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Israel-Palestine Conflict: Learning from Mandela’s inclusion and Sinwar’s vengeance

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John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Hamas leader, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is ‘a dead man walking’.  Sinwar was little known beyond the Middle East before the 7 October 2023 terror attack that he reputedly planned and directed, surprising Israeli intelligence and breaching presumably impregnable defences. 

Yahya Ibrahim Hassan al-Sinwar was born in 1962. He was sentenced to four life terms by an Israeli military court in 1989 but 22 years later released in a prisoner exchange.  

Sinwar’s jail time was later than Nelson Mandela’s 27 years, although his sentence too was for life. Both political prisoners had the self-discipline to learn as much as they could about the language, cultures, and politics of those who opposed and oppressed them, and sought to reassure and ingratiate themselves with their oppressors. 

They were of different generations. Both sought and would wield power. Each was designated a terrorist by the United States. 

Both sought dignity for their people but their political strategies were different.  Sinwar’s was dignity through vengeance. Mandela’s was dignity through inclusion. Mandela’s strategy helped prevent a war many thought inevitable. Sinwar’s strategy succeeded in provoking a military response that consumed his people.  

This war has been a disaster for Israel’s nine million people (two million of whom are Israeli Arabs) and much worse for the Palestinians, especially in Sinwar’s home territory of Gaza. There are approximately five and a half million in the territories of Palestine, plus seven hundred thousand Israeli settlers.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

It is not too early for Palestinians and Israelis to consider practical political steps to prevent further military attacks from either side. Political lessons from South Africa’s political transition could hold important lessons for stakeholders in Palestine and Israel.  

One is that South Africans of all races consulted first with each other, took ownership of the process, and kept their own counsel when informing deliberations by consulting others.   

What will happen should Israel succeed in killing Sinwar and other Hamas leaders, is unclear. As is the future of the Netanyahu administration. Israeli polling suggests an early election in 2024, and his government will fall.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: UN calls for immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Biden warns Israel is losing support

Adding to these uncertainties is the reliability of Israel’s principal backer the United States, although it continues to block any attempts by the United Nations to call for an immediate ceasefire. Next year’s US election adds another complication. 

Parallels with the end of apartheid

In the 1980s a global campaign to sanction the then-white minority South African government helped end apartheid. Today’s war in Palestine is very different. But there may be parallels worth considering. 

Guaranteeing protection of religious and other social identities, but guarding against any sectarian domination, has been a political hallmark of democratic SA. To avoid another bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, that strategy deserves consideration and deliberation. That South Africans did this for themselves was vital to success.

The cycle of violence in the Middle East may be different and has deep cultural roots. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” dates back to Hammurabi’s Code, before reappearing in the Quran and at least three books of the Old Testament. In short, all parties are aware of it, but Sinwar and Netanyahu so far are determined to pursue it.  

Breaking this cycle is imperative. But the lessons from South Africa are that leaders must first come to terms with hard realities and fashion their own strategies for inclusion through processes of change that allow all factions to be heard and accommodated. 

Internationally mediated attempts at achieving a two-state solution have so far failed. But the legacy of ethnic nationalism to define a ‘modern nation-state’ persists. Palestine and Israel would each be identified based on an exclusive sectarian identity. 

SA pioneered a different approach, one in which all identities agreed to respect each other’s preferred identity so long as all agreed none would dominate the other.  Despite many abuses and corrupt practices, that framework, so far, has helped and is again being debated as national elections loom and majorities agree will be held next year.

The latest shock of escalating violence and civilian hardship will prompt reassessment. The military initiative is currently with Israel but domestic and international pressures for a change of government in Israel through early elections are intensifying. Israeli Arabs should seize this opportunity to increase their role in partnership with Jewish moderates committed to breaking the cycle of violence.  

South Africans and others familiar with negotiating the terms of inclusive democracy could informally share their experience with those in Israel who in the current dire circumstances should at least seriously debate what a liberal democratic, capitalist, one-state solution.  

For centuries the possibility of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious SA, was overshadowed by traditional ideas of racial dominance.  The effects of that legacy linger, in a country 45 times larger than Israel and Palestine.  New formulas for peace with justice are never easy but can and must be found. 

Mandela applied himself to working on ways to unite South Africans in a common culture. Engaging, and learning how to influence, his jailers and their superiors, but never abandoning his core commitment to democratic inclusion. Sinwar adopted a similar stance to his jailers, but held firm to the narrow goal of extracting revenge, not constructing a new vision that could shift and even replace the dominance of long-held dominant cultural identities and values.  

Gaining greater justice by means of democracy is a goal that still eludes many South Africans, but the struggle continues within a single constitutional framework for a greater diversity of identities than in the Middle East. Could a similar process begin for all who live in Israel and Palestine?  If ever there was an imperative to try, it is now.  DM

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  • André Pelser says:

    How do you disentangle the conflict from deeply entrenched religious fundamentalism and the struggle for control of Jerusalem? Are you hinting at/arguing for a one state solution, not the two state proposals of the Oslo and Abraham accords? Rights and freedoms guaranteed by an agreement similar to the SA constitution? Who will police and enforce this agreement? Will it involve a truth and reconciliation process? Will there be reparations, land returned to rightful owners?
    But you are right, no matter how complex and torturous the process, the sooner it starts the better.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Israel has failed to implement a two state solution acceptable to Palestinian terms, after October 7 there was a slight chance unfortunately the ongoing attack on Gaza has diminished any hopes the only solution will be a one state solution that will force the two to live together, the high death toll in Gaza leaves hunger for revenge so side by side will be too dangerous because anything better on the other side will not compensate for the huge Palestine losses except exactly equal which will only be in one state

  • Cornay Bester says:

    Mandela is dead. This war is as complex as we make it. The devil likes complex. It compels us to seek impossible solutions to simple problems.

  • Denise Smit says:

    You can not compare Mandela and Sinwar with one another nor the history of the situations. Sinwar is a true malign force , Mandela never was. The Israel / Paletine fight for territory and conflicting religious beliefs go back at least 3500 years, South Africa never had either of the two in the equation and the history goes back since Jan van Riebeeck at the most, which is 500 years with apartheid and land issues at the centre

    • dexter m says:

      Malign Really ? So M . Begin the previous terrorist that had the highest body count for civilian deaths in that region – King David Hotel Bombing was an angel. Now what did Israel do to that terrorist , they elected him Prime Minister. When asked later in life if he had regrets for the killing of women and children , he said that it was not his responsibility . It was fault of the English for not protecting them. So in a similar vein the fault for civilian deaths is the IDF for not protecting them.

  • Alan Taurog says:

    Quite surprised that DM allowed this balanced and well reasoned article to be published when it refused to post a very similar article by Benji Shulman entitled “Let’s not forget Hamas’ first hostages”. Apparently freedom of expression no longer exists at DM.

  • I C says:

    Is there ever a Palestinian Madiba? Or will they be (mis)led by Malemas on Captagon?

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