Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

Open letter to South African Ambassador to Israel, Fumanekile Gqiba

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About Maurice Ostroff
in response to his interview with Haaretz

August 17, 2004 PM

To H.E Ambassador, Major General Fumanekile Gqiba
From Maurice Ostroff

Dear Ambassador Gqiba,

As a South African living in Israel, with strong emotional ties to my former home, I read your interview in Ha’aaretz with great interest and I am writing to extend a warm welcome to Israel. Having come from an apartheid hating background, I respect all you stand for as a founder-member of the ANC's Department of Religious Affairs and your service as Chaplain General of the SANDF.  I appreciate the frank manner in which you expressed your views and I trust you will not mind my offering a slightly different perspective, from that which is prevalent in the media.

When I lived in South Africa,  many colleagues and I did whatever we could to protest the apartheid monstrosity in our own small way. As an ex-serviceman of World War 2  I became an active member of the radical ex-serviceman's  Springbok Legion.  With its nearly 60,000 members including a large number of Jews, the legion was probably the first mass movement of whites promoting the liberation of Blacks.  I now live in the South African retirement home Beth Protea, which I hope you will soon visit. If and when, you do, you will meet our manager Lyn Lochoff who remembers clearly, the trauma she suffered as a child when the dreaded security police called on her father, Issy Isacowitz who was “named” for his anti-apartheid activities. Her uncle, the late Jock Isacowitz, one of the founders of the Springbok Legion was jailed by the security police and died prematurely as a result of his treatment.

At one time, the legion became involved in street politics when fighting broke out periodically in central Johannesburg between our members and violent Black-Shirt supporters of the apartheid government.  I was also a member of the Torch Commando led by fighter-pilot Sailor Malan and Louis Kane-Berman, which organised thousands of white South Africans in torch-bearing protests against the National Party's decision to disenfranchise coloureds.
 
While studying at University of Witwatersrand I joined the left-wing Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS) and participated in student demonstrations which were often broken up by the police and I risked arrest by entering Soweto to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to underprivileged Black adults who showed an amazing enthusiasm. Women friends were active in the Black Sash movement. .

I mention the above background to indicate the extent to which I understand some of the views which you expressed in the interview.

Trade and Armaments
You stated sir, that Israel was once "part and parcel of the old regime in South Africa. With great respect, I believe that this common misconception is due to ignorance and laziness on the part of many journalists and in some cases deliberate media bias. For example,
Israel is widely accused of having been out of step with international trends by continuing to trade with South Africa in the eighties. Yet in 1986, while apartheid was suffering worldwide opprobrium, South Africa’s main trading partners were,  U.S.A. - $3.4 billion, Japan - $2.9 billion, Germany-  $2.8 billion, U.K. - $2.6 billion. In defending Britain’s position at the time, Sir Alec Douglas Home referred to Britain's heavy investment in South Africa and the strategic importance of  naval facilities at Simonstown.

By comparison, Israel’s puny $0.2 billion total trade with South Africa amounted to less than 1% of South Africa's total trade.

The ANC’s resentment of Israel’s supplying arms to the apartheid government is fully justified. The puzzle however, is why the resentment continues to smoulder, selectively, only against Israel while the main suppliers of weaponry, France, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Italy, India, Belgium, Taiwan and the United States  have been forgiven. So too, have other material supporters of apartheid South Africa been forgiven. The apartheid regime could have been brought to its knees much earlier, had its oil supply been cut off. All of its $2 billion annual oil import came from Arab states, mainly Saudi Arabia. A  $1 billion barter deal was concluded with Iran, exchanging weapons from South Africa’s own armaments producers in exchange for oil. A similar deal for $750 million was concluded with Iraq. Is it not strange that none of these countries are judged by the same yardstick as applied to Israel. 

Training Programmes for Blacks in Israel during the apartheid era
Israel  receives no credit at all for its little known, ongoing program in Israel during the apartheid era, organized by the Histadrut and frowned on by the South African government,  to train Black South Africans in leadership  agriculture and organization.
 
The Center for International Cooperation ("MASHAV") of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has over the years carried out capacity-building and technology-transfer activities in 30 different African countries.  Some of the courses were carried out at several teaching and training facilities in Israel.  Others were conducted in the relevant countries, including long-term agricultural projects,  The “He-atid” programme also continues to organize training sessions in Israel for Black middle managers.

