Growing Pains: Uncanny similarities with the Middle East

2014-01-30 10:00

With former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s passing two weeks ago, I was struck by how different his obituaries were to those of our own recently deceased former head of state Nelson Mandela.

Yes, I know, it’s unfair to compare the two, but let’s pull back our jerking knees and acknowledge their similarities. Both started out as nationalist heroes for their respective constituencies, both were loathed and feared by their enemies.

Both men felt deeply for their “nations” and both were taken with the idea of securing their birthrights through violent means. Eventually, both would wind up in some sort of suspended animation. Arguably the one got to write letters now and then.

But while there are many similarities between the two men, the differences are more stark – the biggest being that Sharon was never able to transcend his initial provincial glory.

Notwithstanding that one man was a freedom fighter, and the other a military man and later a strongman who would more readily fit the mould of a Botha, both were clad with an aura of jingoistic mysticism before they even reached middle age. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

So what is it that allowed one to so far outstrip the other with regard to global greatness? What the world found so fascinating about Madiba is that he was not just concerned about doing what was right for his people, or even what was right: he redefined who his people were.

I often wonder about where the Palestinian fight and our liberation struggle differed – to the extent that we now have a free democracy and the Israelis and Palestinians are still locked in an ongoing battle of wills and incursions.

Could it have been the rather muted approach to guerrilla warfare by our liberation movements – while they bombed power lines, the Palestinians showed less discrimination. Or perhaps it was that the liberation movement’s priority was democracy over land.

I think equal rights are an easier sell globally than a wholesale ejection of any people from a place – it’s awkward with every major world player having being an occupier somewhere else or internally having eradicated an indigenous population.

It may well be that the sudden demise of the Soviet Union put more pressure on the ANC to get to the table. And likewise, the strain of sanctions and the Angolans and Namibians shaking the SA yoke off, put pressure on the boer government. In ironic contrast, the strong “frontline states” of the Palestinians had all but been tamed by their Israeli foes.

The similarities between the South African and middle Eastern crisis are uncanny, even though many like to overstate the complexity of the situation. In a nutshell, both sides claim the same land on a historical basis.

The Palestinians have vowed to blow Israel sky high à la “one settler one bullet”, while the Israelis have built an effective military – fed by an annual intake of young conscripts. Israel’s income disparities mirror those between our black and white. And the Crown’s partition policy, which we dubbed Bantustans (after Pakistan), has been refined in the occupied settlements.

Ramallah is like a scene from Apocalypse Now. The distance between their abject poverty and occupied Jerusalem’s order and beauty is Diepsloot and Sandton. With more dust. And huge walls. Like a modern-day Berlin.

The big difference, aside from the 3?000 years of conflict in contrast to our 350, and the fact that both sides acknowledge some shared lineage, is leadership.

Both sides have been lacking in that department. Just as we have in the solidarity stakes. We have a good story to share of how leadership, mutual trust and goodwill can be painstakingly built, and we are obliged to share this.

But first, the Israelis need to accept that the ball is in their court – either they pull out, or, they pull down the walls and build one united nation with their brethren. Watch people cry foul now – as if each national group in South Africa didn’t also do so in 1994.

It’s not insurmountable, but those of us with ties to the Middle East need to stop fanning the flames, look around at our relatively safe dispensation, and make them believers.

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