In a letter dated October 27, Josef Federman of the Associated Press common some stark observations: “Just three weeks into the deadliest war between Israel and Hamas, it is already clear that the bloodshed has upended long-standing assumptions in Israel and the region. Israel’s military and intelligence services have been exposed as incompetent and ill-prepared… Israelis’ sense of personal security has been shaken.”
Even as many older paradigms collapsed, as some observers have noted, Israel has turned with a vengeance to a familiar paradigm: overwhelming brutal violence.
The death toll statistics currently coming out of Gaza are unprecedented. More than 11,000 people died in ruthless Israeli army bombing, including more than 4,500 children; thousands are also missing, buried under the rubble, and probably dead as well.
The number of children killed in Gaza has exceeded the annual number of children killed in conflicts around the world; the number of civilians killed in Gaza has now exceeded the total number of deaths in Ukraine since February 2022.
These numbers grow every day as the Israeli military continues to indiscriminately bomb civilian buildings, including hospitals and schools.
As a black South African, as I watch these horrific events unfold, I cannot help but reflect on my country’s violent past.
I remember the ruthless planning and violence that accompanied the last decades of attempts by white South Africans to make apartheid work. I remember the fears that grew among white South Africans as they placed their trust in sophisticated military capabilities, conscript armies, nuclear weapons capabilities, and steadfast friends in the West, especially the United States, Britain, and France.
It was the height of the Cold War and South Africa claimed to be the only democracy in South Africa, protecting “civilization” from the threats surrounding it.
His military power and expansive policing were accompanied by a series of policies aimed at maintaining white minority rule.
Every attempt to impose a new such policy failed in the face of massive resistance. The more they failed, the more brutal was the violence unleashed by the military and police, with the support of white politicians and a terrified white electorate.
The “terrorists”, as the national liberation movements were called, could not be crushed by South Africa’s most powerful army. By mid-1985, much of the white electorate and parts of the ruling party realized that the problem of black resistance was not going away. Something more drastic was needed.
The then state president, the hawkish PW Botha, himself a defense minister, was encouraged by a faction of his party to open parliament that year with a conciliatory speech to make a grand political statement that would be a promising sign to the black majority that they would become part of a white-only democracy that was South Africa. This was called “crossing the Rubicon speech.”
Botha agreed, but at the last minute she objected and defiantly went in the opposite direction, giving instead a speech in which he promised to intensify the fight against “terrorism” by refusing to negotiate with jailed “terrorists” such as Nelson Mandela.
What followed was the extension of the state of emergency in South Africa and the killing of thousands of people opposed to apartheid rule, as Botha and his faction turned to increasing violence and repression.
Ultimately, the leaders of his own party staged a coup and brought FW de Klerk to power. The new president and the faction he represented realized that the end was near, that decades of repression had failed to create a political and economic system that excluded the majority and benefited only the white minority.
De Klerk and his faction realized that the whites would not win the war even if they had more weapons, bombs, tanks and artillery, and could probably continue to rule for a long time by force alone. This was not sustainable because the more repression they used, the more resistance they encountered and the more white South Africans lived in fear.
The more violence was shown on television screens around the world, the harder it became for white South Africa’s friends in the West to steadfastly support it. This was a turning point that led to political negotiations, to a conversation with the “terrorists” whom they perceived as their existential enemy. It was a turning point that opened the way to one country with equal citizenship for all, based on place of residence rather than descent, race, religion or ethnicity.
By October 7, Israel also had confidence that its sophisticated military and intelligence capabilities, urban design, and use of walls and barriers to police, control, and monitor every aspect of Palestinian life would help solve the “Palestinian problem” successfully.
Israel’s powerful allies in the West have even facilitated new friendships in Africa, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia through military cooperation and sales of weapons and intelligence technologies.
Most Israelis and their political leaders were so confident that this management of their “Palestinian problem” was working that any reference to “peace talks” or even rhetorical affirmation of a two-state solution to the outside world became unnecessary, moribund and redundant.
Life could go on. Rave parties can take place in the desert. The normality that had become normal continued in the abnormality of the occupation. Until October 7.
Ordinary Israelis may begin to realize that no matter how sophisticated and powerful the Israeli army, Mossad, or apartheid regime becomes, the “Palestinian problem” will not go away as long as Palestinians live.
As with white South Africans, fear is growing exponentially. And Israel responds to this fear with a colossal bombing campaign aimed at annihilation. But as white South Africans have found out, violence cannot eradicate the “problem” or provide the life of peace they so desire.
At this point a few questions arise. How far does the “ends justify the means” concept go to make the scale of civilian killings acceptable to those who support Israel’s right to self-defense? How far will Israelis go before they realize they cannot live with the blood of thousands of children on their hands?
Can Israelis and Israel’s friends justify these actions to themselves as an expression of a civilization that claims to value human life equally? Do Israelis want to be remembered as a nation that, as an act of collective punishment, tried to exterminate men, women and children?
Whatever remains in the rubble and rubble that awaits us after the Gaza war, the Israeli “Palestinian problem” will not go away. Ordinary Israelis will certainly never again sleep with the certainty that their state can fully protect them.
They would do well to learn from white South Africans who, after 300 years of minority rule, have realized that continuing to defend a political project so brutally while maintaining any appearance of moral high ground is an impossible political project.
There is a turning point when, even among the defenders of such a project, a vague question echoes more and more loudly in the collective consciousness: how far is too far?
There is no going back to promises of security based on what came before. There can be no peace if it means that more and more of the blood of children and civilians will haunt the next generations, who will have to take responsibility for the events unfolding before our eyes today.
As a South African who has crossed the Rubicon, I hope that this disaster will force Israelis to understand that only a just and inclusive political solution based on equal citizenship for all will free them from fear.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.