Ramaphosa woefully misreading the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - News24

20 May 2021 - In his letter, ‘Israel-Palestinian violence: too many lives have been lost’, President Cyril Ramaphosa makes a number of factual errors, omissions, and risible statements that must be challenged. Five of these are particularly important.

Frans Cronje

In his letter, ‘Israel-Palestinian violence: too many lives have been lost’, President Cyril Ramaphosa makes a number of factual errors, omissions, and risible statements that must be challenged. Five of these are particularly important.

The first is that “[the] root causes of [the] conflict” are “[the] illegal occupation by Israel of Palestinian land and the denial of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination”, and that “a viable Palestinian state existing side-by-side in peace with Israel…remains the most viable option for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, and must continue to be supported”. 

A two-state option has been on the table since 1937 when it was first proposed by the Peel commission, and Jews have agreed to partitioning at several intervals thereafter. After Israel’s agreement to the 2000/2001 deal brokered by Bill Clinton, partitioning was imminent. But that deal was sabotaged by the Palestinian leadership, likely out of fear that it would have to govern Gaza and the West Bank and be accountable to Palestinian citizens.

Subsequently, there have been a number of further moves by the Israelis towards a two-state solution. Most significant was Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 that included dismantling – at gunpoint – its own settlements, and handing political control of that enclave to Palestinians. But within 18 months, Hamas, an Iranian proxy terrorist organisation that seeks the complete destruction of Israel, won elections in Gaza.

Given the fractious state of the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank, an Israeli withdrawal from that territory may also see it slip into terrorist hands. The terrible reality is that given the state of the Palestinian leadership there is no-one for Israel to make a deal with on a viable two-state solution anymore. Many Palestinians, whilst resenting Israeli occupation, also fear what would occur on the West Bank after an Israeli withdrawal – following the example of what happened in Gaza – and that such a withdrawal could even see that territory degenerate into an internal civil war between extremist groups, echoing the terrible violence and abuses of the recent Syrian civil war.

What, then, is the solution for a viable Palestinian state? There really is only one, which would see Jordan and Egypt incorporate the West Bank and Gaza. But neither country wishes to take on the conflict and extremism that such incorporation would deliver. Hence, for the time being, Israel has no choice but to continue its military occupation of the West Bank, as the less bad of the available options.

The root causes of the present conflict are therefore not solely, or even predominantly, the Israeli occupation but rather the dysfunctional state of the Palestinian leadership; the reality that Iran’s proxies would quickly fill the power vacuum left by an Israeli withdrawal and set about the destruction of Israel; and that neighbouring Arab states remain unwilling to play midwife to a Palestinian state. 

Mr Ramaphosa then states that “the latest violence was sparked by an Israeli court decision to evict a group of families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements”, which he likens to “acts carried out in the name of apartheid spatial planning”. The comparison fails, however, as Israel is not evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Avi Bell and Eugene Kontorovich, of the San Diego Law School, and Center for Middle East and International Law at George Mason University respectively, demonstrate that the owner of the property in question is an Israeli corporation “whose chain of title is documented back to an original purchase in 1875”. After Jordan invaded Israel in 1948 it expelled the Jews from East Jerusalem and seized all Jewish properties. The property in question was never granted new title (which Israel on the whole respects in East Jerusalem). Where title was never transferred, the law allows the return of property to its original owners – a law that is entirely neutral and applies to Arabs and Jews alike.

Mr Ramaphosa then says that “Israeli security forces launched assaults on worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem last week”. Again, this is not true. As a democracy in the Middle East, Israel is tolerant of religious freedom and respectful of Muslim holy places. Since its 1967 defeat of an incipient Arab invasion, Israel has ensured that Muslims can worship at the mosque. The recent conflicts around that mosque were instigated by Palestinian worshippers hurling rocks onto Jewish worshippers praying at the Western Wall below, forcing the police to intervene. Right-wing Israelis did exploit that conflict for their own political ends, which exacerbated tensions, but that does not change the fundamental point that the Israeli government defends the rights of Muslim worshippers to worship in peace. 

