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While we deal with the current crisis in Palestine, we cannot lose sight of the only viable possibility for a peaceful future: a two-State solution, writes Bonang Mohale

Both Isaac and Ishmael are Abraham’s sons! In the Old Testament (Genesis 16:1–16; 17:18–26; 21:1–21), Abraham’s wife Sarah was initially unable to bear children and therefore gave Abraham her maidservant Hagar to conceive an heir. Ishmael was born and brought up in Abraham’s household. Some 13 years later, however, Sarah conceived Isaac, with whom God established his covenant. Isaac became Abraham’s sole heir, and Ishmael and Hagar were banished to the desert, though God promised that Ishmael would raise up a great nation of his own.

Ishmael, commonly regarded by both Jews and Arabs as the progenitor of the Arabs, is considered a messenger and a prophet (rasul nabi) in the Quran (e.g., 19:54). Though little is said about him in the Quran itself aside from his designation as a prophet, it suggests that he assisted Abraham in building Islam’s most sacred structure, the Kaaba, in Mecca (2:127). Most Islamic traditions about Ishmael come from other, extrascriptural sources, such as Hadith, tafsir (Islamic exegesis), and qisas al-anbiya (stories of the prophets). According to the most well-known of these traditions, after Ishmael and Hagar were banished, they settled in Mecca, near which they had found relief and water at the Well of Zamzam. Later, in nearby Mina, Abraham attempted to sacrifice Ishmael (rather than Isaac, as stated in the Old Testament), an event commemorated on Eid al-Adha and in the rituals of the hajj (pilgrimage). It is Abba Eban, the great Israeli Foreign Minister who reminds us that, ‘you make peace by talking to your enemies’. Whilst an African adage reiterates that ‘man’s greatest accomplishment is through talking and man’s greatest failure is through not talking’.

The United States has vetoed a United Nations Security Council demand for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the war between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are the five sovereign states to whom the UN Charter of 1945 grants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There are also ten non-permanent members, Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. Thirteen Security Council members voted in favour of a brief draft resolution, put forward by the United Arab Emirates, while the United Kingdom abstained. The vote came after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a rare move to formally warn the 15-member council of a global threat from the two-month-long war. The United Kingdom abstained. As the only country that abstained, the UK’s Mission to the UN said the country could not vote on a resolution that ‘does not condemn the atrocities Hamas committed against innocent Israeli civilians on the 7th of October’. But Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, accused the council of holding double standards against Israel for failing to invoking Article 99 for other global crises, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, and Yemen’s civil war. “Despite the immense global impact of other conflicts and far more pressing threats to international peace and security, Israel’s defensive war against Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, was the catalyst for activating Article 99,” Erdan said. “The irony is that regional stability and the security of both Israelis and Gazans can only be achieved once Hamas is eliminated, not one minute before—supports a durable peace in which both Israel and Palestine can live in peace and security, we do not support calls for an immediate ceasefire. This would only plant the seeds for the next war, because Hamas has no desire to see a durable peace, to see a two-state solution,” said Robert Wood, Deputy US Ambassador to the UN. The US and Israel oppose a ceasefire because they believe it would only benefit Hamas. Washington instead supports pauses in fighting to protect civilians and allow the release of hostages taken by Hamas in a deadly October 7 attack on Israel.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been very outspoken on both the Hamas attacks on Israel and the very high death toll of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, noting in his October speech, “I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring, and kidnapping of civilians—or the launching of rockets against civilian targets. All hostages must be treated humanely and released immediately and without conditions.” In his 7 December speech, he said: “We are all aware that Israel began its military operation in response to the brutal terror attacks unleashed by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups on 7 October. I unreservedly condemn those attacks. I am appalled by the reports of sexual violence. There is no possible justification for deliberately killing some 1 200 people, including 33 children, injuring thousands more, and taking hundreds of hostages. Some 130 hostages are still held captive. I call for their immediate and unconditional release, as well as their humane treatment and visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross until they are freed. At the same time, the brutality perpetrated by Hamas can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” With an intensifying Israeli offensive and escalating civilian casualties, Guterres invoked an extremely rarely used Article 99 of the UN Charter which says ‘the secretary-general may inform the council of matters he believes threaten international peace and security’. The last time it was invoked was during fighting in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh and its separation from Pakistan. He warned the Security Council of an impending ‘humanitarian catastrophe’, sees the situation in Gaza at risk of a ‘complete collapse’ of the territory’s humanitarian system and civil order. It was something he strongly felt needed to be done. He urged members to demand an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. He also warns in his letter that in the current situation, “amid constant bombardment by the Israeli Defense Forces and without shelter or essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible.” Seeing a looming disaster, Guterres said the situation could get even worse, pointing to possible epidemics and the mass displacement of Palestinians into neighbouring countries. Arab and Islamic nations followed up on Guterres’s letter immediately, with The United Arab Emirates, the Arab representative on the Security Council, circulating a short resolution to Security Council members late Wednesday calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

More than 17 000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed since the start of Israel’s military operations. This includes more than 4 000 women and 7 000 children. Tens of thousands are reported to have been injured, and many are missing, presumably under the rubble. Attacks from air, land, and sea are intense, continuous, and widespread. So far, they have reportedly hit 339 education facilities, 26 hospitals, 56 healthcare facilities, 88 mosques, and three churches. Over 60% of Gaza’s housing has reportedly been destroyed or damaged—some 300 000 houses and apartments. Some 85% of the population have been forced from their homes. According to the World Food Programme, there is a serious risk of starvation and famine. In northern Gaza, 97% of households are not eating enough. In the south, the figure among displaced people is 83%. Half the people of the north and more than one third of displaced people in the south are simply starving. Hamas is not Palestine and Palestine is not Hamas. The UN was established to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, deliver humanitarian aid, support sustainable development, climate action, and uphold international law. The mandate of the United Nations Security Council, elaborated in chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter, is the maintenance of international peace and security. It is further based on the norms of international law including (but not confined to) the laws of war and international humanitarian law, which includes the duty to protect civilians and to comply with the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. The laws of war also demand that civilians’ essential needs must be met, including by facilitating the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian relief. International humanitarian law cannot be applied selectively. It is binding on all parties equally at all times and the obligation to observe it does not depend on reciprocity. While we deal with the current crisis, we cannot lose sight of the only viable possibility for a peaceful future, a two-State solution, on the basis of United Nations resolutions and international law, with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security. Maybe, like South Africa which was blessed with having both the late former Presidents Rolihlahla N. Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk at the same time, also have the type of leadership that is able to both metabolise and metastasise the establishment of a peaceful, single, democratic, secular state in all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for Christians, Muslims, and Jews! This is vital for Israelis, Palestinians, and for international peace and security.

Bonang Mohale is the Chancellor of the University of the Free State, former President of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), and Professor of Practice in the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) in the College of Business and Economics.

By Editor