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Major General Fumanekile Gqiba unhesitatingly confesses he had absolutely no desire to come to Israel. He was ready, he says, "to go anywhere in the world, but not Israel."

The preference of the new South African ambassador has nothing to do with the fact that some of "the technology used by the apartheid regime was supplied by Israel." Nor, that he "rubbed shoulders" with the Palestinians as "comrades in the liberation movement" when he was in exile.

After 30 years of struggling to free his own country of white minority rule, the chaplain general of the South African defense forces, who was picked by President Thabo Mbeki as his country's new ambassador to Israel, did not want to land up in another conflict-ridden region. "I wanted to relax. I thought these conflict situations for me were over. I've done my time. I wanted to be like any ordinary ambassador - relaxing, enjoying life with your family. But," he grins, "as a disciplined member of the ANC, I said `I'll give it a go.' And here I am."

This undiplomatic admission is not a momentary slip of the tongue. The diminutive, straight-talking former commander in Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, is not fettered by the carefully constructed utterances of career diplomats cautious not to offend. He has been dispatched by his president to build a new relationship with Israel, but the government of Israel, he emphasizes, should not "question our relationship with the Palestinians" and must remember that Israel was once "part and parcel of the old regime [in South Africa]. They supported them until the last. So they cannot overnight expect us to be kissing their cheeks. We have to build the relationship. And it's a two-way thing. We are serious about building this relationship, which was damaged by them, not by us."

His views on the West Bank separation fence, disengagement, Yasser Arafat and on young Israelis who refuse to serve in the territories are equally candid. But he is unwaveringly critical too, when quizzed about the manner in which the Palestinians are waging their struggle.

Gqiba's appointment - he submitted his credentials in late July - is meant to signal South Africa's desire to play a role in helping unlock the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a recognition that this means engaging the government in power, even if it is headed by the Likud. Unlike his predecessors, who were all members of the diplomatic corps in the old South Africa, Gqiba is a member of the ruling ANC with credentials in the liberation struggle. In other words, an insider.

The new ambassador's access to the president and the foreign minister, says one South African official, shows "we are taking the crisis seriously and we think we will be able to help. This conflict will continue to create lots of tension between us, but the new ambassador will be good in helping to manage these tensions. His military background will enable him to understand the talk about security concerns. We have sent a clear signal to the Israelis. Now, will they respond positively?"

Israeli officials don't seem pressed to respond at all. It is Gqiba, they say, who must prove his country is able to see beyond its historical relationship with the Palestinians.

South Africa, they add, often sponsors resolutions critical of Israel at the UN. It also submitted an opinion on the separation fence to the International Court of Justice asserting that the barrier was a disproportionate response to "occasional and irregular attacks by lone operators."

When Yitzhak Rabin was leading the Oslo process in the mid-1990s, relations with the ANC, which had just won the first non-racial election in South Africa, improved dramatically. But since the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, and the ascendance of Ariel Sharon, relations have been frosty.

Sharon and Mbeki have met at least once, in Washington, but the meeting failed to produce any chemistry. Since Sharon took office over three years ago, not a single minister in his government has made an official visit to South Africa. Neither has a South African minister made an official visit to Israel during this period. The Israelis who have traveled to South Africa as guests of the government have been mainly left-wing politicians and peace activists. (Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to become the first minister in the Sharon government to visit South Africa, in October.)

Sitting in his office on the 16th floor of Dizengoff Tower in Tel Aviv, flanked by a gray-bearded Mbeki peering out of a frame on the wall and a South African flag, Gqiba announces that his government wants to engage the right-wing government of Ariel Sharon. "I always say revolutions have stages," he says. "We feel we need to move further now. We want to talk to Sharon. This is the next stage. I expect more ministers to come here. I'm working on this. It's a myth that we are anti-Israel. We want to prove we're not. We want to share our experience with Israel. We are not going to impose. We're not saying `Do this because we did it.' We want to be partners with them toward the goal of peace."

But, he adds, it must be remembered that "we were once a liberation movement. We rubbed shoulders with the Palestinians. They were our comrades in the liberation movement. And that relationship is still there. It is our moral duty to continue with that. But our relationship with the Palestinians is a strategic one that ultimately will benefit the State of Israel."

`Never kill civilians'

For all his empathy with the Palestinians, and the role he played in his own armed struggle, Gqiba rebukes the Palestinians for the manner in which they are waging theirs. "Today, we are the only country, on moral grounds, which is able to say to the Palestinians, `You guys, we don't think your strategy of using suicide bombers is justified.' It is terrorism. It is not accepted by international law. It has nothing to do with the military code. We have said this openly. We don't support suicide bombings. We are clear on this.

