After nearly a year here in South Africa, it has become abundantly clear to me that for a certain constituency, the Israel-Palestinian topic is very much a hot button issue, with a unique local flavour. Whether it is my Jewish brothers and sisters, the country’s Muslim minority, some politicians or certain Christian groups, there are many who follow issues in my region with great emotion and concern. I am not sure that this is true about most people here, but for this small but diverse group, every step taken between Israelis and Palestinians has meaning and impact for them here in SA. And nowhere is this clearer, especially since the recent events in my region have flared up, than in my Twitter engagement.
I am not a major player, by any means, in the Twitterverse, with only just over 1,000 followers. Nevertheless, I am “out there”, and like a few of my colleagues in the diplomatic community, am happy to engage with anyone who is reasonably polite. For the most part, I try to talk about “other things” about Israel – agriculture, hi-tech, innovation, culture – in other words, engage “beyond the conflict”.
But in the last month and significantly in recent days, social media in South Africa (and many places around the world) has become a veritable battleground regarding the conflict between Israel and Hamas. People with all views are tweeting to me: many are reasonable, some are aggressive and some are shockingly and bluntly violent about what they think about Jews and Israel. The willingness to use Holocaust imagery and comparisons is frightening in what it says about the senders of these messages.
But for the most part, it is a worthwhile exchange of ideas. For me, too, it has been an opportunity to put forward Israel’s view of why we need to defend ourselves.
There has been a tsunami of reaction – engagement with me has risen by 500% percent in recent days. I get a range of comments; more support than you might think, but also some that are very, very angry. The anger is often focused at me, as the representative of Israel in South Africa.
While I don’t think that those individuals were interested in dialogue, there has been an interesting chance to interact with many other people. Twitter is an opportunity to point out facts, respectfully disagree or try to find a middle ground with some people:
But overall, I was trying to tell our story in a human and reasonable manner. I strongly believe in a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Many Palestinians that I have met both in my region and around the world (including my friend, the Palestinian Ambassador to South Africa, Abdel Hafiz Nofal) share that hope and believe, as I do, that both sides can and should do more to move negotiations and compromise forward between our two sides that could offer so many benefits for our two peoples.
Hamas and many of their supporters here in South Africa clearly do not share that view. Some of that comes through clearly on Twitter.
A call for the elimination of the State of Israel.
I understand the pain regarding loss of life. Any loss of life of innocent Israelis or Palestinians – men, women or children is equally a tragedy. I make no argument that one life is more valuable than another. I have tried to share that feeling in the Twittersphere:
The Israeli government and people are not celebrating loss of life or giving out candies on the streets. No one in Israel is naming streets after murderers or terrorists. In fact, following the tragic and despicable murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the heads of Israel’s government condemned the act, we arrested suspects who will certainly face trial as is appropriate in a society of the rule of law. This process will be an important task for us in the coming months and years. I tweeted that too:
That said, we make no apology for the lack of deaths in Israel from Hamas rockets. Israel has invested heavily in civil defense because we understood that Hamas was investing heavily in missiles. We built the heroic Iron Dome system which uses the world’s most advanced technology to shoot down missiles before they can reach targets in residential areas. We have built bomb shelters, warning systems and have taught our public how to be safe. We send advanced warnings in a variety of ways to encourage Palestinian civilians to get out of targeted areas. Israel has continued to allow for the transfer of food, medicines and other humanitarian supplies from Israel to Gaza.
It seems, to our great sadness, that Hamas does the opposite. They are hiding their weapons in homes, schools and mosques. They are calling on their public to serve as human shields to protect the weapons. Yesterday, Hamas’ Interior Ministry spokesman called on the residents of northern Gaza to ignore Israeli army warnings and stay in their homes. He asked those who have already left to return. They have wantonly fired over 600 missiles towards Israel over the past week – without any care that the targets might be Jews, Christians or Muslims. It could hit a holy site or a school. In fact, this weekend, some rockets hit areas that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Each missile shot should be counted as a war crime: an intentional attempt to maim and murder. The people of Gaza and of Israel deserve much better.
Hamas rockets must stop. I am glad that the talk in the international community about a ceasefire has increased. The world came together and instituted a verification system for the disarming of Syria of chemical weapons. Perhaps such a disarming and verification of Hamas missiles could serve to make the people of our region safer. Israel has no presence or territorial claims on Gaza. We left and have no interest in returning. Even the Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and pointedly asked Hamas on Palestinian television “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”
Israel – like South Africa – is open to being criticised, as any open democracy knows. There seems to be a disconnect between legitimate criticism and debate with some of the extreme language and hate talk that has been taking root with some activists here in South Africa. In 2009, Howard Jacobson described in The Independent a similar type of extremist activism in the UK. These are not, for the most part, human rights advocates as we never see them lobbying for those in Syria, Sudan or calling to #bringbackourgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. They are certainly not interested in South Africa advocating for any peace in the Middle East but instead only to boycott and even totally break off all relations with Israel. These are people who have violently broken up a classical music recital and chanted “shoot the Jew” at Wits University. They hate Jews and Israel and apparently even have ideas for what to do with all of us, as the tweet meant for the Chief Rabbi of South Africa makes clear.
I am confident that we will see some of that awful point of view a few centimeters below these words in the comments. We likely will also see some more constructive opinions that, fairly and reasonably, disagree with me. Some readers may even agree with some of what I have to say. For my part, I will continue to speak out around South Africa, including on Twitter, on Facebook and wherever people are interested in discussing about our shared values as liberal democracies, Israel’s right to self-defence and the variety of ways we can help each other be better places for our citizens and for our neighbours. DM
Arthur Lenk began his assignment as Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland in early August 2013. Previously he served as the Director of the Department of International Law at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has played an active role in representing Israel before international organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council. He also worked as a staff member on the UN Secretary General's Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident. From 2005 - 2009, Mr. Lenk served as Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan. During that period, political, strategic and economic relations between the two countries grew dramatically including growth of Israeli exports from $5 million in 2005 to $264 million in 2009. Israel massively increased its oil import from Caspian Sea to Israel. He has also served in diplomatic postings in New Delhi, India and Los Angeles. Mr. Lenk was born in the United States (New Jersey) and made aliyah to Israel in 1983. He studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (LL.B. and LL.M. degrees) and is a member of the bar in Israel and New York.