The ANC, the PLO  and Hamas
While the ANC’s empathy with the Palestinians is a natural and understandable result of having been comrades in arms, the commonality ends there.  Indeed the Palestinian people deserve a better life, but they have been unfortunate in lacking leadership of the caliber of Nelson Mandela. Who can doubt that, had Yasser Arafat possessed Mandela’s qualities, he and Ehud Barak,  would have achieved a satisfactory peace agreement?

Unfortunately, the philosophy and outlook of the ANC is vastly different from the Islamic based policies of the PLO and Hamas. The lofty aims of the ANC’s Freedom Charter bears no similarity whatsoever, to the hate-filled PLO and Hamas covenants. While the ANC Charter states “South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation - not war” article 9 of the PLO Charter declares bluntly that the armed struggle is not merely tactical,  it is the overall strategy. Article 19 rejects outright, the 1947 UN partition of Palestine, implying that liberating Palestine means destruction of the entire Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are unashamedly deemed null and void in article 20.
 
The Hamas charter makes it even clearer that there is absolutely no room for peaceful negotiation. Article 13 unambiguously states “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”.  That this attitude remains a guiding principle of Hamas was confirmed by the late Hamas leader Dr. Rantisi who told NY Times journalist Joel Binkley in April 2003, “We in Hamas believe peace talks will do no good. We do not believe we can live with the enemy."  Mahmoud al-Zahar told Binkley with a smile.. "Forty were killed and 200 injured in just two operations.," Removing doubt about a distinction between the political and military wing of Hamas, Dr. Rantisi, said that, to generate attacks, he makes public statements that are heard by his followers.

The imaginative irrationality of the Hamas concept, so different from the sober tone of the ANC Charter,  is illustrated by obsessive phobia about freemasons, rotary clubs, Lions and similar organizations, promising that the day Islam is in control, these organizations, will be obliterated. These groups are accused of everything from control of the world media, stirring the French Revolution, the Communist revolution, World War I and even of forming the League of Nations. They are alleged to have been behind World War II, and instigating replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council.  I believe you will confirm sir, that this type of irrational hate, had, and still has, no place in ANC thinking.  Nor would the ANC tolerate the type of incitement to violence which has been emanating for years from the mosques and PA controlled media and taught in schools from the earliest age.

May I hope sir, that with your impeccable credentials as a former commander in Umkhonto We Sizwe, you will be able to introduce into the Middle East, some of the ANC’s  concept of reconciliation and love of humanity as expressed so eloquently by  the late Chief Albert Luthuli, even after the massacre at Sharpeville in 1961 when he was quoted as saying

"How easy it would have been in South Africa for the natural feelings of resentment at white domination to have been turned into feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge against the white community. Here, where every day in every aspect of life, every non-white comes up against the ubiquitous sign, "Europeans Only," and the equally ubiquitous policeman to enforce it - here it could well be expected that a racialism equal to that of their oppressors would flourish to counter the white arrogance towards blacks.

That it has not done so is no accident. It is because, deliberately and advisedly, African leadership for the past 50 years, with the inspiration of the African National Congress which I had the honour to lead for the last decade or so until it was banned, had set itself steadfastly against racial vain-gloriousness."

Sincerely

Maurice Ostroff

Ha’aretz - August 2, 2004

Interview with South Africvan Ambassador Gqiba

`It's a myth that we are anti-Israel'

 

By Peter Hirschberg

 

South Africa's new ambassador in Tel Aviv says he's serious about rebuilding the relationship between the two countries, but says the onus is on Israel.

 

Major General Fumanekile Gqiba unhesitatingly confesses he had absolutely no desire to come to Israel. He was ready, he says, "to go anywhere in the world, but not Israel."

 

The preference of the new South African ambassador has nothing to do with the fact that some of "the technology used by the apartheid regime was supplied by Israel." Nor, that he "rubbed shoulders" with the Palestinians as "comrades in the liberation movement" when he was in exile.

 

After 30 years of struggling to free his own country of white minority rule, the chaplain general of the South African defense forces, who was picked by President Thabo Mbeki as his country's new ambassador to Israel, did not want to land up in another conflict-ridden region. "I wanted to relax. I thought these conflict situations for me were over. I've done my time. I wanted to be like any ordinary ambassador - relaxing, enjoying life with your family. But," he grins, "as a disciplined member of the ANC, I said `I'll give it a go.' And here I am."

