A Rebuttal of Helen Zille’s: ‘Looking at the Middle East through the Lens of Gandhi’

Dear Helen

I’m glad you had the opportunity to get out of bed and listen to Ela Gandhi speaking on peace-building. I heard her that same evening and found her inspiring. At least we had the opportunity to do so, as nearly two million people in Gaza cannot even sleep because of the fighter jets overhead and the indiscriminate bombings of civilians. Hundreds of these children will never get out of their beds again – thanks to Israeli bombs and missiles, and those who create a moral veneer for such massacres to occur. Or those who remain silent. Therefore I read your article on the DA website (www.da.org.za. SA Today: Looking at the Middle-East through the lens of Gandhi) with a sense of incredulity. Rarely have I seen such contradictions in the same article, although much of the obfuscation evident is commonplace. It is difficult to know where to start but I’ll take a stab nonetheless.

On a very principled basis you quite rightly take issue with the organisation that calls itself the ‘Islamic State’ (or ISIS), who have massacred thousands in the service of their radical and violent fundamentalist ideology. Their victims are Sunnis, Shias and Christians. You have again rightly taken a principled issue with Sudan in the case of Miriam Ibrahim and her conversion. In the past you have taken what you called a principled position regarding Zimbabwe. These are all commendable. But when your article came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict your principles became orphaned, as if there are no principled issues involved in this conflict. I could quote to you Marx’s famous critique on the liberal position which goes ‘those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”. That was Groucho, not Karl! You claim some neutral position as if there is virtue in neutrality, while claiming that you are being forced to choose sides. Helen, nobody is forced into taking sides in this conflict or the debate around it; what is expected is upholding principles, values and justice – even liberal ones that you and your party claim to represent. Of course any neutral position favours the dominant party, so in effect one can never be neutral. During the struggle against Apartheid neutrality meant serving the interests of that ideology. That is why John F Kennedy’s words resound (in a quote also attributed to Dante Alighieri): ‘the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality’. However, I contend that you are not neutral. Your bias permeates your entire discourse on this issue. Let me illustrate that this is not a glib contention.

The first is when you invoke the tired refrain regarding Israel’s existential threat by quoting Tony Leon who quotes the Zionist Orientalist Bernard Lewis. Now demonstrate to me where that existential threat exists. Let’s be reasonable Helen, and not dramatic. Perhaps you think that the existential threat comes from the Arab or Islamic world. Let’s look at the facts: Egypt is ruled by an Israeli friendly dictator whose army is effectively neutered. They cannot even control a rebellion in the Sinai. Jordan is client regime, as is Lebanon (with the exception of Hizbollah). Libya and Iraq do not have an army to speak of and are engaged in a brutal civil war as a result of imperial interventions. Syria finds itself in a similar situation, which has also dragged in Hizbollah. In fact Hizbollah is fighting the ‘Islamic State’ (or ISIS). Iran has been neutralized through sanctions and a clamp on its civilian nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia and the other states are effectively dictatorial and corrupt client regimes of the West. Would this threat come from Hamas? Highly unlikely since all Hamas has are some rudimentary rockets that barely cause any damage and are rarely lethal.But even if there is a military threat, Israel has one of the most powerful armies in the world, with the backing and support of the most powerful army in the world, the USA, who provide them the latest intelligence and weaponry. It is highly unlikely that they would allow Israel’s existence to be threatened. Remember that Israel is also has an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons. So can we please dispose of the notion of an existential threat to Israel? It simply does not exist, except as a useful propaganda tool.

Helen, your statement in defence of Israel that ‘there is no compromise between existing and non-existing’, is pure hysteria. In fact let us take that one step further Helen. Israel already exists; Palestine does not. That small detail seems to evade you, but the reality is exactly the opposite of what you argue. How is that for an inversion of reality?

