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Israel-Palestine conflict could dangerously amplify local political tensions

Israel-Palestine conflict could dangerously amplify local political tensions
Protesters at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside Cape Town High Court on 9 October 2023 after the Hamas attack and response by Israel at the weekend. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Few issues are more polarising than the Israel/Palestine conflict – and in South Africa, responses tend to be particularly strong. Local politicians will have to maintain cool heads to avoid fanning dangerous flames.

It is often said that ordinary South Africans are not overly invested in international affairs, but the single biggest exception to that rule is probably the conflict between Israel and Palestine – which was capable of evoking a rhetorical firestorm even before this weekend’s violence.

Lobby groups for both the Israeli and Palestinian causes are extremely vocal and active in South Africa. Importantly, a lot of homegrown political, social, religious and racial baggage is also projected on to the Middle Eastern conflict to complicate matters.

Israel Palestine conflict

Protesters at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside Cape Town High Court on 9 October 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Judging by the tenor of public reactions to the weekend’s Hamas attack, there is every likelihood that the South African public at large feels much more strongly about what is happening in the Gaza Strip than about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Considering the political headaches that the Russia/Ukraine conflict presented regardless, there are likely to be difficult weeks ahead.

Extreme responses from many political quarters

Several smaller South African political parties seem to be dithering over their response to the Hamas attack, presumably wrestling over the moral complexities. But others have come out guns blazing.

Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa (Bosa) issued a particularly strong statement in support of Israel, which also unhelpfully conflated nationality and religion in a provocative manner.

“To be crystal clear, there is no justification for the actions of [the] Hamas military operation ‘Al Aqsa flood’ seen over this weekend,” the statement read.

“Nothing can ever justify the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. In one single day, more Jews were murdered than on any day since the Holocaust.”

The DA took a slightly more temperate line but twice termed the Hamas attack “unprovoked”, which will anger those who maintain that the conditions under which residents of Gaza live should be considered provocation enough.

The DA noted the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”, but the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) made no mention of Palestinian rights in a statement which read in part: 

“Israel has a right to defend itself and must do everything in its power to defend itself and protect its civilians from such indiscriminate and violent attacks.”

Like Bosa, the ACDP conflated religion and nationality, saying it “stands unequivocally in support of Israel and the Jewish people at this critical time”.

The danger of this conflation is that on the other side of the coin, it means that anger targeted at the state of Israel and its policies risks being directed at Jewish people at large, fanning the flames of anti-semitism – in much the same way that Muslims became victims of Islamophobic attacks post-9/11.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ sole concession towards rhetorical moderation on the matter was to call for “the protection of children, women, and civilians in the military conflict between Hamas and Apartheid-Israel as a priority”.

The EFF’s statement continued: “The EFF squarely puts the blame of the escalating conflict on the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people in their own land.”

When it came to the ANC, there was a noticeable difference in tone in the responses from the party and the government it leads. 

On behalf of the latter, the Department of International Relations & Cooperation (Dirco) issued a statement expressing “grave concern over the recent devastating escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Dirco’s statement made no bones about where it felt ultimate responsibility for the violence should lie, ascribing the Hamas attack to “the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people”.

But its tone was nonetheless more restrained than that of the ANC, which led its statement with: “On the accounts of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Israel is a blatant apartheid state that methodically imposes privilege on Jewish Israelis’ behalf and discriminates against Palestinians”.

It is a sign of how fraught the issue already is considered to be, however, that the ANC went so far as to file a complaint with the Press Ombudsman – a relatively rare move for the party – over a News24 article which initially reported that the ANC statement “justified” the Hamas attack, and was subsequently edited.

Cool heads needed

One of the more comprehensive and sober-minded responses came from Cosatu. 

The trade union federation wrote that it “mourns the tragic loss of lives and injuries, especially amongst innocent civilians, women and children on both sides of this intractable conflict.  

“The attacks on all sides must end. Civilian hostages and prisoners, in particular women, children and the elderly must be returned to their families unharmed.”