 

This undiplomatic admission is not a momentary slip of the tongue. The diminutive, straight-talking former commander in Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, is not fettered by the carefully constructed utterances of career diplomats cautious not to offend. He has been dispatched by his president to build a new relationship with Israel, but the government of Israel, he emphasizes, should not "question our relationship with the Palestinians" and must remember that Israel was once "part and parcel of the old regime [in South Africa]. They supported them until the last. So they cannot overnight expect us to be kissing their cheeks. We have to build the relationship. And it's a two-way thing. We are serious about building this relationship, which was damaged by them, not by us."

 

His views on the West Bank separation fence, disengagement, Yasser Arafat and on young Israelis who refuse to serve in the territories are equally candid. But he is unwaveringly critical too, when quizzed about the manner in which the Palestinians are waging their struggle.

 

Gqiba's appointment - he submitted his credentials in late July - is meant to signal South Africa's desire to play a role in helping unlock the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a recognition that this means engaging the government in power, even if it is headed by the Likud. Unlike his predecessors, who were all members of the diplomatic corps in the old South Africa, Gqiba is a member of the ruling ANC with credentials in the liberation struggle. In other words, an insider.

 

The new ambassador's access to the president and the foreign minister, says one South African official, shows "we are taking the crisis seriously and we think we will be able to help. This conflict will continue to create lots of tension between us, but the new ambassador will be good in helping to manage these tensions. His military background will enable him to understand the talk about security concerns. We have sent a clear signal to the Israelis. Now, will they respond positively?"

 

Israeli officials don't seem pressed to respond at all. It is Gqiba, they say, who must prove his country is able to see beyond its historical relationship with the Palestinians.

 

South Africa, they add, often sponsors resolutions critical of Israel at the UN. It also submitted an opinion on the separation fence to the International Court of Justice asserting that the barrier was a disproportionate response to "occasional and irregular attacks by lone operators."

 

When Yitzhak Rabin was leading the Oslo process in the mid-1990s, relations with the ANC, which had just won the first non-racial election in South Africa, improved dramatically. But since the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, and the ascendance of Ariel Sharon, relations have been frosty.

 

Sharon and Mbeki have met at least once, in Washington, but the meeting failed to produce any chemistry. Since Sharon took office over three years ago, not a single minister in his government has made an official visit to South Africa. Neither has a South African minister made an official visit to Israel during this period. The Israelis who have traveled to South Africa as guests of the government have been mainly left-wing politicians and peace activists. (Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to become the first minister in the Sharon government to visit South Africa, in October.)

 

Sitting in his office on the 16th floor of Dizengoff Tower in Tel Aviv, flanked by a gray-bearded Mbeki peering out of a frame on the wall and a South African flag, Gqiba announces that his government wants to engage the right-wing government of Ariel Sharon. "I always say revolutions have stages," he says. "We feel we need to move further now. We want to talk to Sharon. This is the next stage. I expect more ministers to come here. I'm working on this. It's a myth that we are anti-Israel. We want to prove we're not. We want to share our experience with Israel. We are not going to impose. We're not saying `Do this because we did it.' We want to be partners with them toward the goal of peace."

 

But, he adds, it must be remembered that "we were once a liberation movement. We rubbed shoulders with the Palestinians. They were our comrades in the liberation movement. And that relationship is still there. It is our moral duty to continue with that. But our relationship with the Palestinians is a strategic one that ultimately will benefit the State of Israel."

 

`Never kill civilians'

 

For all his empathy with the Palestinians, and the role he played in his own armed struggle, Gqiba rebukes the Palestinians for the manner in which they are waging theirs. "Today, we are the only country, on moral grounds, which is able to say to the Palestinians, `You guys, we don't think your strategy of using suicide bombers is justified.' It is terrorism. It is not accepted by international law. It has nothing to do with the military code. We have said this openly. We don't support suicide bombings. We are clear on this.

 

"The military aspect of the struggle cannot become an end in itself. It has to be a means to a political goal. Whatever we did on the military side was to force the regime toward the ultimate goal - the political one, of negotiation. That's where the difference is. We were led by politicians. Not the military leading the struggle. The military element must not become an end in itself ... For the Palestinians, the military element has become the thing. The Palestinians need to pause. Every bomb that kills civilians is counterproductive [for them]. It undermines them. At this point, they should say, `We need to sit down. We need to talk.'"

 

During its campaign against the white government, the ANC directed its armed actions almost exclusively at military and infrastructure targets. The number of civilian casualties in armed operations was very low. "We were told, `Never, never kill civilians.' We used to say, `If you do, you will face a firing squad.' That's how we understood it. The aim was political and not military mobilization. With the Palestinians, the military dimension has become too dominant. Their targets are wrong. You cannot target civilians. We cannot support that."

