Jan 2024 edition

Middle East conflict calls for solidarity, tolerance and dialogue

Office of the President

Office of the President
Israel-PalestineIt is now over a month since the attacks in Israel that unleashed a terrible spiral of violence in which civilians have been the biggest casualties.

According to authorities, more than 1,200 people were killed in the attack by Hamas on Israel on 7 October and more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed to date in Gaza as a result of Israeli Defence Force bombardments since then. More than 60% of the people killed in Gaza are reported to be women and children.

As the bombardment of Gaza continues, there have been pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the world, as well as those expressing solidarity with Israel. There have been a number of such events in our own country, convened by civil society organisations, political parties and religious groupings.

What is happening in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank provokes strong emotions.

For some, the murder of Israelis and the abduction of hostages on 7 October has further hardened sentiment that Israel has the right to use whatever means at its disposal to defend itself. At the same time, there are others who view the collective punishment of the people of Gaza by the Israeli government as a war crime.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has long been a polarising conflict that has deepened divisions in societies and communities way beyond the Middle East.

Yet no matter how strong our views on this matter, we must guard against this conflict turning us against each other as South Africans.

Last week, police had to intervene in a confrontation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters at a demonstration in Cape Town. While this incident is troubling and unacceptable, we must commend all those South Africans who have participated in orderly and peaceful demonstrations in several parts of our country.

Our Constitution protects everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression, to freedom of association and to demonstrate. It also requires that all demonstrations must be peaceful and that freedom of expression does not extend to the advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

There is no place in South Africa for violence or threats of violence against those who hold contrary views. Nor is there any place for any form of prejudice, racism or chauvinism.

As emotive as the Israel-Palestine issue may be for many of our citizens, particularly given our own history of discrimination and oppression, we must not let it deepen divisions between us.

We are a society that prides itself on its tolerance and respect.

Successive democratic administrations have upheld the constitutional rights of all individuals and groups in this country. We have enforced these rights through our courts, including the Equality Court, and through institutions like the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, and others.

It was disappointing therefore to read an article in a leading Israeli newspaper by a representative of a local Jewish organisation suggesting that our government is ‘encouraging pogroms’ against the South African Jewish community.

This has never happened in the history of democratic South Africa, nor will it ever be allowed to happen.

As a government and as a people, we stand firm in our call for justice for the oppressed Palestinian people, for their rights and aspirations to be fulfilled, for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and for there to be accountability for the deplorable killings of civilians in this recent conflict. We maintain that peace will not be possible until Palestinians are free.

Yet, support for the Palestinian struggle cannot be equated with anti-Semitism. There is no place in our society for anti-Semitism, just as there is no place in our country for prejudice directed against any individual or community on the basis of race, religion, belief, political view or sexual orientation.

In a free and democratic society such as ours, where divergent views are respected and protected by law, we will continue to uphold everyone’s right to advocate and demonstrate peacefully, be they pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.

As a people with our own painful history of discrimination, racism and prejudice, let us remember our personal duty to be tolerant and respectful of others.

Let us promote dialogue and meaningful engagement so that, as South Africans, we may work together to support the realisation of just, peaceful and secure future for the people of both Palestine and Israel.

Above all, let our painful history be a reminder of the heavy cost of a divided nation that has turned against itself. When it comes to freedom, equality and justice, we must be at one. 

This President’s message was first published on 20 November 2023.

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