Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lifting Zionism's cloak

The Palestinians suffer from exactly the same kind of exclusion and discrimination as did black South Africans before the end of the apartheid regime, writes Shafiq Morton* from Cape Town

The other day a mainstream newspaper published a piece I wrote exhorting Israelis to throw off the cloak of Zionism. They had to do this, I said, to see the integrity of recent Palestinian efforts towards unity, negotiation and peaceful statehood. Egyptian-brokered efforts endorsed by Syria to bring Hamas and Fatah together after a four-year impasse had met with some success, especially after Turkey's intervention in May this year.

I also said that the recent Arab Spring had changed the face of the Middle East. In the same way the Arab street had lost its fear of dictators, it was now equally unfazed by Israel. The diplomatic stage would never be the same again, and subservient actors such as Egypt's former vice- president Omar Suleiman were no longer on the scene.

In my piece, I pointed out too that informed commentary on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict always made the critical distinction between Zionism and Judaism. Zionism was purely an ethnic, political ideology. To interrogate Zionism, therefore, was not anti-Semitic. It was an act of political discourse.

I expected to be inundated by angry letter writers, vituperative SMSs and tweets after my article appeared. I don't know whether the newspaper's editors protected me, but the few responses that came in on the letters page were fairly subdued.

Whilst I would argue that most of the points made against me missed the point, the main objection seemed to be my portrayal of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. I had quoted Meshaal as saying that Hamas was prepared to negotiate a settlement based on the 1967 territories being unoccupied, and I suggested that this was for Hamas a de facto acknowledgement of the State of Israel as a "political reality."

In fact, in 2008 Meshaal had told former US president Jimmy Carter that Hamas would countenance Israel as a "neighbour" if Palestinians were allowed to live in peace. But instead of the critical subtleties being embraced, the blind panic of ideological fear-mongering began. I was blithely accused of "dishonesty" and a litany of Meshaal statements were trotted out, most of them dating back to 2007, trying to prove that he was an aggressor trying to blast Jews off every inch of Palestine.

This would have been amusing had my detractors not been so wide of the mark. For before his assassination in Gaza in 2004, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the bête noire of Israel, had been hinting that Hamas could accommodate an "interim" Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. And before Israeli assassins killed him too, Yassin's successor Abdel-Aziz Rantisi told me that Hamas fully understood the differences between Zionism and Judaism.

The organisation had no qualm about dealing with peaceful Jews, he said. It is my view that this was one of the reasons why both Yassin and Rantisi were murdered by the Israelis: all this talk of a Hamas rapprochement didn't fit the right-wing Israeli script of telling US presidents it couldn't talk to an unaccommodating "terrorist" organisation. Meshaal's standpoint, then, was fully in line with party thinking, something reiterated to me when I was an election observer in Gaza in 2006.

It was also said that the old chestnut of the Hamas Charter "was not the Quran". In other words, it was not regarded as something that was written in stone. These were all subtleties that I could not expect my detractors to understand. Nor could I hope that they would appreciate Meshaal's undertaking in Cairo to honour UN resolutions on Palestine, as well as international law and a collective redefinition of Palestinian resistance, which would mean that rocket attacks from Gaza would have to cease.

This pathological distrust of Hamas -- a key player in the Middle East peace process whether Israel, the US or anybody else likes it or not -- is, of course, hugely reminiscent of the apartheid era in the early 1980s in South Africa. This was a period when to mention dialogue with anti- apartheid movements such as the ANC, Azapo or the PAC would make the Afrikaner establishment choke on its sausages.

The propaganda of the ANC being a red- communist-terrorist threat was as absolute and entrenched as the current image of Hamas as being irrational, unreasonable and extreme. Israelis and Zionist apparatchiks in South Africa hate to be reminded of this, as much as they detest being reminded that Zionism is apartheid.

And this brings up another issue: the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which will have its third sitting in South Africa in November this year. Its focus will be on the matter of apartheid being a crime against humanity. I can almost hear the clamour of indignation already. But then the Tribunal nay-sayers, as they proclaim that Israel is not like South Africa, will forget an important point. They will forget that apartheid is no longer a specific term, and that it has become a generic classification of ethnic discrimination anywhere in the world.

They will have to realise that South Africa, as bad as it was during apartheid, did not declare herself to be a "white republic." Israel, on the other hand, has openly declared itself to be a "Jewish state". For indigenous Arab Christians, Muslims and Jews this is a geographical and political apartheid that excludes them from their identities as Palestinians.

And whilst Zionist apologists will whinge about that, it is exactly the same kind of exclusion black South Africans felt when they were denied citizenship of the land of their birth by the Nationalist Government in South Africa in the 1960s and confined to Bantustans on less than 20 per cent of the land.

* The writer is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station in South Africa.

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