 

What about striking at Israeli military targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

 

Gqiba: "I don't want to be part and parcel of this war. I don't want to be involved. I want to end it. If the two sides do decide to fight, then it must be military versus military. It must not be against civilians.

 

"I have a young daughter and a young son here. When they go to any restaurant I want them to feel free. Not to be afraid of bombs. But at the same time the State of Israel should not target civilians. Collective punishment is totally unacceptable. How do you destroy a whole family. You destroy houses just because one person there belongs to the liberation movement, is a guerrilla. They're creating enemies. Both sides have lost the moral high ground. It's an eye for an eye. It's madness and they have to stop it."

 

Drawing again on the South African experience, Gqiba raps Israel for isolating Yasser Arafat. "If you want peace in this part of the world you need to talk to the Palestinians as equal partners. Don't talk to them as juniors. And you don't impose leaders. Everybody [here] hates Arafat. But we want to warn them, that this is exactly what the racist regime [in South Africa] used to say. They couldn't talk to Mandela because he was a terrorist. In the end, they were forced to talk to him. As long as Arafat is the elected leader, as long as he is accepted by the Palestinians, you must talk to him."

 

Many Israelis believe Arafat is no longer a partner because he is not prepared to make the compromises necessary for a two-state solution. That his ultimate goal is to wipe out the State of Israel.

 

"People are criticizing the PA, but Arafat is still part of the leadership. He has been elected by the people there. Let them go to elections and elect a new leader. But at this point in time Arafat is the leader and the Israeli state should not try to marginalize him. He is a prisoner. How do you ask a prisoner to take charge of security? It is better to negotiate with the devil you know. Arafat is part of the solution, not of the problem ... He recognizes the State of Israel. They must empower him."

 

Israelis say that if only there were a Palestinian Mandela, there would have been peace by now. What do you think?

 

"But the Palestinians are saying he [Arafat] is their Mandela. Let the people speak. Don't impose. If the people say tomorrow they don't want him, okay. The apartheid regime imposed the homeland leaders and it didn't work. Some Israeli leaders argue that when Arafat goes he will be replaced by more moderate leaders. That's what the white racist regime thought [about us]."

 

`Why the apartheid wall?'

 

Certainly not a man given to Delphic formulations, Gqiba does however sidestep one question in the almost two-hour interview - about parallels between Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and apartheid South Africa. "I'm on a learning curve. I would only like to comment on that when I've thoroughly studied the situation. I only know Tel Aviv and Jerusalem," he says.

 

"But," he adds, as if an internal alarm has been suddenly tripped by this momentary reticence, "the idea of a Greater Israel isn't going to work. It means you have to conquer somebody's land. It will never work. There must be clearly defined borders."

 

Gqiba converses easily. Sitting on the edge of a leather chair throughout the interview, he talks with his hands, fists clenched sometimes like a boxer, as he outlines his position. His informality is incongruous in the plush, official surroundings of the ambassador's office - enhanced by the wood-paneling on the walls and the panoramic, rooftop view of Tel Aviv, toward the ocean. Before the interview begins, his 12-year-old son sits flicking through the channels on the television set in the office as his father talks on the phone to South Africa, trying to convince someone high up in the country's telecommunications conglomerate, Telkom, to attend a conference in Israel. Throughout the interview, Gqiba's son sits in the ambassador's chair, behind his large wooden desk. By the end of the interview, he is fast asleep, his head resting on the desktop.

 

Born in 1951 in Langa, a township in Cape Town, Gqiba joined the ANC in 1970 and became a member of its military wing in 1972. He refuses to divulge the type of actions he undertook, saying only, with a chuckle, that they were well documented by the security services of the old regime.

 

During a visit to Lesotho in the 1980s, where his command was based, Gqiba was arrested by the local government, which was a South African proxy. He was held and tortured for 42 days. "The South Africans wanted us, but the United Nations intervened and we were allowed to leave for Lusaka, where the ANC had its headquarters in exile."

 

An Anglican priest by training, Gqiba established the religious desk of the ANC in exile and regularly visited the movement's military bases in Angola, Tanzania and Uganda. He returned to South Africa in 1993, just before the ANC came to power. In 1998, he became the chaplain general of the South African National Defense Forces.