The statement continued: “The temptation on both sides of this 75-year-plus-old conflict, is to respond to each round of violence with further violence, to retaliate to attacks by the other side with even greater bloodshed.

“The only result of this ongoing cycle of violence and unending occupation is to deepen the levels of hatred and bloodshed. It is clear to all sober persons that violence will not resolve this conflict that has scarred generations on both sides.”

Possibly the most forceful reaction from civil society emanated, unsurprisingly, from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) led by, among others, former anti-apartheid activist Ronnie Kasrils.

In a statement headlined, “Heroic Palestinian resistance fights Israeli Apartheid terror”, the PSC called on the South African government to expel the Israeli ambassador in Pretoria and sever all diplomatic ties with Israel.

This will not be the only call of this nature, while the government also finds itself under pressure from the other side of the argument to much more strenuously condemn Hamas’ actions.

Politicians, political parties and media houses across South Africa are going to come under extreme scrutiny for their handling of this issue in the days to come – and have a responsibility to try to lower the temperature of the debate where they can.

As usual, however, it is ordinary citizens – even in South Africa – who are likely to feel the impact of the conflict most acutely, with oil prices set to soar and an attendant economic slump likely. DM


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  • Sipho Dlamini says:

    Elsewhere people are pointing out double standards, where western governments condemn Russia for occupying Ukraine, and support Israel. A lot of South Africans are indicating support for Israel too. How come can’t we, for once, stand together against oppression?

    • Derek Jones says:

      I reckon the Jews are the most oppressed nation ever. How many millions have been exterminated? 6 million just around Germany! They were given some land by the most powerful nations in the world in the 40’s, and were pretty much immediately attacked again by all their surrounding countries. And so it goes on and on and they defend themselves. They have a chip on their shoulder, sure… but who wouldn’t after their history? They are nice inventive people, Einstein, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, the list is a long one but Hamas wants to kill every one of them. So who is oppressing who?

      • David A says:

        Sorry Derek, but in the context of the Israeli // Palestinian conflict, Israel is without a doubt the oppressor. They weren’t attacked from all sides immediately after being given some land (by countries whose land it wasn’t to give), they were given some land and then immediately went about taking more of it from the countries around them.

        • Steve Davidson says:

          As a pom by birth, I am very embarrassed about how Balfour signed the treaty to give the land to the Zionists mainly because of the money his government received from the Rothschilds and other Jewish moneylenders to refresh the treasury thanks to the costs of first world war that was started by his king’s uncle, Kaizer Wilhelm.

        • Steve Davidson says:

          As a Englishman by birth, I am very embarrassed about how Balfour signed the treaty to give the land to the Zionists mainly because of the money his government received from the Rothschilds and other Jewish moneylenders.

        • Steve Davidson says:

          Money that was needed to refresh the treasury thanks to the costs of first world war that was started by his king’s uncle, Kaizer Wilhelm.

        • Janette Klein says:

          The land was given to the Jews by the UN. They day after they declared independence, they were attacked by five (5) Arab armies. The Jewish defenders were mostly volunteers who had come from all over the world, and refugees that had survived the holocaust. The leaders spoke Hebrew and the soldiers spoke every other known language, often not understanding what they were commanded to do. There was no air force; there was no navy. The guns had to be smuggled in as the British blockaded the ports. They had two tanks which a sympathetic British army leader had “allowed”them to steal. This was the army that drove back 5 agressive Arab armies. They had no choice but to survive because even though they had been through the holocaust, the world was still against the Jews. The Palestinian people were told by the Jews to stay and together they would make a “paradise”. The Arab leaders told the palestinians to leave the land and they would sweap the “Jewish swine” into the sea. Well, that did not happen, did it ? The Arab states were left with thousands of refugees who (if we’re honest) they did not really want. So who really created the Palestinian problem? And if you think I’m another Zionist, I’m not. I’m a historian who just happened to marry one of the original 1948 volunteers. My late husband drove one of the tanks.

