Is Hamas letter to SA a hoax?
On 11 October, a letter purporting to be from Hamas to South Africa, started spreading like wildfire on WhatsApp, four days after the murderous Hamas attack on southern Israel from Gaza. Apparently issued by Hamas official Emad Saber from Doha, Qatar, it praised South Africans for their support of Hamas. The letter said, “Our glorious Palestinian people are showing remarkable courage in the face of hardship [sic] the merciless and genocidal attacks by the Zionist entity.”
I set out to discover whether this letter was legitimate or a fake.
The letter heaps congratulations on South Africans for their solidarity with the Palestinians. Here’s a taste: “[To] know that South Africans, the people of Nelson Mandela, the people who have inspired us in our struggle, are on the streets expressing their support for our anti-colonial struggle inspires us and increases our determination.” It continued, “We ask that you, our South African brothers, [sic] and sisters, remain firm in your support, continue your solidarity as our situation gets more difficult, continue to protest, demonstrate, pray, and join your hearts with ours. And ensure that your ANC government too continues to support our struggle and champions our cause in the UN and other multilateral bodies.”
I sent the letter to Cayley Clifford, the deputy chief editor of the fact-checking service Africa Check. She said, “This is a tricky one. A typical dead giveaway is bad spelling and grammar. But the statement is well written. There aren’t too many visual clues to go on. A reverse image search didn’t reveal much and I can’t find the statement elsewhere online … All this is to say it looks like it could be legit, but I’m not 100% sure.”
Looking at the letter more closely, there is some sloppy punctuation. Clifford referred me to the Media Review Network, a notorious anti-Israel outfit. It has a different post by the elusive Mr Saber on its website, from 7 October, the very day of the Hamas attack. Titled “A Message from the Hamas office in South Africa”, this post uses copious religious language, mostly absent from the 11 October letter. For example, it said, “By Allah’s grace, our brave fighters of the Al-Qassam Brigades, along with our Palestinian comrades, have taken action against the occupying Israeli Zionist forces in the sacred land of Palestine.”
The 7 October post said, “We’re pleased to inform you that the resistance is working as a united force and has achieved significant successes on the ground.” It asks for support, prayers, and money from South African Muslims.
This post identifies Saber as “the official representative of Islamic resistance movement – Hamas South Africa”. There’s little other trace of him online, except for some South African news sites that quoted from the two letters – a self-fulfilling circle of legitimation.
Phillip de Wet at News24 wrote that “it appears to be fake”. He cited that the official website and Telegram channel of Hamas made no recent mention of South Africa, the last being a letter on 1 September expressing condolence for the large fire in Johannesburg’s inner city, issued by Basem Naim, the head of Hamas’ political and foreign relations department. De Wet also noted that the format and framing were atypical of previous Hamas statements.
Case closed. But in a webinar on 12 October, the vice-chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Zev Krengel, publicly insisted the letter was real. When I asked why, he said, “If it was fake, the government should say so. They[’ve] been quiet. Push our government to ask them if they have direct contact with Hamas.”
So, I asked Clayson Monyela, the head of public diplomacy at the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco). “I wouldn’t know,” he said. Here’s the rest of the WhatsApp exchange:
Me: Any suggestions of who I could try?
CM: I have no idea.
Me: Is government likely to issue a confirmation or dismissal of this letter?
Me: It’s doing the rounds on social media and people want to know if it’s genuine or not.
CM: That can’t be our responsibility. We have no relationship with Hamas.
Me: The ANC has met and hosted Hamas in SA.
CM: I work for government.
Me: Isn’t the ANC the ruling party?
CM: I’m done.
It’s the old trick of the government saying its controversial positions are in fact held by the ANC when it suits it. An enquiry to ANC spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri elicited no reply. Another contact at Dirco noted that there was no addressee on the letter, and it was found only on WhatsApp.
Unconvinced, I tried Suraya Dadoo, an activist in anti-Zionist circles. She promised to ask someone more in the know. The next day she replied, “I’ve found someone pretty credible to provide insight and verify that the Hamas letter is indeed authentic.” She sent me tweets from Na’eem Jeenah, the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre. He’s hardly an Israel fan, or objective. Jeenah tweeted, “I spent some time making enquiries. I can confirm 100% that it’s genuine. News24.com, interview Saber. To make sure he exists.”
De Wet confirmed he had contacted someone claiming to be Saber, who was unable to authenticate himself. Curiouser and curiouser, as they say in Alice in Wonderland.
Eventually, on 17 October, the president’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya tweeted: “Reports of the South African government offering support to Hamas are false. We do not have a bilateral relationship with Hamas … Support for the Palestinian struggle against occupation does not equate to support for Hamas.”
When I shared my investigations with Clifford again, she said that in cases like these, Africa Check had an “unproven” verdict. “That is, publicly available information neither supports nor disproves the claim. When information hasn’t been verified, it needs to be labelled as such.”
Why would both Krengel and Jeenah – on opposite poles on Israel – both insist the letter was legit? Because it serves both their purposes, to show closeness between South Africa and Hamas. It’s sad that in South Africa, where our keffiyeh-clad president excuses Palestinian violence, such a letter could be quite plausible.
As the ancient Greek writer, Aeschylus, said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”