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Biased SA government ‘insignificant in Middle East’

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South Africa urgently needs to re-examine its response to the Hamas atrocities against Israelis, said panellists in the SA Jewish Report webinar, “Slaughter of the Innocents: Israel at War” on Sunday, 15 October.

With updates from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), survivor testimonies, and perspectives from key media and political figures, the webinar was a sobering reflection on the trauma Israelis continue to navigate.

Arthur Lenk, the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, said that he lived the deep connection between the Jewish community in South Africa and Israel during his four years in the country. Yet speaking of the immense support Israel has received from a massive number of countries including the United States (US), United Kingdom, and even Norway, he said that the South African government was a “stark exception in the international community”.

Speaking of the South African government’s unequivocal support for the Palestinian people and lack of sympathy for its Jewish community, Lenk said he was disappointed but not surprised. “South Africa doesn’t matter,” he said, speaking of the role it potentially could have played in terms of brokering peace in the Middle East and sharing lessons of ubuntu and transformation. “Its relationship with the US, Europe, and with much of the world is problematic, and it’s voice here in the Middle East doesn’t exist.”

Yet our community shouldn’t throw up its hands, he said, but engage with the government and South Africans at all levels. “We need to get out of our neighbourhoods and show up at ANC [African National Congress] meetings. Ask questions, write to newspapers, write editorials, and lobby for the things that are most important to us as Jews, whether it’s Israel or anything else.”

IDF spokesperson Ben Wahlhaus said Israelis were seeing support from communities around the world. Israeli society itself, he said, was largely unified and resolute that the army must do whatever needs to be done. More than a week after the 7 October massacre, its full impact is yet to be determined, Wahlhaus said. “Every day, our soldiers are going through each of the towns where Hamas terrorists invaded and finding more bodies, some mutilated.”

In a country of nine million people, to have so many killed and kidnapped, each Israeli almost certainly knows someone who was directly affected, Wahlhaus said. The entire country was going through trauma and was now also impacted by the war, with 300 000 reserve troops called up in addition to the standing army.

“Almost the entire country has galvanised a civilian effort to support both soldiers and those families affected. We’re under direct rocket attack both from the south and the north, so while we’re in the midst of this trauma we’re also in the midst of this war. Our war is a war with Hamas. We’re attacking it with a scope, intensity, and scale that has never been done before.”

Not only did Hamas massacre entire Israeli communities, it’s waging war on its own civilians, deliberately putting the people of Gaza in the line of fire, Wahlhaus said. “All of its military operations and infrastructure is under the civilian environment. It’s in homes, under mosques, at schools. They’re firing from United Nations shelters and from hospitals – all well-documented Hamas practice.”

Instead of investing in its people and territory, Hamas puts all the resources it receives to developing terror, said Wahlhaus. The IDF is working to mitigate civilian harm in Gaza, yet these efforts are being thwarted by Hamas, which tries to prevent evacuations, calling on people to ignore IDF calls to move, putting up roadblocks, and potentially detonating explosives along evacuation routes.

Israel has decided it can no longer have a threat like Hamas on its doorstep. It cannot exist, Wahlhaus said. “Imagine a week after 9/11, Americans wake up and Al-Qaeda is sitting a couple of hundred metres away in their backyard?”

Yael and Oren Zeevi, survivors of the Supernova music festival, where 260 partygoers were massacred and many taken hostage, shared their story. A loving party set in nature, Supernova counts the sunrise as a festival highlight. “It’s supposed to feel like a fairytale,” Yael said.

Yet, on 7 October, the fairytale turned into a nightmare when the music suddenly stopped. “Ours isn’t a heroic story,” she said. “We didn’t come to protect our land or to save lives, we came to celebrate our holiday. We didn’t understand what we were about to live.”

It took time to realise the gravity of the situation, that they were surrounded by terrorists in their own land. “They were all gunned up and we had nothing on us, all we had were 30 policemen with weapons,” said Yael. “This Hamas army encircled us and got us running from place to place while they drove and slaughtered, also looking for people who were hiding and shooting them.”

It’s only by chance that she and Oren survived, she said. “We’re just really lucky to come back to our kids and tell our story from here and not sit in Gaza being photographed by terrorists.” It came down to timing, not being surprised in front and not being kidnapped in the back. “I didn’t look at anything,” she continued. “I just trusted my husband to run and me to keep up.”

The couple ran within a crowd and hid in a tunnel, where they were shot at. “We have small injuries to our bodies but terrible injuries to our hearts,” Yael said. After hours of fear and running and feeling that no-one would save them, the couple escaped in a car driven by a civilian. “It was pure evil, you could feel it. You don’t have to see it in order to feel what evil is when it walks next to you,” she said.

Reflecting on what sparked such atrocities, Avi Mayer, the editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, said that before 7 October, Israel had largely underestimated Hamas. “We all knew that Hamas had a genocidal charter that stated explicitly that its goal was the destruction of Israel and the murder of all Jews. Yet, for many years, people thought of Hamas as a terrorist organisation but one that could be reasoned with, one that really cared about the welfare of its people.”

After their horrific wake-up call on 7 October, Mayer said Israel was no longer under any illusions about Hamas being a terror organisation, one worse than ISIS (Islamic State) in many respects. “This was the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and the fact that it took place within Israel proper, that they were able to go relatively easily, compounds the shock and horror,” he said, pointing out that there are clear indications that Iran wasn’t just involved in planning this attack, but also in greenlighting it.

Speaking of the potential long-term impact on Israel’s government, Mayer said Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued leadership was in massive doubt, with a vast number of Israelis holding him personally responsible. “Yet, no matter how difficult the challenges may be, we always emerge stronger than we were beforehand,” he said. “It may be a changed, scarred, and traumatised society, but it will be a stronger society.”

Watch the webinar here:

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