Your next slip shows when you state ‘on the basis of an acceptance by Hamas of Israel’s right to exist I believe that Israel should end its occupation of all Palestinian territories based on the 1967 borders; that Jerusalem should be a shared capital of both an Israeli and Palestinian state; that Hamas should stop digging tunnels to attack Israel; that Israel should end the siege and blockade of Gaza, withdraw its settlements from the West Bank and recognize the Palestinian unity government’. Helen I’m not sure you realize how ridiculous this sounds. Firstly, you put preconditions on Palestinians, but not on Israel – how patronizing of you. Nowhere do you qualify your position regarding Israel’s acceptance of Palestine. What about Israel recognizing Hamas? Secondly, there is a Palestinian Authority that rules the West Bank and is equally representative of the Palestinian people, who have recognized Israel. That has not brought them much joy in any peace negotiations, except making them look like useful idiots, while Israel continues to establish facts on the ground. Third, you invoke the tired narrative of recognizing Israel’s right to exist. What does the right to exist mean? What gives any state the right to exist? Did Apartheid South Africa have the right to exist? Furthermore, if Israel demands a right to exist – which Israel is this and where are its borders? Israel has not defined its borders because it is an expansionist state. So how do you recognize an entity that is not defined? Moreover, Israel wants recognition as a Jewish State which means that the Palestinians who live within its borders become second-class citizens. Recognising Israel as a Jewish State would be a betrayal of all the non-Jews living within its ‘borders’ including the twenty percent Palestinian population. Does your liberal standing support such ethnic states which are not defined by citizenship or residency but by ethnicity or religion? Could we accept a state that grants Jews anywhere in the world citizenship but not those who have been displaced or expelled from that same land? Neither Palestinians, nor we, should ever recognize ethnic or religiously exclusive states. And the by the way, what does Jerusalem as a ‘shared capital’ mean? International law recognizes East Jerusalem as Occupied Territory notwithstanding Israel’s annexation. One more thing, do you want the tunnels to disappear so that you can finally starve Palestinians to death? If these tunnels have existed for so long why they have not been used to attack Israeli? Simply because they have served as a lifeline to Palestinians living in Gaza for the duration of the blockade by allowing access to essential supplies. Helen one more observation on this point: International Law does not set any condition on the status of the Occupation, on Jerusalem, on the siege of Gaza and the settlements. What gives you the right to do so, except some imperial hubris?

Another slip Helen is when you state ‘and as mutual trust grows and suicide bombs cease, the West Bank barrier (referred to as an “apartheid wall” by the Palestinians, and a “security fence” by the Israelis) should come down’. For God’s sake, there have not been suicide bombings for years because strategically Palestinians realized that internationally it was doing their cause more harm than good. But more importantly the apartheid wall breaches International Law (refer to the International Court of Justice ruling) and should come down without pre-conditions. If security was a concern, Helen, why did Israel not build it on their 1967 borders, rather than use this wall to steal more Palestinian land, further besiege Palestinians and set them apart from their land, their farms, their schools and jobs?

I hope you get my drift Helen. I’m sorry that your position is both embarrassing and untenable.

Among all of these slips I’ll make one concession to you, and that holds if I read you correctly when you state, ‘and ideally, as confidence returns, all Middle East refugees – including the Christians from Mosul, the Shia from Tikrit, and the Palestinians from Israel – should be able to return to their homes and live in peace and freedom’ I take this to mean that you support the return of all Palestinian refugees to their historical land within Israel and elsewhere. That is a wonderful gesture on your part and a key demand of Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel. Palestinians displaced from what is now Israel have a right of return. It is just like our exiles had the right to return.
Okay, I will make a second concession. Your statement that ‘none of us believes that events in the Middle East should be allowed to undermine our historic project of demonstrating that a one-State solution is possible in historically divided societies’ is heart-warming and opens up the idea of a one-state solution in Palestine/Israel where all communities live side by side in harmony and peace, equal in rights and opportunities, in a secular democracy. That is a wonderful concept that we should all be embracing and promoting. We did it in South Africa. We cannot continue to argue on the basis of ethnicity, religion, race or culture. Such parochial notions only promote exceptionalism which in turns promotes tyranny. Another practical reason to promote the one-State solution is that Israel has largely destroyed the notion of a two-State solution with its illegal settlements, from which it refuses to withdraw. If you care to look at a recent map of settlements Helen, it would make the Apartheid government’s Bantustan policy look progressive. Go back and look at the map of Palestine since 1948 and you will graphically see what compromises the Palestinians have made. They now suffer from compromise fatigue.