"The military aspect of the struggle cannot become an end in itself. It has to be a means to a political goal. Whatever we did on the military side was to force the regime toward the ultimate goal - the political one, of negotiation. That's where the difference is. We were led by politicians. Not the military leading the struggle. The military element must not become an end in itself ... For the Palestinians, the military element has become the thing. The Palestinians need to pause. Every bomb that kills civilians is counterproductive [for them]. It undermines them. At this point, they should say, `We need to sit down. We need to talk.'"

During its campaign against the white government, the ANC directed its armed actions almost exclusively at military and infrastructure targets. The number of civilian casualties in armed operations was very low. "We were told, `Never, never kill civilians.' We used to say, `If you do, you will face a firing squad.' That's how we understood it. The aim was political and not military mobilization. With the Palestinians, the military dimension has become too dominant. Their targets are wrong. You cannot target civilians. We cannot support that."

What about striking at Israeli military targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

Gqiba: "I don't want to be part and parcel of this war. I don't want to be involved. I want to end it. If the two sides do decide to fight, then it must be military versus military. It must not be against civilians.

"I have a young daughter and a young son here. When they go to any restaurant I want them to feel free. Not to be afraid of bombs. But at the same time the State of Israel should not target civilians. Collective punishment is totally unacceptable. How do you destroy a whole family. You destroy houses just because one person there belongs to the liberation movement, is a guerrilla. They're creating enemies. Both sides have lost the moral high ground. It's an eye for an eye. It's madness and they have to stop it."

Drawing again on the South African experience, Gqiba raps Israel for isolating Yasser Arafat. "If you want peace in this part of the world you need to talk to the Palestinians as equal partners. Don't talk to them as juniors. And you don't impose leaders. Everybody [here] hates Arafat. But we want to warn them, that this is exactly what the racist regime [in South Africa] used to say. They couldn't talk to Mandela because he was a terrorist. In the end, they were forced to talk to him. As long as Arafat is the elected leader, as long as he is accepted by the Palestinians, you must talk to him."

Many Israelis believe Arafat is no longer a partner because he is not prepared to make the compromises necessary for a two-state solution. That his ultimate goal is to wipe out the State of Israel.

"People are criticizing the PA, but Arafat is still part of the leadership. He has been elected by the people there. Let them go to elections and elect a new leader. But at this point in time Arafat is the leader and the Israeli state should not try to marginalize him. He is a prisoner. How do you ask a prisoner to take charge of security? It is better to negotiate with the devil you know. Arafat is part of the solution, not of the problem ... He recognizes the State of Israel. They must empower him."

Israelis say that if only there were a Palestinian Mandela, there would have been peace by now. What do you think?

"But the Palestinians are saying he [Arafat] is their Mandela. Let the people speak. Don't impose. If the people say tomorrow they don't want him, okay. The apartheid regime imposed the homeland leaders and it didn't work. Some Israeli leaders argue that when Arafat goes he will be replaced by more moderate leaders. That's what the white racist regime thought [about us]."

`Why the apartheid wall?'

Certainly not a man given to Delphic formulations, Gqiba does however sidestep one question in the almost two-hour interview - about parallels between Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and apartheid South Africa. "I'm on a learning curve. I would only like to comment on that when I've thoroughly studied the situation. I only know Tel Aviv and Jerusalem," he says.

"But," he adds, as if an internal alarm has been suddenly tripped by this momentary reticence, "the idea of a Greater Israel isn't going to work. It means you have to conquer somebody's land. It will never work. There must be clearly defined borders."

Gqiba converses easily. Sitting on the edge of a leather chair throughout the interview, he talks with his hands, fists clenched sometimes like a boxer, as he outlines his position. His informality is incongruous in the plush, official surroundings of the ambassador's office - enhanced by the wood-paneling on the walls and the panoramic, rooftop view of Tel Aviv, toward the ocean. Before the interview begins, his 12-year-old son sits flicking through the channels on the television set in the office as his father talks on the phone to South Africa, trying to convince someone high up in the country's telecommunications conglomerate, Telkom, to attend a conference in Israel. Throughout the interview, Gqiba's son sits in the ambassador's chair, behind his large wooden desk. By the end of the interview, he is fast asleep, his head resting on the desktop.