 

In South Africa there is a still marginal, but growing voice - among NGOs and in some intellectual circles - calling on the government to reevaluate its support for a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East. An article, penned by a Jewish South African and published recently in the influential Business Day, argued that in South Africa, as in Israel, "there was an attempt to portray our divisions as a conflict between two nations which could be solved only if they were separated. But here, the resistance would have none of it, insisting on an inclusive society in which the rights of all are recognized. All of which makes our government's continued support for separation as a solution all the more puzzling."

 

Gqiba says he is unmoved by those sounding the death knell of the two-state idea. His government still supports this solution and has been told by Palestinian leaders that they do too. "Who are we to come and say we want a one-state solution. We want to support what the people on the ground have accepted. It would be total arrogance for us to say how it should be done ... We said South Africa belongs to all who live in it - black and white. But our solution might not be applicable in other countries. We're not going to say, `If we did it, why can't you do it?'"

 

Gqiba might express support for the two-state model, but he is distinctly unenthusiastic about two other Israeli measures aimed at divorcing the two peoples: the separation fence and the disengagement plan, at least the unilateral version espoused by Sharon. He wants to see Israel exit Gaza, but says its departure should be negotiated with the Palestinians. "Israel is not supposed to be there. These are Palestinian lands. So, it's a good move to get out. But they should consult the people affected."

 

He is riled by the fence, which is often referred to in the South African media as the "apartheid wall." If it makes Israelis feel safer, he might accept it, but "why don't they build it in their own territory?

 

"We are talking here about cousins. I don't know why the cousins should be out to destroy each other. In South Africa the struggle was clear - against the white racist enemy. I've been here three weeks and up to this point I can't distinguish between a Jew and an Arab. They're cousins. Why should the cousins have an apartheid wall. It's like the Berlin Wall. It separates families. But let's say it's temporary, then why doesn't Israel build it on its own land. The bottom line is that we cannot accept it."

 

Many in the ANC have viewed Zionism as a colonial movement. Do you?

 

"Now that I'm in Israel I will need to understand further and then I'll be able to comment. If Zionism means discrimination against others, I'll have problems with that. But if Zionism has nothing to do with discrimination, I might support it. Anything that is exclusive I have serious problems with. But if it's inclusive I don't.

 

"The State of Israel is here to stay. So the Jewish authorities should not try to exaggerate the threat. They need to reach out to friends. The friends will stand with them. Rather than going into the laager like the Boers. There is no threat, but they like to exaggerate it to get some sympathy. But nobody will destroy the State of Israel. Nobody has the capacity to do that."

 

In South Africa there was an effective anti-conscription campaign, led by young Whites who refused to serve in the military because they opposed minority rule. What is your view of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza?

 

How do you send soldiers into occupied areas to continue suppressing the people ... Some of these [Israeli] youngsters are sent there to do this work of collective punishment. It's totally unacceptable. I sympathize with them and I understand why they don't do that.

 

Do you have a relationship with the South African Jewish community?

 

"For two weeks before I came, I met with leaders of the Jewish community. The people [in the community] who used to call us terrorists have moved aside. Now you have young leaders. You have people with a vision.

 

"If you go back in our history, our heroes were Jewish people. [Former head of the South African Communist Party] Joe Slovo. The current minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils. These people were part of the struggle. [Chief Justice] Arthur Chaskalson, [Supreme Court Justice] Albie Sachs. And they were branded as terrorists by their own people."

 

Religion was not at the heart of the struggle in South Africa. That is not the case here in the Middle East.

 

I go to church on Sundays. I'm looking for a church here. I am not a fundamentalist. I'm flexible because I know God is universal. I will worship in any religious place. I am prepared to go to a synagogue. If I'm invited to a mosque, I will go and pray there. My background from the liberation movement is to be accommodative.

 

"Priests played a central role in initiating the ANC. All ANC gatherings open with a prayer. More than 80 percent of our people are religious, but they are not fundamentalist. During the struggle, all the religions were able to find each other.

 

"Ours was a political struggle, not a religious one. But central people were highly religious. Here the foundation is religious. Whenever religion is central to the struggle, it's difficult to control. There's hatred, hatred, hatred. It's very dangerous, because people want to prove that their God is superior."

 

You talk of a political culture that was accommodative, inclusive. That's not the case in the Middle East.

 

"Here I think there is a winner-takes-all culture. We don't believe in that. You need to sit down. Again. As equal partners. Without preconditions. And you must talk, talk, talk. And then be prepared to compromise. There is no absolute position."

 

 

 

Major General Fumanekile Gqiba: If you want peace in this part of the world you need to talk to the Palestinians as equal partners. Don't talk to them as juniors.

(Guy Raivitz )

 

 

 

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