Israel-Palestine conflict could dangerously amplify local political tensions
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.
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