          • Michael Thomlinson says:

            Janette, you are right. This is the story I know and believe to be true (and which can be coroborrated). A far as I know you cannot become a citizen of Israel unless you are of the Jewish faith but you can visit Israel quite freely no matter what religion you are. So if you want to call that an apartheid state then so be it but then you need to look at the neighboring states – Iran, Iraq, the UAE etc etc. Some you cannot even visit if you are not a Muslim. So are they not aprtheid states as well??

          • Annalene Sadie says:

            Add to that the fact that all Jews living in those Arab countries were expelled at the same time. The only “safe” place they could go to was the newly established Jewish homeland.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Ask the two million Palestinian refugees in Jordan what they think about that.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        But anyway, the ‘State of Israel’ is on its way to collapse thanks to their Orthodox countrymen undermining it with their religious nonsense.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Funnily enough 1 in 5 Israeli citizens are Arab (Muslim, Druze or Christian) and demographic projections suggest they will exceed 50% of the population by 2050. if anything is going to lead to collapse it will be the fact that Israel is a democracy and in the fullness of time the population may vote to be like all the other Arab countries surrounding them.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        In fact the desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque, perpetrated by those types, which is one of the reasons for this attack, shows what power they have and the fact that they overbreed means they’re in control.

    • ZA Patriot says:

      Exactly. We fought against a brutal Apartheid government (at least some of us did), and yet we see support for Apartheid Israel. The losers in this situation are the innocent people on both sides. 50% of Palestinians are children. The IDF (and by extenstion, the Israeli government) and Hamas are two sides of the same coin. Israel has created Bantustans and its settlers literally pour concrete in Palestinian farmers’ water wells. They jail children as young as 12 for years because they threw stones. Gaza is completely blockaded; not to mention Israel has attacked humanitarian aid ships. Gaza is a concentration camp of 2.2 million people (44% are children). Israel also completely controls water and electricity. And at one point even had illegal settlements in Gaza.

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      We tend to be both absolute & binary in our responses e.g this side is right therefore the other is wrong – when it is in fact possible that both parties can have equally legitimate concerns but also be equally intransigent. There has been no actual discussion in the last 10 to 15 years to seek out a solution & perhaps because neither Israel nor Palestine are willing to concede their respective claims / demands.
      My concern is, as it is with all conflicts & wars, are the civilian casualties on both sides & that their suffering is being weaponized. If we are gonna take sides – let’s take the side of the ordinary civilian caught up in the middle of this & who have nowhere else to go

      • Alley Cat says:

        Such a terrible situation but well said grumpy. There needs to be a lasting solution, but what? Seems the two state solution is dead. Not sure that the Palestinians voted for Hammas but I’m sure the majority don’t want a war with Israel that they know they cannot win. But I think a lot of them are fed up with the recently ever increasing bombings by Israel and the tacit support that Netanyahu’s government gives to raids on the Palestinians from occupied / illegal settlements.
        But I strongly disagree with the massacre of civilians.

      • Ben Harper says:

        That lies completely on the shoulders of Hamas who do not want peace

  • Denise Smit says:

    Your heading is wrong. The Palestinian/Israel war (conflict is too vague). Palestine attacked Israel and a lot of war crimes have been committed. Denise Smit

    • David A says:

      But what was the attack in response to?

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        Don’t expect a reasoned/rational reply to that question . Maybe something like ‘they just got out of bed on the wrong side’ ? And I have a question …maybe two : who were the two nations (joined at the hip) who wholeheartedly supported our previous apartheid regime (not that the current one has distinguished itself ) …right till its end AND chose to call the ANC a ‘terrorist’ organisation ? Amazing how history repeats itself in so many ways.

  • Pet Bug says:

    if Palestinians vote for Hamas, which wants Israel destroyed, they have to live with the consequences.

    Then, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire just like the Kurds, or the horrific expulsion of Armenians and Greeks, the Palestinians lost out.
    That’s terrible and unfair, but there we have it.

