Gaza: Sharpeville is the better analogy

Jeremy Gordin and Roy Isacowitz respond to JKB on the killing of protesters by Israeli security forces

This is a response to John Kane-Berman’s article of 03 June (see here) titled “Gaza: Hamas’ horrific game”.

First, let us note that Gordin is acquainted with John Kane-Berman (JKB) and admires much of his work, especially the two books, Soweto: Black Revolt White Reaction (1979) and Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics (2017).

Second, it’s clear from JKB’s piece that he doesn’t know very much about Israel/Palestine, the situation in general and its history. But this doesn’t matter much because the main aim of his article is to construct some sort of simulacrum of what Hamas supposedly “engineered” on the Israeli /Gaza border and the strategy of “the African National Congress and its allies in the South African Communist Party and Umkhonto we Sizwe, [who] knew that they had no chance of overcoming the National Party government’s security forces. But [who knew nevertheless] they could provoke violence in the expectation that it would provoke excessive counter violence, which would then be portrayed in the media as the slaughter of innocent protesters.”  

What JKB seems to be suggesting is that it was “standard” (ANC/SACP) “revolutionary strategy” to incite youth to attack police with, say, petrol bombs. If they succeeded in intimidating or killing the police then that was a win. If the police shot and killed them in response, then that was a win as well – because it served to increase popular hatred of the “Boer enemy,” allowing for the mobilization of the masses at funerals and bringing down yet further opprobrium on the regime, etc.

JKB’s argument seems then to be that Hamas was doing something similar, though perhaps not identical: sending its operatives to breach the fence (unarmed) and thereby putting Israel in a situation where it would either lose control of the border and allow thousands of Gazans into Israel or kill “unarmed protestors”. If the former, well then great; if the latter, then that creates new martyrs for the cause, damages Israel’s reputation internationally and highlights the murderous oppression of Gaza, etc.

Okay, let’s accept for the sake of the discussion that what is sketched above was indeed ANC/SACP “revolutionary strategy”. But there is nonetheless a problem. Can JKB name one incident in SA from the late-1970s and 1980s (the period to which he’s clearly referring) that fits the bill – a large group of people “sent in” to attack the police, whose deaths were then used to stoke anti-government opprobrium? Maybe he can; but we can’t. It’s a significant issue; and we’ll get back to it in a moment.

It’s also the nub of the overall problem with JKB’s article: JKB extrapolates far too widely, applying what he knows to a situation that is very different.

First, JKB maintains that the demonstrators were armed, which is not true. The Israeli army is normally very quick to publish photos (it photographs everything, very efficiently) of the weapons carried by those it kills. But, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, it hasn’t issued a single picture of any of the 64 people killed on May 14 in possession of a weapon. Not one.

A small number carried Molotov cocktails and a few blazing tyres were rolled towards the border fence. After the shootings, a handful of burning kites were flown across the border. Bottles of petrol, tyres and kites – this is “armed propaganda”? Against well-dug-in soldiers armed with sniper rifles and machine guns, not to mention backed up by an air force with F-35s?

Second, JKB assumes that Hamas is deploying tactics identical to those of the ANC and MK but he has no supporting evidence. We’d say he’s factually wrong. Hamas may have been party to organizing the demonstrations at the fence but, as far as is known, the vast bulk of those participating did so of their own accord. Right now, Gazans are so desperate they will do anything; they don’t need Hamas to persuade them.

Does JKB really think that the people of Gaza have no reason for complaint and would have been out picnicking were it not for the evil machinations of Hamas? We have news for him: there’s no place to picnic in Gaza and, even if there were, the whole place has been awash with ordure ever since Israel destroyed the sewerage system, which it won’t allow to be rebuilt.

Palestinians are demonstrating in Gaza because they are in an open-air Israeli prison for no crime at all, other than being Palestinians. They can’t go anywhere, they can’t repair their infrastructure (which Israel bombed to smithereens in 2014) and they can only eat what Israel lets them eat. Most of the time they don’t have electricity and there’s no heating in winter. Many are still living in the ruins of buildings bombed by Israel. People incarcerated in actual Israeli prisons live in far better conditions.

So if you’re looking for a local analogy, the apposite one is Sharpeville, 1960, where people went willingly even if they were “sent” by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC); and where no one was trying to “destroy the legitimacy” of apartheid, because apartheid had no legitimacy – it was an evil and brutal regime. JKB doubtless also knows full well that the massacre of civilians is usually the beginning of the end for any regime.

Talking of which, the Gazans really don’t have to bother to “destroy the legitimacy of the state of Israel”; Israel has been destroying its own legitimacy for years. The only things that are still keeping Israel diplomatically afloat are the support of American Jewry, some of whom are extremely influential, misplaced Holocaust guilt, the pusillanimity of Western governments and a general Islamophobia.

And so what if the marchers were sent by Hamas? Hamas is no less a representative of the Palestinians than the PAC was a representative of South African blacks. Those killed at Sharpeville were answering a PAC call to stop carrying passes and hand themselves over at police stations. Did that justify killing 69 of them by shooting them in the back?

There is a context to everything that is happening and to address it out of context, as JKB did, is, by definition, to misunderstand it.

Jeremy Gordin (Johannesburg) and Roy Isacowitz (Tel Aviv).