Helen you run the risk of framing this conflict in religious terms by using religious parlance, when you say: ‘if the descendants of two brothers, Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, cannot solve their differences, who on earth can be expected to?’. I may be assuming too much here, however we need to be clear that this is not a religious conflict. Of course reactionary political ideologies are cast in the garb of religion, as was Apartheid, but we should not be fooled by this. Thus I am intrigued by your statement of consensus from the DA caucus that notes ‘none of us will have any truck with fundamentalism of any kind’. I wonder whether you would cast the right wing, racist and violent Zionist regime of Benjamin Netanyahu as fundamentalist. Or Zionism itself! Not unlike the ‘Islamic State’ which you unreservedly condemned, successive Israeli regimes have massacred 1000’s in the service of their radical and violent fundamentalist ideology. Coming back to the conflict in the Middle-East I reiterate that this is not a religious conflict. Most Jews are not even Semitic, they are European – so I’m not sure whether they are really children of Isaac. But I digress. Rather this is a conflict born of colonialism where an indigenous population was displaced by a European settler community – culminating in the division of their land in 1948 without their consent. This dispossession continued in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip through a war of aggression by Israel. In breach of international law this occupation expanded through the building of settlements. It continues to dispossess Palestinians of their land on a daily basis. It makes Zimbabwe look like a picnic. I speak about Zimbabwe since your party was extremely vociferous on the issue. I now begin to wonder whether your grievance was driven by the fact that whites were being dispossessed. Now Helen, don’t glibly believe me on the historical facts I cite, nor believe Zionist propagandists – go and check out historically documented records for a real history. The Zionists have a propaganda sheet they all troll from – I’ll send you a copy if you are interested. We learnt to our own peril that the National Party propaganda was foul; and we should similarly be wary of Zionist propaganda.

Helen, you are right in that you ‘have a limited knowledge of the Middle East and have never been there’. Those of us who have can attest to a state worse than Apartheid. And many of us have personally experienced Apartheid. That is why the ANC takes such a principled position on the conflict. Contrary to your position they realize that this is an asymmetrical struggle – between the colonized and the colonizer; between a powerful military and a volunteer resistance force; between those who serve the interests of the imperial power and those who simply seek freedom, justice and the ability to choose their own destiny. You simply cannot equate the two – you cannot even attempt a moral equivalence. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and under siege have a right to struggle against their oppression – just as the liberation movements in South Africa had the right to do so. Your party and its precursors chose to work within the confines of a system that stymied every opportunity for change. The ANC did not submit to ridiculous preconditions prior to negotiations; why should Palestinians. The Israeli regime is no different to that Apartheid regime. Peaceful protests, in the Gandhian mould, are brutally suppressed by the Israeli regime. Go and read the stories of peace activists such as Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall who were murdered by Israeli forces while engaging in peaceful protest: one crushed by a bulldozer and the other shot in the head. The Popular Resistance Committees on the West Bank face violence on a weekly basis while peacefully protesting. They estimate that there is a child killed every 3-4 days on average by Israeli forces. Israel is violent regime that was founded on violence, extended through violence and sustains itself through violence. This violence is the instrument used in its dual strategy of dispossessing Palestinians of their land and ethnic cleansing. Helen as I said don’t believe me – go and read a recently published work by a former Israeli soldier and now academic at King’s College, Ahron Bregman: Cursed Victory – a history of Israel and the Occupied Territories (Allen Lane, 2014).
On the recent events in Gaza, Helen, there is no space for equivocation. Israel’s propaganda, which you quote in the service of your attempted neutrality, is transparently false. The truth that we see before us is that Israel either willfully targets civilians or civilian infrastructures or displays a wanton disregard for Palestinian civilian life. How would you otherwise explain children murdered while playing on a playground or on the beach or on swings; or targeting hospitals, or a home for the disabled or homes of political leaders and a power station; or the death of a Christian woman. Israel claims that its missiles are launched with pin-point accuracy. This simply means that they hit the targets they intend to. So they intend to murder children. The notion of human shields is pure nonsense. Gaza is 40 km in length and 5 km (12 km at some point) in width, and home to 1.8 million people, mainly refugees from Israel’s ethnic cleansing. Calculate that with the Western Cape in mind. Where do you expect people to hide? The assault on Gaza is collective punishment. It was Israel which frequently violated the 2012 truce agreement that has led to the current crisis.
Helen, for once don’t pander to your right wing constituency or your funders – stand up for the truth. The truth of course is not always palatable to your party. This is demonstrated when any agency rules against the ANC government you are quick to capitalize on the issue – for example, Nkandla-gate. However when the Human Rights Commission ruled against your government, in the case brought by the Social Justice Coalition on the violation of human rights of communities in the provision of toilets, your party sought to question the integrity of the report. I know that you have a huge task in providing adequate sanitation, housing and other services to poor communities. But since you have entered the discussion on the Middle-East you have to do so in a more informed and substantive way than you have. I’m sure you will agree with me that while claiming to be neutral your discourse is anything but neutral – it is instead loaded against Palestinians. Helen, if we allow the situation to continue then WB Yeats prescient sentiments will define us: ‘The best lack all conviction; and the worst are filled with passionate intensity’.
Shuaib Manjra, Cape Town (shuaib.manjra@gmail.com)
Open Shuhada Street

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