    Greeks are not launching attacks against Türkiye to reclaim their land, Germans aren’t bombing Poland, nor is Mexico fighting for California.
    Palestinians lost many wars.
    It’s over, they must find another place.
    Or peacefully negotiate getting the West Bank. But not with Hamas.

    • ZA Patriot says:

      Firstly, Gaza is 44% children. So where do you expect the children to relocate to? Gaza is a concentration camp of 2.2 million people; not all support Hamas, but to them it’s their only shield against the Apartheid Israel.

      As for the West Bank, it has nothing to do with Hamas. “peacefully negotiate getting the West Bank” isn’t going to work when settlers continue to steal land, pour concrete into Palestinian farmers’ water wells. All with the support of the IDF. Please do some research.

    • andrew farrer says:

      well petbug – as stated by Arab historians and state leaders, there has never been a sovereign state of Palestine! “Palestinians” are Arabs, mostly from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon & Saudi Arabia. When the Jews (Zionists) started escaping oppression in Europe and moving to Israel (originally Canaan, then Kingdom of Israel) there were only about 200k Arab inhabitants of the area we know today as Israel (incl West Bank & Gaza). Then Arabs flooded in for two reasons, 1, to make a better life from their existance in the aforementioned Arab states, and 2, to out number and force the Jews out. So maybe the Arab states, USA, EU should fund development of towns and business in the Arab states and move all the “Palestinians” back home?

    • Ben Harper says:

      Israel is historically Jewish territory, according to the Bible and certain interpretations of contemporaneous archeology. Joshua entered the land of Israel in 1,400 B.C., the Kingdom of David was found around 1,000 B.C., the first Temple of Solomon was built in approximately 957 B.C., the second temple was built in approximately 515 B.C., the Hasmonean dynasty was founded in 166 B.C., Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 [C.E.], and the Jews exiled from Israel in 136 C.E.

      “After the defeat of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Romans, in an attempt to shame the Jews, renamed the area Palestine as an insult after the Jews historic enemy, the Philistines.

      Even during the exile there was continuous Jewish presence in the land. Islam, which is the religion of the Palestinian Arabs, was not even founded until the seventh century. C.E. or A.D. No independent Arab state has ever existed in the area known as Palestine.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The difference from Ukraine is that in Ukraine war there is only one aggressor.

    The Israel Palestine mess will never be resolved peacefully because : religion.

  • Alan Salmon says:

    The sheer brutality of this attack is shocking – women and children murdered in cold blood and young people mown down at a music festival. How can any person with a heart not condemn this behaviour ?
    And the losers on the Palestinian side will also largely be the innocent when Israel invades Gaza, while the Hamas leadership sit safely in Qatar – what cowards.

  • Mahomed Sader says:

    Given land….was not anyone’s to give in the first place. This clearly demonstrates that the concept of land occupation is not understood. Of course the USA and European nations are the biggest supporters of Zionism because they invented land occupation. This is not a religious issue as it is made out to be. Palestine is home to many religious groups. Occupation that services the European guilt for sitting idly by while Jews were massacred by their German brethren and the creation of Jewish homeland to absolve their guilt is the issue. There is no such thing as a two state state solution. There is one land which is not allowed to be peaceful because it does not support European and USA interests.

  • Mahomed Sader says:

    Most persecuted….by whom? 6 million jews massacred by Germany, 10 million people massacred by the king of Belgium in the DRC…common denominator, Europe is the oppressor and the Palestinians are made to pay for the European oppression guilt. Let’s get serious

  • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

    Reading some of these comments reinforces what Einstein (a Jew like me) said:
    “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

    • Derek Jones says:

      Thanks Alan, what a mess hey. Someone walked into Einsteins work area one day
      and noticed he had a horseshoe hanging so the luck wouldn’t run out. The visitor asked… don’t tell me you are superstitious, I see you have the good luck horse shoe hanging the right way on your wall?? Einstein s reply shows why he was such a genius. Well he said I believe if I hang it that way I might get some luck whether I believe it or not. There are many sides to every argument. The solution is to learn to love one another. Hatred and bitterness will not get you anywhere good.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Sdfsader – you are clearly so biased and myopic that you only conveniently see the crimes committed by one side i.e. the West, Europe and Israel. Let’s not forget the Ottomans under the banner of a cruel, intolerant and expansionist Islam mass-murdered many hundreds of thousands non-muslims, including 1,5m Armenians, which is denied to this very day. The point is that this transcends the human race and is not confined to any particular one. Get off your high horse!

