especially in the context of his statement that he will open the party for Arabs to join? Using these questions, I am trying to point to the complexity of Israeli politics and the fact that we, as South African Muslims, do not understand this. If we could understand this, then, perhaps we could make use of those divisions in Israeli politics to advance the Palestinian cause. Instead, our simplistic understandings lead us to applaud when Iranian President Ahmadinejad says that Israel should be wiped off the map. The fact that this was tried in 1948, 1967 and 1973 and failed seems to have been ignored. Moreover, not only did these three attempts fail, but the state of Israel also grew stronger as it expanded its territory. There is no evidence to conclude that the Israeli security apparatus is weaker in 2005 than it was in 1973. If people speak of the Intifada and its supposed success, I could find not a single Palestinian in support of it. The mortality and casualty figures bear out the sentiment - far more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed. In my view there are better ways to support the legitimate political demands of Palestinians than violence. During my stay, there was a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv with 200,000 Israelis honoring the 10th anniversary of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. As South African Muslims, should we not reach out to this strong pro-peace lobby within Israeli society as opposed to threaten all Israelis with extinction which brings back memories of Auschwitz and Dachau? Do we honestly believe that this destructive approach is the way we can help Palestinians? This leads me to my second point, that of the complexity of Palestinian politics. In South African Muslim circles, Hamas often gets a lot of positive press whereas Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are seen as either ineffective in securing concessions from Israel, or worse, seen as collaborators. However, the destructive and counter-productive nature of violence as a strategy to secure territorial concessions is increasingly recognized by Palestinian society. As a result, support for Hamas is actually decreasing. Two different Palestinian NGOs that I spoke to estimate that support for Hamas is no more than 30 percent and that this is largely concentrated in Gaza. On a visit to the Al-Aksa mosque, I asked Taha, my Muslim Palestinian taxi driver, about Hamas and his comment was incisive. He informed me that he knew what Hamas was against, but he does not know what they are for! At a strategic level, Hamas may also be weakened by the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the pressure on Tehran and Damascus over, respectively, Iran's nuclear program and Syria's alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The third point that needs to be raised is how we approach the role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. South African Muslims often view the US as a strong ally of Israel. This is certainly true. However, it is precisely because of this alliance that the US has the leverage to pressure the Israelis into making concessions. The fact that Condoleezza Rice got the Israelis to open up the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, despite Israeli fears over security, the fact that she managed to secure a deal to also ensure that Gaza was connected to the West Bank and that Gaza could develop a seaport, thereby boosting its economy, speaks volumes. I spoke to various Palestinians after the deal was secured and they were extremely positive about Rice's visit to the region, as well as the need for Washington to stay involved in the peace process. One Palestinian put it this way: "Chairman Arafat allied the Palestinians to Saddam Hussein and what did this get us? We, too, need to have strong links with the Americans." As South African Muslims, it is right that we feel the pain of the Ummah elsewhere and it is right that we should seek to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians. But, we also need to admit that our current strategies, based as they are on a simplified reality, is not working and in the process we are not alleviating the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters. Anyone can march to the Israeli and US embassies and burn flags of these countries. Anyone can demand that the South African government sever all diplomatic and trade ties with the State of Israel. Everyone knows that these will have no impact on either the State of Israel or the future trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Taha was driving me to the last meeting of my trip I notice that the normally verbose taxi driver is silent and looking concerned. I ask what is wrong. He informs me that he is thinking of a way to break the news to his family that for the past two years he has had a Russian-Jewish girlfriend and that it is serious. I lean back and realize that there is much that I do not understand about Israel/Palestine and make a mental note that I need to consider the human side of this conflict more seriously for the paper that I am writing. Professor Hussein Solomon is Director of the Center for International Political Studies, at the University of Pretoria where he also lectures in the Department of Political Sciences.