Women tell the true story of Israel-Palestine war

Going nowhere: Palestinians make a shelter from the salvaged remains of an encampment at Makhul, in the Jordan Valley, which was razed by the Israeli army in September last year.(AFP)

Going nowhere: Palestinians make a shelter from the salvaged remains of an encampment at Makhul, in the Jordan Valley, which was razed by the Israeli army in September last year.(AFP)

Half-jokingly, international author Victoria Brittain is told that some in her audience hope to recruit her to the "second struggle – we call it the class struggle". The author’s "first struggle", her credentials related to her fight against apartheid, as a journalist and activist, are well known in South Africa.

Politely, but knowingly, she laughs at the suggestion.

About 40 activists, scholars and Brittain fans are crammed into a small cottage at the University of Johannesburg’s Bunting Road Research Village on a warm Monday night.

Brittain speaks with authority; her tone is measured. She has covered wars from Vietnam to Angola and is a patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in the United Kingdom.

Brittain is here to talk about her book, The Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror.
Former minister for intelligence services Ronnie Kasrils leads the conversation. Brittain is a veteran writer of war stories and Kasrils leads her straight to Palestine.

She says the way to write about war isn’t to talk to the generals; it’s to talk to the women, and the refugees.

"If you want to convey texture, the true horror of Palestine, tell the story of the women and children."

In the Jordan Valley, she visited families living in tents.

"I asked my friend if they were Bedouin," Brittain said, but she discovered instead that they were displaced Palestinians, whose lives were characterised by the checkpoints, the raids, the weekly demolition of Palestinian homes – if the word "home" belonged in the Jordan Valley at all.

It is these tents, these homes, that are the site of the true Palestinian resistance, she says. Take the family whose home had been destroyed four times in two weeks. Here are a husband and wife who have sent their seven children away. The father said the decision was "agony" but he hoped that his daughters would one day be "educated enough to know they need to stay on their land".

Shadow Lives is an "unintentional" Palestinian story, Brittain says. The book also canvasses the women who wait at home while their Yemeni or Afghan husbands waste away inside a cell at Guantánamo Bay.

The audience is engrossed and the conversation turns quickly to questions about "what is to be done".

Aid organisations are well intentioned and deliver a lifeline to many, Brittain starts. But aid workers "seemed helpless when the tents came down", Brittain says – a "tiny symbol" of their impotency.

She segues easily into the impotence of the international community, starting with United States Secretary of State John Kerry and his much-mooted "framework peace accord".

On this point there is consensus: if Kerry’s dream involves perpetual Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley, it falls short of being a plan worth mooting.

Brittain turns her attention to US President Barack Obama, Guantán­amo Bay and the wives of the men imprisoned without charge. And Yemen. "How unthinkable is that? I mean, can you even imagine? A president who kills people! He kills people at will!" she said, incredulous.

An irate activist interjects, shouting: "And this university gave him an honorary doctorate!"

The room turns its attention inwards, to the state of South African activism. And, with that, the gathering loses consensus.

One by one the audience begins an assessment of the Palestinian solidarity movement: We have no leadership we can relate to. We differ from the anti-apartheid movement because we are not united. We see Palestine through the sterile prism of global humanitarianism and we exert no pressure on the world to change the discourse back to one of broader class struggle.

But it is not as if South Africa has done nothing about Palestine. On February 6, Parliament’s portfolio committee on international relations held a conference in support of Cuba, Palestine and Western Sahara. Some documents were signed by all but a few MPs and it is hoped this will soon graduate to the Cabinet’s agenda.

In 2012, Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim attempted to clarify the Cabinet’s stance. South Africa continues to support international efforts to find a lasting, peaceful, two-state solution, he said. South Africa will not stop its officials from visiting Israel, as this would infringe on their rights to freedom of movement and association.

But South Africa was "concerned" about high-profile and government delegations visiting Israel, "as it gives legitimacy to Israel[’s] occupation of Palestine land".

Yet the audience is not satisfied. The ANC lobbied the world for sanctions against the apartheid government. Why won’t it lobby for sanctions against Israel?

Enter Aziz Pahad, the former deputy minister for foreign affairs, who, it seems, can bite his tongue no longer. "We can’t impose solutions on Palestine," he says. "If we are genuinely committed to the Palestinian cause, we have to ask ourselves, how do we mobilise against the powerful Israeli lobby? We have not mobilised en masse …"

But we have lobbied hard within the ruling party for sanctions, is the gist of the rebuttal from Wits associate professor Salim Vally.

But could it be that a broader problem exists within the Palestinian solidarity movement, some audience members wondered aloud. That the Palestinian struggle can’t be divorced from broader class struggles the world over, and to view it in isolation is to fundamentally misdiagnose its cause?

Brittain agrees. This is why, she predicts, the site of Palestinian resistance will remain there in those homes, with those forgotten women and children.


SA and Israel have relationship issues

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, told the Mail & Guardian this week that the "majority" of South Africans want Israel and South Africa to have a good relationship, and this is in South Africa’s interests. 

Relations between the two countries are good, Lenk said, although, admittedly, they could be better. 

Trade is healthy, and Israel receives delegations from South Africa without much fuss.

"It doesn’t suit South Africa not to have a relationship with Israel." He described the relationship between the two countries: "At it’s core, we have more in common than not." 

Asked whether South Africa puts any pressure on Israel to end the Palestinian occupation, formally or informally, Lenk said: "When I meet South African officials, we discuss a range of issues, and I think it’s fair to say that they are committed to helping us find a peaceful solution, and I think that’s a good thing.

"There are key lessons from [Nelson] Mandela that can be useful to us during the negotiations, and South Africa is uniquely placed to use its strengths in that regard.

"In your case, you needed to get married, blacks and whites. In our case, we need to get divorced," he said. — Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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