  • Hidden Name says:

    “Continued illegal occupation…” Strange that DIRCO doesnt feel the same way about Putin grabbing huge chunks of Ukraine, no?
    I honestly think NONE of us have enough context to make judgements about causes and effect with this particular mess, beyond saying its really sad that innocent people are being hurt, kidnapped, killed, maimed or otherwise brutalised.

  • Tim Price says:

    Iran, a serial human rights offender and sponsor of terrorism, supports Hamas and Putin. I ask myself whether I’d like to live in Iran or Russia or indeed in a Hamas ruled enclave where human rights and basic freedoms are denied to people, especially women in the case of Hamas and Iran. Religious intolerance and ancient belief systems that have no place in a modern world where science and reason should hold sway, lies at the root of problems in the middle east and elsewhere. Putin’s desire to re-establish the so-called Russian Empire is just another manifestation of the same retrogressive mindset found in Palestinian and Israeli leaders. I doubt there is a peaceful way to end the conflict because the underlying , primitive mindsets at play, remain just that, primitive.

  • David Crossley says:

    Violence will continue as long as Hamas is the political leader in Gaza – they have always vowed to destroy Israel and they are a terrorist organisation. Palestinians only have themselves to blame for choosing a radical terrorist organisation to lead them.

  • andrew farrer says:

    Israel has cut water and electricity to Gaza! JUST like the anc in Joburg

  • Philip Scher says:

    I, as my father before me, I was born in South Africa. Why do I and many other regular men and women have to spend our praying time guarding our synagogue from those who want to kill us? My grandparents had the foresight to leave Lithuania to come to this country. On average my every 3rd generation has had to move country to escape annihilation. If anyone believes that what is taking place in Israel today is about what Israel is doing then read the above again. It is all about religion. Don’t believe anything else that is justified as a reason to attack me and my fellow Jews irrespective of where we are. So yes, those who want to kill me will amp up the noise against me or us and play local politics because that is what fundamentalists do but they will couch it as human rights.

  • Colin Braude says:

    I am revulsed by the violence and racism of Nethanyahu, as I was by apartheid and now EFF & ANC and there is no denying that, like Ukraine, Israel is in an existential war against genocidal psychopaths — “If Russia/Hamas stopped fighting there will be peace; if Ukraine or Israel stopped fighting, they will be obliterated”.

    Both Netanyahu and Hamas emerge victorious. Netanyahu escapes his fraud trials and efforts to capture the judiciary (very ANC) because people rally around a “strongman” in a crisis. Loosing a few lives means nothing to Hamas, who regard suicide bombers and human shields as legitimate. Their long-term goal is quite explicit “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it… The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day” — from the Hamas Charter, and toxic mix of fanatical Islam and virulent anti-semitism. Like the ANC, Hamas relies on manipulating public opinion.

    Any doubts about what is going on in the Middle East or Ukraine (are they different fronts in the same conflict?) are removed when one looks at the contrasting reactions of the ANC (which reflexively supports anti-West genocidists and despots) and those countries considered most democratic.

    The real lesson for us in South Africa is to avoid going down the “eye for an eye until everyone is blind” path.

    • Tim Price says:

      Well put!

    • Bennie Morani says:

      One of the few rational comments on the situation. Both the Israeli defense force and Hamas are guilty of crimes against humanity. Indiscriminate killing of Israelis living next to Gaza, and the shutting down of food, electricity and water to Gaza and monumental crimes. The only lasting peaceful solution is a secular state incorporating Israel and Palestine – the “one state solution”. But as long as the US underwrites the brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank by the Israeli government, there is little hope of this.

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