/ 6 November 2023

Finding words that lead to peace in Palestine and Israel

The war that has erupted in Israel and Palestine since 7 October has caught many of us off guard with the ferocity with which both sides are trying to destroy each other and its utter disregard for civilian lives. South African news coverage of Israel and Hamas highlights how nothing about the conflict is straightforward and what a difficult line we need to tread if we are to work for peace.

It has been impossible for me not to become emotionally involved in the war. I have a Palestinian PhD student named Mohammed who is at this moment struggling to survive in Gaza with his family. They have had to dodge air strikes in the night, are sick from sleeping out in the open and drinking salty water and battle every day to find food. I am relieved and grateful every time I receive a WhatsApp from Mohammed saying he is still alive.

As an Evangelical Christian, I also have a special interest in what happens in the Holy Land and brothers and sisters on both sides who share my faith. Our Muslim and Jewish neighbours also have unbreakable ties to this tiny, but crucial, sliver of ground in world history. Still, it is an oversimplification to typify this as a religious war. Part of what makes this conflict so complex is that we all have a stake in it.

Mohammed’s PhD thesis analyses the language of the BBC’s coverage of the two previous Gaza wars in 2014 and 2021. Over the years, we have worked hard to develop a perspective on the conflict that does justice to both sides. 

On our days off from the thesis, we studied the Bible and the Qur’an together. Mohammed has become my teacher about Islam and the sociopolitics of the Middle East. We end most of our conversations by saying, “I thank God for you” to each other. 

Although the opinions I express in this article are my own, I write them in his honour and in the hope that we will one day be able to write much more about how to solve this ungodly conflict.

In my database of October’s top news stories from IOL, News24 and TimesLive, “Israel” was mentioned 100 times and “Hamas” 91 times. I have analysed the words most closely associated with both these names in these articles. 

However, a critical thing about the war is that these are not equivalent opponents. Israel is a secular sovereign state; Hamas is an Islamist political party which governs the Gaza Strip but not the West Bank. Not all Palestinians support Hamas and some are appalled by its actions. This all feeds into the complexity we South Africans need to bear in mind as we talk to each other and the warring sides.

One of the two words statistically most strongly associated with Israel in the news articles is “forces”, mainly referring to the Israeli Defence Forces, but once referring to “forces in Syria” exchanging fire with Israel. One of the two words associated most strongly with Hamas is “militant”, constantly referring to the party as a “militant group”. 

Mohammed and I have spent time debating the meaning of the word “militant”. He suggested that it invokes feelings of fear and negative judgments against the militants, while I was reluctant to read those meanings into it. 

Ultimately, my analysis has convinced me that Mohammed was right; the word “militant” does work to cast Hamas as a threat and delegitimise them, while “forces” is a much more neutral term for the Israeli army.

The other word most strongly associated with Israel is “occupation”, suggesting a strong negative judgment against the Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians. Just after Hamas’s initial attacks on 7 October, the ANC said that “the actions of Palestinian Hamas militants in Israel were ‘unsurprising’  because of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land”.

The name “Palestine” carried the third strongest association with Israel because of the mentioning of the two nations’ names together, often in statements attempting to be even-handed, such as this one from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation, also from the first weekend of the war: “The region is in desperate need of a credible peace process that delivers on the calls of a plethora of previous UN resolutions for a two-state solution and a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine.

“Army” has the fourth strongest association with Israel. This is mainly because of instances where the Israeli army is used as a source of information. For example, on 11 October, “Gaza officials reported 900 people killed so far and Israel’s army said the bodies of roughly 1 500 militants had been found.” While the Israeli army has helpful information about the war, readers must always remember that it comes from one side of the conflict, and so overreliance on it might be dangerous.

The word with the fifth strongest association with Israel is “toll”. Twice this was mentioned in headlines: “Israel, Gaza reel as death toll soars above 1 100 in war with Hamas” on 9 October, and “Israel retakes Gaza border area as war’s toll mounts” on 11 October. 

In summary, the words used about Israel paint a mixed picture — they show that credence is being given to the Israeli military by news sources while reminding us of the threat they pose to Palestinians.

By contrast, all the words most strongly associated with Hamas, apart from “militant”, tell the story of a phone call that our minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor had with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and the diplomatic controversy this stirred up. 

Together with “militant”, “Ismail” had the joint strongest association with Hamas, and “Haniyeh” had the third strongest association with the party’s name. Pandor’s surname featured as the fifth strongest association in October’s news. 

As News24 reported, “Pandor’s eventual confirmation that she had spoken with Hamas senior leader Ismail Haniyeh left diplomats from other countries scrambling to answer questions from their home countries, including why they were learning of the conversation from a Hamas statement rather than from South Africa — at a very sensitive time.”

One of the reasons for this is that, as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, pointed out, “We do not have a bilateral relationship with Hamas. We have bilateral ties with the Palestinian Authority,” the secular government that controls the West Bank but not Gaza. Thus, Magwenya professed that the call to Haniyeh was “a diplomatic impossibility”, just after Pandor made it.

Hamas used Pandor’s call to claim that our government supported its 7 October attacks on Israel, dubbed by them the “Battle of Al-Aqsa Flood”. Pandor and Ramaphosa have denied this and Pandor has said that the phone call “centred on humanitarian relief for Gaza”. 

Given the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the confusion engendered by Pandor’s call to Haniyeh suggests ineptitude on the world stage and is not conducive to peace. Our government urgently needs to form a unified strategy on how to act as peace brokers in the war so that, at the very least, our different government departments are on the same page all the time. 

Both Hamas and the Israeli government have committed horrific atrocities and we only have a chance at stopping the atrocities if we talk to both sides. So, from a moral standpoint, talking to Hamas is not a bad idea, as long as we are talking to the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government too. 

It has often been pointed out that with our beautiful history of reconciliation, South Africa is well-equipped to act as a mediator in the conflict. However, we can only do that if we keep doing a delicate diplomatic dance to maintain that status. 

As was recently suggested in the Mail & Guardian, our strategy should be to do what it takes to bring all sides to the negotiating table so that a ceasefire can be reached as soon as possible. Doing that will require a keen sense of the complexities of our position in relation to Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the rest of the world — and probably a few miracles too. It’s a good thing I believe in miracles.

My friendship with Mohammed has underscored the importance of getting to know and love people with vastly different backgrounds and beliefs and understanding why they hold the positions they do. 

That is the way to peace in all the wars we face, whether they be culture wars or ones in which actual bombs are being thrown. As the Hebrew scriptures — which Jews, Christians and Muslims hold sacred — say, we all need to “turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”.