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Op-eds

What to make of South Africa welcoming Israel-Hamas ceasefire

  • Steven Gruzd
On Thursday last week, the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation Dirco) issued a statement welcoming the halt to two days of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Interpreting these terse statements is like reading tea leaves. What is not said can matter the most. Dirco’s apparently measured tone deserves closer scrutiny.
by STEVEN GRUZD | Nov 22, 2018

The department’s full statement read: “The South African government welcomes the ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Palestine and Israel following two days of Israel’s aerial attacks on Gaza. This latest flare-up is the worst since the 50-day conflict in 2014.

“We call for maximum restraint and express the hope that there will be no renewed escalation in Gaza or in any of the occupied Palestinian territories.

“We reiterate our view that there can be no military solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict.

“The goodwill displayed by both parties to the ceasefire is a positive and welcome development that should serve as a catalyst in resuming the long-stalled Middle East peace process, leading to a two-state solution with the people of the state of Israel living in peace and harmony with the people of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

What can we divine from this brief statement?

First, there is no mention of the 460 rockets fired by Hamas in Gaza into Israel. It talks only of “two days of Israel’s aerial attacks” and not what provoked them. Israel is once again cast as the villain and “Palestine” as the innocent victim. Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and much of the West, is not even mentioned. No surprises from South Africa here.

Second, the statement hopes for “no renewed escalation in Gaza or in any of the occupied Palestinian territories”. Does it mean the West Bank? East Jerusalem? The Golan Heights? Some see all of Israel as illegitimately occupying “Palestine”, the entire area from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This vagueness plays into that narrative.

Third, the statement is consistent with South Africa’s long-held support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that peace negotiations must resume. But it never mentions that the state of Israel should be a Jewish state, rejecting all notions of an ethnic-based political system.

Fourth, it calls for “peace and harmony” between Israel and “an independent, sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 4 June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital”. These “borders”, really the ceasefire lines on the eve of the Six-Day War, would certainly need to be negotiated in any bilateral settlement. Decades of United States-led proposals have advocated “land swaps” to incorporate the major Jewish settlement blocs currently in the West Bank into any redrawn Israeli frontiers. The two-state solution is increasingly remote, though. Even US President Donald Trump has said that the parties themselves must choose two states or one state.

Finally, Dirco roundly rejects the American recognition of a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The tone may be more tempered than the vicious broadside delivered against Israel in May over the Gaza-fence violence, but ultimately, South Africa’s views on the conflict, who is to blame, and the means of resolution have not changed in substance.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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