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A Palestinian Hamas supporter attends a protest to support al-Aqsa mosque, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Friday. Picture: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS
A Palestinian Hamas supporter attends a protest to support al-Aqsa mosque, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Friday. Picture: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

With the world’s focus on the war in Ukraine, and then elections in France that had the potential to deliver a seismic shock to the Western liberal order, it’s no wonder that the latest tensions between Israel and Palestinians have gone under the radar.

At the beginning, the violence normally doesn’t get much attention and then months of rising tensions explode into a full-on conflict, such as the 11 days of fighting that claimed 255 lives in 2021, mostly Palestinians in Gaza. It eventually stopped after Israel and the Hamas group that rules the territory agreed a ceasefire, in which they both claimed victory.

The latest tension culminated in clashes at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a site considered sacred by both Muslims and Jews.

The violence, which the Guardian newspaper last week said had wounded 57 people after police stormed the facility in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem’s Old City, has sparked concern that it could escalate to something like the war in 2021.

It reported the UN demanded an investigation of the Israeli police actions. Palestinians accuse Israel of provocation and seeking to upend a long-standing convention that Jews are allowed to visit Islam’s third-holiest site, which is also the most sacred site in Judaism, but are not allowed to pray there. Israel denies the charge.

All of this might have gone unnoticed in SA, except that the department of international relations & co-operation issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday, reaffirming the country’s commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to a 70-year conflict, one that would see a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel. Nobody will argue with that.

But what’s most striking about the statement is the forceful condemnation of violence, and the contrast with the lame statements on Russian aggression in Ukraine, where the UN has put the civilian death toll at well above 2,000 people. According to the UN, more than 11-million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, with 5.1-million of those having been forced to leave their homeland.

As the invasion goes into a third month, “neutral” SA hasn’t seen fit to use words such as being “appalled by the increased violence and heightened tensions” in Jerusalem. It definitely hasn’t “strongly” condemned the attack on a sovereign nation and member of the UN by another. 

The SA statement goes on to demand that the UN, which it rightly states is tasked with international peace and security, “must act to ensure that states are held accountable for their actions”. Not much to fault there either, except that SA’s actions have robbed it of credibility and any chance that its word will be taken with any sense of seriousness.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Wits University associate professor William Gumede decried how SA’s “lap-dog-like” behaviour towards Russia has caused damage to its economic and strategic interests. He notes how its stance has been lamentable, even in relation to other Brics members — India, Brazil and China — who have at least extracted some economic concessions for their lack of public criticism of Russia. 

For SA, there’s only been a downside. In addition to the economic costs, perhaps excluding the benefit of higher prices for the commodities that it exports, there has been the accompanying loss of prestige and damage to relationships with countries that are its biggest source of investment and trade.  

Seen in contrast with its stance on the Middle East, SA’s policy can be said to be at best naive and at worst hypocritical. It is scarcely believable that an official at the department of international relations who’s aware of SA’s policy on the Russian aggression can then demand “consistency from the international community and institutions of global governance in upholding the international rule of law”.

SA is no different from other countries in that it has been selective in applying this principle. If it weren’t for the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal, President Cyril Ramaphosa would have visited Saudi Arabia and pledged lasting friendship without mentioning its air strikes in Yemen. As we have noted before, there are conflicts closer to home, such as in Ethiopia, that SA is silent about.

If the country practised what it preached, it might regain its moral authority and right to be heard. 

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