Palestinian children look from the windows of their home. A 15-year-old boy, asked if he thought peace was possible, said "perhaps", but reconciliation is hard in an occupied territory. Picture: Nayef Hashlamoun / Reuters

One academic campaigns against institutionalised racism, the other encourages SA to export reconciliation, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

Who would have ever thought that in one week there would be two academics from the same Palestinian university brought to South Africa – one by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and the other one by the Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD).

Ironically a Palestinian professor from Al-Quds University was invited by the JBD to come on a speaking tour of South Africa, while the BDS movement brought an Israeli professor from the same university for a speaking tour.

The BDS movement wanted South Africans to hear from a Jewish-born Israeli academic about why he believes that Israel is an apartheid state – the subject of a book he authored in 2003. The Zionist movement wanted to counter this narrative, which they considered unconstructive, by bringing a more moderate voice that advocated dialogue and empathy between Israelis and Palestinians, rather than boycotts and sanctions.

I first met Israeli Professor Uri Davis, who pointed out that his father was a British Jew who arrived in Jerusalem in the mid-1930s, and his mother a Jew from Czechoslovakia, whose sister and family had been killed in the death camps of Auschwitz. Davis argued that the horrors of the holocaust cannot in anyway justify what has happened to the Palestinian people.

Davis has campaigned against what he calls Israel’s institutionalised racism. He challenged South Africans to contemplate the literature available, which compares Israeli apartheid to that previously in South Africa. Palestinian Professor Mohammed Dajani, also of Al Quds University, came to South Africa with a very different message for South Africans – not to import the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to our shores, but to export our experience of reconciliation. Dajani’s philosophy is captured in the name of his movement Wasatia – meaning centrism and tolerance. Dajani advocates bringing those on the extremes to the middle in a process of unconditional dialogue.

The JBD lauded Dajani’s views that conflict can only be resolved through a process of dialogue and trust building, in which all sides learn about and understand one another’s narratives. The director of the JBD explained that this was why they had brought Dajani to South Africa.

Dajani also expressed his belief that the occupation was unsustainable, the wall would not bring security and the settlements are illegal.

Dajani remains an optimist that both sides can achieve mutual understanding. He is a great believer in truth and reconciliation processes in the midst of conflict. This is why he is taking another group of 30 Palestinian students to visit Auschwitz this year, and 30 Israeli students to a Palestinian refugee camp.

Juxtaposed against the narratives of the two Palestinian professors, was the voice of a young Palestinian boy of 15 from Hebron – Albaraa Jaber – who was brought to South Africa to tell his story in the same week. It was the realism of his narrative, depicting the daily realities of life in Hebron, which exposed the truth – that under occupation it is very difficult to reconcile.

Jaber lives on a street surrounded by Israeli settlers and soldiers, and for much of his young life he has been subjected to regular harassment by both of them, which has at times turned violent.

Jaber described his daily walk to and from school, where he is most vulnerable when walking alone. He claims it is not uncommon for settler children to attack him and his friends under the watchful eye of the Israeli soldiers. According to Jaber, when the soldiers are bored they also target Palestinian children. Once the soldiers stripped him naked and made him stand naked in the cold for 10 minutes for throwing snowballs at his friends. Other times he was allegedly kidnapped and beaten.

The Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, which accompanied him, attested to the fact that he was thrown in prison 10 times over the past six years, most times not charged with anything and released after two hours or two days. Once he was imprisoned for three months for throwing stones and endured lengthy interrogations and beatings for denying doing so. All five of his young brothers have spent time in Israeli prisons, and he has watched his mother being beaten by Israeli soldiers.

I asked him whether he thought he could ever be friends with an Israeli boy of his age. His answer was that all Israelis do military service, and he would know that a boy would eventually serve in the West Bank and likely humiliate and abuse Palestinian boys. He said he was not against Israel as a country, but against the system that forces Israelis to participate in oppressing Palestinians.

While Dajani’s message of reconciliation had resonated on the surface, hearing the realities of Jaber’s life it is difficult to imagine how reconciliation can take place in the midst of an occupation.

What did offer hope, however, was that when I asked Jaber if he thought there would ever be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, his answer was “yemken” – perhaps.

* Ebrahim is the foreign editor of Independent Newspapers

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