|Delegates at the talk included Mohammed Groenewald of the Muslim Youth Movement; US Consul General Erica Barkes-Ruggles; and Spanish Consul General Ignacia Fernandez, who are pictured here with Benjamin Pogrund and Bassem Eid.
While peace prospects in the Middle East are sometimes doubtful, one Israeli citizen and one Palestinian man demonstrate that building bridges and resolutions is possible. The two shared their perspectives on a recent visit to Cape Town.
The fact that these two human rights activists are sitting at the same table, sharing coffee is a feat in and of itself,” said David Jacobson, Executive Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies
(Cape Council), which hosted Benjamin Pogrund and Bassem Eid to speak to a varied group of delegates in Cape Town.
Pogrund was born in Cape Town and is the former Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, where he pioneered the reporting of black politics under apartheid. He founded the Yakar Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem in 1997, which pursues dialogue between Israelis, Palestinians and all social groups in Israel. He is the author of books on Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela and the press under apartheid; is on the editorial board of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and was the 2005 recipient of the Award for Justice and Reconciliation of the Global Citizens Circle.
Eid was a senior field researcher for B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), before founding the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG). This human rights organisation monitors abuses committed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and supports a democratic and pluralistic Palestine.
The two are deeply involved in human rights work and promoting dialogue between the two peoples. They were not shy to express their respective opinions or
arguments — even if they differed — but both had the same agenda of encouraging discussion and debate to help the conflict move towards a solution.
Conflicts and cooperation
Eid provided a powerful and poignant first-hand account of life as a Palestinian. “While the situation is not good, there is no need to exaggerate it,” he said, expressing how unreliable stories about Palestinian life actually damage the Palestinian cause. He discussed how the West Bank economy is thriving, a result of the Palestinian Authority improving security and curtailing terrorism. This demonstrates that the use of violence will only hinder Palestinian aspirations, and that negotiations are the only way forward, he said.
Pogrund agreed, discussing how the Palestinians’ relentless suicide bombings of the second Intifada created so much mistrust and fear for Israelis that it shifted Israeli politics to the right, which in turn hindered the peace process. He emphasised the complexity of the situation in Israel, where “both sides are fighting over a small piece of ground, the same size as the Kruger National Park, to which both sides have legitimate claims.” Pogrund clarified how different this was to apartheid South Africa, where the moral lines were much clearer.
Eid also pointed out important differences in the Palestinian situation, explaining how Gaza is a fundamentalist Islamic state under Hamas. He said that even though Hamas had been democratically elected, he would never agree to live under such an extreme Islamic regime — demonstrating the additional conflicts within Palestinian side.
Pogrund lamented that there is currently a sense of desperation and anxiety that those working towards peace have never felt before; and that the failure of leadership on both sides was preventing the situation from moving forward.
However, despite their more cynical and fearful outlooks, both men agreed that peace is still a possibility. They said that there was a great deal of activity being carried out at grassroots level across the lines, and that this gives them hope. They also felt that ‘cataclysmic’ events, like the Arab Spring, could have an effect; as could the American elections this year. But it is often small steps that make the biggest difference; and the conversation and cooperation between these two men demonstrates that partnerships and peace are still possibilities.