Peace takes more courage than fighting and it is imperative that both sides are encouraged by the global community to find a lasting solution to the ongoing conflict, writes Khulu Mbatha.
Palestinians and Israelis owe their origins to various settlers of the region. No group has a greater or lesser claim to Palestine. Political and academic debates in South Africa and abroad tend to take sides for or against Palestine or Israel.
It is not my intention to equate the South African experience with what is unfolding. Rather, I seek to appreciate the complex nature of the conflict. Instead of holding pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies, we should rally for Palestinians and Israelis to resolve this conflict.
The state of Israel only came into existence in 1948. It is the world’s only Jewish-majority state and is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Jewish people of different origins live all over the world and not all identify with Israel as home.
Palestine was historically controlled by several rulers and the region’s boundaries have changed throughout history. They were last defined by the Franco-British agreement (1920) and the Transjordan memorandum (1922).
In 1947 the majority of UN member states favoured the creation of two states. Addressing the Palestine Jewry in Jerusalem on October 2, 1947, David Ben-Gurion said: “History has been harsh to us… but it has set conditions too which… will not only allow but will compel Arab and Jew to work together because they need and complement each other.”
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (May 14, 1948) stated: “We appeal… to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
“We extend our hand to all neighbouring states… and appeal to them to establish bonds of co-operation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people… The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
Since the creation of the state of Israel, many wars have been fought and many solutions have been tried. Peace has been elusive. We need to find a lasting solution.
When I was a student I had friends from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). We had much in common. We were in exile and we cherished the goals and ideals that inspired us to liberate and bring peace to our countries.
We had the support of the UN and massive support from the socialist countries as well as freedom-loving people in the West.
Yasser Arafat and OR Tambo were comrades in arms.
We also had our differences. We used to argue about the ANC’s approach to our national question. We did not recognise the South African government and state – our emphasis was the people.
The Freedom Charter states “that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people; that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality… that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief”.
There are differences between our situation and the Palestinian-Israel conflict.
The partitioning of Palestine into two states was discussed long before the outbreak of World War II.
Following the establishment of the UN the matter became more urgent and contentious.
The Count Bernadotte’s 1948 peace plan was an attempt to create a Palestinian state and a Jewish state – and recognise the State of Israel. It also envisaged a union between the two.
This was rejected by the majority of the Arab states. The Khartoum Resolution at the Arab League Summit (1967) also rejected this notion. As late as last year Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated that the movement does not recognise the State of Israel.
Throughout the Cold War era this issue was central to the politics of the region. It also removed the focus from the real issues.
Israel has also rejected the establishment of a Palestinian state. It continues to build settlements in the occupied territories in violation of past agreements.
The PLO, founded in 1964, was recognised as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and given full diplomatic status by the majority of states within the UN, the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity (now AU).
The PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist in 1993 (UN Resolution 242 and 338) with Israel officially recognising the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. This was preceded by the Oslo I Accord that bestowed 1994 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates on the leaders of Israel and the PLO.
The first thing now is to lay down arms. The obvious question is: Should Hamas or Israel do so first? Again when we compare the situation with South Africa, there is no easy answer.
The outstanding matters to be resolved by the PLO (Hamas) and Israel include the question of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security and borders. None of these can be resolved by violence which, by its very nature, prolongs the attainment of any goals.
In the early 1990s when South Africa was negotiating its transition, the world was experiencing historical transformation, from the era of the Cold War to the collapse of the Eastern bloc. We negotiated because the apartheid regime was, as Joe Slovo said, “no longer able to continue ruling in the old way and was genuinely seeking some break with the past”.
The ANC leadership was clear that we were not dealing with a defeated enemy. In his book Song and Secrets, Barry Gilder observed that with the Soviet Union gone and “the stagnation of the South African economy, combined with the international and domestic onslaught against apartheid”, there was a possibility of pursuing our interests through peaceful means.
Objective conditions compelled the ANC and the apartheid regime to seriously negotiate a settlement.
No two situations are the same. While new challenges and contradictions have emerged, the global historical transformation from the era of Cold War has not exhausted itself.
The PLO and Israeli leadership only went so far as recognising each other as the true representatives of their people. This allowed radical forces to take the initiative. Nothing much was done to move the negotiations to settle outstanding issues.
The global environment is still in favour of enabling this process to be taken forward. Tambo and Arafat addressed the opening session of the ninth UN International Co-ordinating Committee meeting for NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ICCP) in 1992 in Geneva.
Tambo said the construction of a world order firmly rooted in freedom and democracy was becoming a viable prospect.
He underlined that the ANC supported the peace process and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the security of all states in the region, including Israel.
Arafat said: “I would like to tell our Israeli NGO friends, the supporters of peace and the forces which support our rights and our people, that peace needs more courage than war… Here are our hands, extended to you… It is time now that our enemies should have the necessary courage to make a just and comprehensive peace for our children and their children.”
This was a clear call to lay down arms and negotiate.
South Africans must use their influence on both sides to positively influence this process.
The people of our once divided country should take to the streets with one message: Negotiations Now! We also have diplomatic channels to engage Israel.
Israel must know that peace cannot be achieved through war, but dialogue. A state that cannot co-exist with others, is in permanent war with its neighbours, generates thousands of refugees, maims women, children and babies, and demolishes school and church buildings. Such a state cannot avoid being subjected to scrutiny.
Israel’s statehood will remain insubstantial, even for its own citizens, as long as this matter is not resolved. Under international law (the Montevideo Convention 1933) a state should have a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.
The last requirement means that the state must fulfil international treaty obligations.
The two-state solution is dead. Many aspects of this conflict have changed; not only the political environment but the borders and the population in both territories have changed beyond what was envisaged at the end of World War II.
Rami G Khouri counsels us to go back to the events of 1947/48 when the conflict assumed its current profile of Israeli statehood and Palestinian refugeehood.
Israeli novelist David Grossman’s recent call is timely: “I believe that Israel still contains a critical mass of people left wing and right wing, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, who are capable of uniting – with sobriety, with no illusions – around a few points of agreement to resolve the conflict with our neighbours.”