Last month’s visit of a high-level Hamas delegation to this country was a distinct coup for local Islamist activists, who have long been pushing for South Africa to recognise the hardline Palestine grouping as a legitimate freedom movement, essentially no different from the ANC. Whether the visit has helped to ameliorate Hamas’s international image, or whether it represents just one more stage in South Africa’s plummeting standing as a credible moral voice, remains to be seen. For Hamas, though, it was a breakthrough.
The Hamas delegation pretty much told their hosts what they wanted to hear. The issue, they insisted, was about ending “the occupation” so that Palestinians could live with freedom and dignity in their own land. Naturally, there were no uncomfortable references to violently destroying Israel and replacing it with a state run along fundamentalist Islamic lines, nor to how Hamas looks forward to fulfilling the prophecy of killing every Jew in the world on the “great day of judgment”. This sort of thing is for the domestic market, and is consistently instilled in Hamas followers. Internationally, though, this won’t fly – even with countries that have little love for Israel.
So does the whole vexed Israeli-Palestinian issue come down to “it’s the occupation, stupid”? Yes, according to Suraya Dadoo, whose organisation, the Media Review Network, was centrally involved in bringing about the Hamas visit (Hamas committed to a just solution).
The question arises, though, as to whether Hamas’s definition of what constitutes the occupation is the same as that of the South African government. Does it refer simply to those territories captured by Israel in June 1967, in which there remains an Israeli military presence? This would appear to include the West Bank but exclude the Gaza Strip, from which Israel conducted a complete military withdrawal in 2005. Does it, in fact, still include Gaza, a territory still subjected to an Israeli blockade by land, air and sea (and, by Egypt too, on land)? Or does Hamas ultimately regard the whole of the state of Israel as “occupied territory” that must be “liberated” in its entirety?
Frequent demands are made that Israel end its “siege” of Gaza. A siege, however, is conducted against a particular entity – a fortress, a city, even a country – with the object of forcing one’s way inside and gaining control. Yet Israel’s blockade of Gaza is aimed not at breaking in but at keeping out armed militants intent on carrying out lethal attacks against Israeli citizens. There is nothing in international law that forbids a sovereign state from imposing a blockade against an avowedly hostile territory – indeed, the opposite is the case.
It is therefore untrue that Hamas’s campaign of violence against Israel is aimed at forcing it to lift its blockade; it is the persistent violence on Hamas’s part that is responsible for the blockade in the first place.
That Israel’s continued military presence in the West Bank is a bad thing and should be ended as soon as possible is all but universally accepted, including by a substantial majority of Israelis. But this cannot happen until adequate assurances are provided that the vacated territory will not be used for attacks against Israel proper.
In this, the culpability of Hamas in preventing an end to the occupation cannot be overstated. When Israel decided, without preconditions, to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza 10 years ago, it opened a rare window of opportunity that could, in due course, have led to a withdrawal from most of the West Bank as well.
Instead, Hamas chose to use its newly acquired freedom to carry out a bombardment of Israeli cities, not to mention building infiltration tunnels into Israel proper through which to carry out attacks. In light of how the Gaza withdrawal turned out, Israel has put on the back burner any thoughts of following a similar course with the West Bank, and no reasonable person can blame it for that.
Actually, Gaza is occupied, not by Israel but by a tyrannical Islamist regime that ruthlessly imposes its will on a captive, voiceless population. Since gaining control of the territory, Hamas has violated every conceivable democratic norm, most starkly perhaps in the area of religious freedom. In the light of such undeniable on-the-ground realities, the ANC’s credulous acceptance of Hamas’s assurances that all it seeks is a democratic state with equal rights for all its inhabitants defies rational explanation.
The real problem is that Hamas does indeed apply the term “occupation”, not just to Gaza and the West Bank but also to all of Israel. It believes that the entire land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, as with all territories forcibly conquered by Islam, is an inalienable Islamic endowment whose reconquest is a religious obligation. South Africa needs to acknowledge these realities if it is to make any contribution to getting the peace process under way again.
David Saks is the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies