Azad Essa: Shimon Peres was no Mandela

By OPINION Time of article published Oct 5, 2016

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Azad Essa was rather baffled by President Barack Obama’s choice of words for Shimon Peres at his funeral last week.

Dear Barack Obama,

I know you are a man of immense intellect and I am hopeful you will spare the three minutes for this response to your eulogy of former Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres.

A few years ago, I visited the West Bank. I visited different towns and villages in the occupied Palestinian territory, which was being subject to illegal Israeli settlements. From encountering the towering cement wall built to keep out Palestinians from Israeli territory, or the mandatory screening and frisking of the elderly at the Qalandia checkpoint en route to Jerusalem, I witnessed the indignity faced by ordinary Palestinians every day.

On the penultimate day of my trip, my friend and host Linah urged me to visit “the other side”.

“But, as you know, I can't come with you,” she said.

I protested but eventually relented.

From Ramallah, I found a bus that transported me 60km north-west from the old city of Jerusalem to the thriving, hip, seaside city of Tel Aviv, where the sea glistened and the pavements were free.Having just arrived from the occupied West Bank, it was difficult to ignore the parallel worlds, people living completely different lives, one of privilege and the other of disenfranchisement.

I felt sick.

I kept thinking - surely this is what it must have felt like as a European visiting the whites-only benches, suburbs and beaches during apartheid South Africa?

Linah, back in Ramallah, whose family had come from a small village in Gaza, and had lived on this land for generations, needed a special permit to get here, while I, as a foreigner, on a valid passport, could walk in without receiving little more than an unhealthy glare.

You may be wondering, Mr Obama, what all of this has to do with you.

I was rather baffled by your choice of words for Shimon Peres at his funeral last week. You described him as having made “life better not just for people here, but for people around the world”. You said he “fed his village by working in the fields during the day, but then defending it by carrying a rifle at night”. These are all euphemisms at best. It was when you compared the former Israeli prime minister to Nelson Mandela that it all became rather absurd.

I understand it is in your national interest to decorate Mr Peres. At this time of crass polemics in American politics, there must be “good” reason to massage truth at a time of Israel's mourning.Your hagiography of Peres was not just a fabrication of facts, but it was an attempt to re-write history. Your efforts to paint him as a man of peace underwhelms in your misguided undertaking to ignore injustice, the real fact needing exorcism in the Israel-Palestine story.

Of course, Peres won a Nobel Peace Prize, and so did Mandela. And so did you. The other day a 17-year-old won it. Last month the former secretary for the Nobel Peace Prize called your prize “a mistake”, which is a moot point given that the prize itself is an overstated cash prize invented by an arms manufacturer.

Let's get the facts straight: Peres was a pioneer of illegal settlements. He pushed into East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the active pursuit of appropriating stolen private Palestinian land.

It was Peres that offered the increasingly isolated South African apartheid government nuclear warheads. It was Peres who oversaw the massacre of civilians in the 1996 Qana in Lebanon. In fact, Peres served as president, prime minister, two times as minister of defence and three times as foreign minister. When you say he is the essence of Israel, you are quite correct. He was the very heart of Israeli war machine, racist expansion and Palestinian delegitimation - which Mandela himself fought against.

In his later years, Peres developed a powerful lexicon of peace, a word you mention eight times in your address. He ticked all the right boxes when it came to language, but he thought little about peace when signing off the expansion of illegal settlements, in quite the same way you sign off drone strikes. His professional bigotry left a shambolic democracy tethered on extremism, a deeply divided, racist society and a country that must show muscle in order to be taken seriously. This surely doesn't usher in memories of Mandela. It sounds a lot more like you.

And, to be fair, this is not to suggest that we South Africans are not unreasonable hagiographers ourselves. For long, Mandela was certainly not the Mandela we chose to remember. And South Africa is fast awakening from the compromises made beneath his thunder.

But there is a major distinction. While Mandela grew into talking of reconciliation as a survivor of oppression, as the years moved on, Peres spoke about reconciliation, still, as the aggressor. The difference couldn't be any more stark.

Mr Obama, you also said that Peres believed in miracles. “Because in Israel, he saw a miracle come true.” And it is a miracle, indeed.

In 2014, Linah’s mother passed away in Ramallah. It cut deep for Linah’s father and elder brother who are exiled by Israel from the West Bank for holding Gazan ID cards. To pay their respects, the two men had to ask Israel for permission to return home for the burial. They were granted permission - days after she had been laid to rest.

Linah’s story is not unique, Mr Obama, and it speaks to the injustice that millions of other Palestinians continue to face under Israeli policies that your “peace-loving” Shimon Peres helped create and enforce in the first place.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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