Mr Ramaphosa then writes about the “senseless and continued Israeli bombardment of Gaza”, but makes no mention of the rockets fired by Hamas into Israel – in fact he never once mentions the words “Hamas” or “rockets” or, for that matter, Iran. Hamas in Gaza has indiscriminately fired over 3 000 rockets, sourced from Iran, into Israel with the aim of terrorising and killing Israeli civilians causing the Israelis to respond with airstrikes to eliminate rocket-launch sites and other military targets associated with Hamas.

The actions of the Israeli Air Force are anything but senseless, as they are aimed at protecting its civilians (Jewish and Muslim alike). In launching those strikes the Israelis have taken actions unprecedented in any modern anti-terrorist campaign to avoid harming innocent civilians in Gaza – actions that have greatly compromised its campaign against Hamas. 

Mr Ramaphosa goes further to write that “(it) is also deeply troubling that Israeli forces last week destroyed a multi-storey building that housed a number of media organisations, sending a chilling message to media reporting on the violence”. But Hamas has a tactic of placing its launch sites, weapon depots, and fighters in/near civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, in order to benefit from the propaganda advantages when those targets are hit.

The Israeli government has said that the building housing the journalists was also used to house Hamas operations, which would be entirely in keeping with its tactics. As for journalists who say they worked in the building but were unaware of any Hamas presence, that is firstly nonsensical as Hamas would hardly go around announcing its tactics to the press or stating that it was using journalists as shields. Secondly, and more seriously, evidence has now emerged that some journalists were aware of Hamas operations around the building in question, including rocket launches literally outside the front door, but chose not to report on these.  

As you weigh up what we have written here against the ideas set out by Mr Ramaphosa, a good rule of thumb is to consider what would be expected of the South African government if a terrorist organisation that wished to wipe one of the country’s towns or cities off the map started firing rockets into that city. What if it was your town or city? Would you condemn the government for bombing the terrorists – or would you understand the need for the bombing, even as you mourned the loss of life, and wished for the world to understand that the problem rested with the terrorists and not with you? 

Few people wish to see violence and brutality playing out anywhere – not in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. The Palestinians are a wonderful but ravaged, desperate, and misused people. Over the weekend three Palestinian gunmen armed with homemade submachine guns charged an Israeli military post against overwhelming odds and never made it more than a few metres before being shot down (they were allegedly en route to commit a massacre against Israeli civilians in Israel when they were stopped by security forces). Their actions were terrorism – undoubtedly. But strip that away if you possibly can and try to think of them as people and for a moment, at some level, their bravery in doing what they did is unimaginable – just as the Israeli soldiers, mostly young conscripts, were very brave and did exactly the right thing in shooting them down to protect Israeli citizens from what might otherwise have been a massacre. In that incident rests the entire tragedy of the current crisis and reveals how terribly the Palestinian people have been let down by a global community. Writing in the Arab News this week in defence of the Gazans, Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, speaks of the ‘meaningless blandishments…trotted out…by politicians and journalists…during every Israeli war on Gaza…that appear harmless to the uninitiated but…obscure the reality of events on the ground”. Whilst we find ourselves on the other side of the current debate to Mr Doyle, his description of ‘meaningless blandishments’ is accurate of most of the words ‘trotted out’ in defence of the Palestinians.   

Mr Ramaphosa would do better to see realities as they exist, and not as ideological convenience may dictate. The realities are that Israel is the leading democracy in the Middle East. It has faced hostile neighbours on all fronts for its entire existence. Were it not for its military capacity it would long have been wiped off the map and (likely) every Jew in Israel slaughtered. This makes it unique in the world in that no other country’s citizens live under the constant existential threat of extermination. Now, literally under fire, Israel is again fighting for its survival in the face of attacks sponsored by an Iranian government dedicated to its destruction. South Africa should be standing with the people of Israel as they face this threat, defending their right to self-defence and not indulging states and groups geared to the destruction of Israel.         

Frans Cronje is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom