05 August 2008 - South African human rights delegation ignores peace process, endorses "non-violent struggle"
The concluding statement of the South African human rights delegation that recently traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories has been excerpted and published in the South African press today.
It makes absolutely no reference to the ongoing peace process, and says nothing about the two-state solution, which evidently the members of the group couldn't agree on. Instead, the declaration endorses the "small movement of Palestinian-Israeli joint non-violent struggle."
It is a rather forgettable document. But if nothing else, the recent South African "fact-finding" mission to Israel and the West Bank will be remembered for its astounding speed.
The participants arrived on a Sunday and left before the end of the week, having discovered the truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in just a few short days--a truth that has mysteriously eluded Israelis and Palestinians themselves for decades.
Their task was made easier by the fact that most of the participants had declared their conclusions well in advance.
Only a month before, for example, mission organizer Doron Isaacs had called on Nadine Gordimer to boycott a writers' conference in Israel. Mondli Makhanya, editor of the Sunday Times and fact-finding delegate, had previously declared Israel to be "one of the world's most oppressive regimes," though he had never been to the region and had little knowledge of it save for his own prejudices. Yet another participant, Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign, had spoken out against Israel on several occasions. In 2006, for example, he co-signed a letter blaming Israel for the human tragedy of the Second Lebanon War--and saying nothing about Hezbollah, which started the war and shelled Israeli civilians throughout, with the intent of killing as many as possible.
The participants saw what they expected to see. Theirs was a fact-finding mission in the narrowest sense--a scavenger hunt, a propaganda pilgrimage on which the faithful ticked off stations on the Via Dolorosa of Palestinian suffering.
I know, because I have been to the same places, on the same tours, with many of the same guides. I have visited the security barrier in the West Bank near Bethlehem and in East Jerusalem. Last summer, I walked through the divided city of Hebron on a tour organized by Breaking the Silence, one of the groups that guided the South African mission. I even worked as a legal intern for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, learning firsthand about the daily suffering of Palestinians and the positive role played by the Israeli judiciary in upholding human rights.
I saw many things that troubled me deeply--such as the home of a Palestinian man in Hebron who could not enter and leave through the front door because Israeli soldiers had set up a guard post on his street. I saw the terrible effects of conflict and extremism on both sides, and I witnessed suffering that cannot be explained away.
But I also saw how some guides carefully selected the "facts" they served up to gullible foreign visitors--translating anti-Arab graffiti in the Hebron market, for example, to show how hateful Israelis could be, while ignoring pro-peace slogans scrawled in Hebrew on the same walls.
I saw how some human rights activists found it convenient to forget that there are two sides to the conflict when they played to foreign audiences eager to experience righteous outrage against the Jewish state.
I have also been to places that the South Africa fact-finding mission did not go--the border communities near Gaza, for example, where Israeli civilians have suffered thousands of rocket attacks in the past several years, and where many struggle with post-traumatic stress as a result. I have been to the bomb shelters of the north, where Arab and Jewish children cowered together during the war as Hezbollah rockets rained down on their homes. I met a university official in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Akko--a Jewish man, who wept as he recalled attending the funeral of an Arab student killed by a Hezbollah rocket. The mourners had scattered from the gravesite as the air raid sirens signaled yet another attack.
These were facts the mission did not find, because they were not looking for them. Would it have hurt to spend a morning with the shell-shocked residents of Sderot? Or to pay a visit to the Jerusalem yeshiva whose calm was shattered earlier this year by an Arab terrorist who killed eight students and wounded fifteen others as they read the Jewish holy books?
Or would such detours have forced the fact-finding mission to reconsider their prefabricated opinions, and to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the complex phenomenon it is?
It may not matter, in the end, what the South African mission saw or did--fact-finding missions are shekel-a-dozen in Israel, anyway. It was a parliamentary fact-finding mission back in July 2001 that created the backdrop for Minister Ronnie Kasrils's "declaration of conscience." The debate in South Africa about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not progressed much since then.
In the West Bank, I've found that what you conclude depends on the questions you dare to ask, as well as who you ask. The city of Hebron, for example, which the fact-finding mission visited, is split between Arabs and Jews, with the Palestinian Authority controlling most of the area. Did the fact-finding mission ask why this is so? Did the delegates bother to study the Hebron Agreement of 1997? Did they ask about the suicide bombing of 2003? The bloodshed of years before?
It is interesting to note the presence of a large contingent of Treatment Action Campaign activists on the mission. It reminds me of an episode during our breakaway visit to the West Bank with B'Tselem. On the drive back to Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide peppered us with questions about life in post-apartheid South Africa.
He seemed especially interested in the HIV/Aids pandemic, and as a committed human rights activist, he had a rather bizarre suggestion to offer: "You should put all the people with Aids in a separate city, all by themselves," he declared earnestly. "That way, they won't be able to infect everybody else." His Israeli counterparts were horrified: "A concentration camp?" one asked indignantly.
It was a stark reminder to us of how difficult it is for even human rights activists to see beyond their narrow, particular experiences and perspectives.
The reality that has emerged for me from my visits to the West Bank is that Israel is far from perfect, but at least it has human rights organizations that are able to operate freely. On the Palestinian side, there is no comparable human rights culture. Only a handful of activists--such as Bassem Eid, who left B'Tselem to become the first to document the Palestinian Authority's abuses against its own people--are brave enough to speak out and face the danger of arrest or violent reprisal by Palestinian groups.
Indeed, the handful of gay rights activists on the South African mission seem not to have bothered to inquire about the fact that there is no gay rights movement to speak of in the West Bank and Gaza. There, homosexuality is brutally repressed, as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. Gay and lesbian Palestinians move to Israel if they can--it is the one place in the Middle East where they can enjoy freedom.
Such realities were ignored by the fact-finding mission. Last month, Isaacs dismissed Nadine Gordimer's visit with Palestinians in Ramallah as "not an appropriate way to engage with the harsh reality of occupation." Apparently the only facts that count are those that can be manipulated to blame Israel for the conflict.
But as Eid told me in his office in East Jerusalem last year, Israel is not the problem. The real stumbling block is the failure of Palestinians to build a successful state and stable civil society institutions--a failure that has everything to do with political will, and little to do with Israeli occupation, since it has persisted even after full Israeli withdrawals.
Nation-building is where the South African mission could have offered some useful advice to Palestinians. But then, of course, there's plenty of trouble with nation-building back home--what with foreigners being burned in the streets and thousands pushed out of their homes into makeshift refugee camps. Perhaps Israel should send a fact-finding mission to South Africa.