Born in 1951 in Langa, a township in Cape Town, Gqiba joined the ANC in 1970 and became a member of its military wing in 1972. He refuses to divulge the type of actions he undertook, saying only, with a chuckle, that they were well documented by the security services of the old regime.

During a visit to Lesotho in the 1980s, where his command was based, Gqiba was arrested by the local government, which was a South African proxy. He was held and tortured for 42 days. "The South Africans wanted us, but the United Nations intervened and we were allowed to leave for Lusaka, where the ANC had its headquarters in exile."

An Anglican priest by training, Gqiba established the religious desk of the ANC in exile and regularly visited the movement's military bases in Angola, Tanzania and Uganda. He returned to South Africa in 1993, just before the ANC came to power. In 1998, he became the chaplain general of the South African National Defense Forces.

In South Africa there is a still marginal, but growing voice - among NGOs and in some intellectual circles - calling on the government to reevaluate its support for a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East. An article, penned by a Jewish South African and published recently in the influential Business Day, argued that in South Africa, as in Israel, "there was an attempt to portray our divisions as a conflict between two nations which could be solved only if they were separated. But here, the resistance would have none of it, insisting on an inclusive society in which the rights of all are recognized. All of which makes our government's continued support for separation as a solution all the more puzzling."

Gqiba says he is unmoved by those sounding the death knell of the two-state idea. His government still supports this solution and has been told by Palestinian leaders that they do too. "Who are we to come and say we want a one-state solution. We want to support what the people on the ground have accepted. It would be total arrogance for us to say how it should be done ... We said South Africa belongs to all who live in it - black and white. But our solution might not be applicable in other countries. We're not going to say, `If we did it, why can't you do it?'"

Gqiba might express support for the two-state model, but he is distinctly unenthusiastic about two other Israeli measures aimed at divorcing the two peoples: the separation fence and the disengagement plan, at least the unilateral version espoused by Sharon. He wants to see Israel exit Gaza, but says its departure should be negotiated with the Palestinians. "Israel is not supposed to be there. These are Palestinian lands. So, it's a good move to get out. But they should consult the people affected."

He is riled by the fence, which is often referred to in the South African media as the "apartheid wall." If it makes Israelis feel safer, he might accept it, but "why don't they build it in their own territory?

"We are talking here about cousins. I don't know why the cousins should be out to destroy each other. In South Africa the struggle was clear - against the white racist enemy. I've been here three weeks and up to this point I can't distinguish between a Jew and an Arab. They're cousins. Why should the cousins have an apartheid wall. It's like the Berlin Wall. It separates families. But let's say it's temporary, then why doesn't Israel build it on its own land. The bottom line is that we cannot accept it."

Many in the ANC have viewed Zionism as a colonial movement. Do you?

"Now that I'm in Israel I will need to understand further and then I'll be able to comment. If Zionism means discrimination against others, I'll have problems with that. But if Zionism has nothing to do with discrimination, I might support it. Anything that is exclusive I have serious problems with. But if it's inclusive I don't.

"The State of Israel is here to stay. So the Jewish authorities should not try to exaggerate the threat. They need to reach out to friends. The friends will stand with them. Rather than going into the laager like the Boers. There is no threat, but they like to exaggerate it to get some sympathy. But nobody will destroy the State of Israel. Nobody has the capacity to do that."

In South Africa there was an effective anti-conscription campaign, led by young Whites who refused to serve in the military because they opposed minority rule. What is your view of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza?

How do you send soldiers into occupied areas to continue suppressing the people ... Some of these [Israeli] youngsters are sent there to do this work of collective punishment. It's totally unacceptable. I sympathize with them and I understand why they don't do that.

Do you have a relationship with the South African Jewish community?

"For two weeks before I came, I met with leaders of the Jewish community. The people [in the community] who used to call us terrorists have moved aside. Now you have young leaders. You have people with a vision.

"If you go back in our history, our heroes were Jewish people. [Former head of the South African Communist Party] Joe Slovo. The current minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils. These people were part of the struggle. [Chief Justice] Arthur Chaskalson, [Supreme Court Justice] Albie Sachs. And they were branded as terrorists by their own people."

Religion was not at the heart of the struggle in South Africa. That is not the case here in the Middle East.

I go to church on Sundays. I'm looking for a church here. I am not a fundamentalist. I'm flexible because I know God is universal. I will worship in any religious place. I am prepared to go to a synagogue. If I'm invited to a mosque, I will go and pray there. My background from the liberation movement is to be accommodative.

"Priests played a central role in initiating the ANC. All ANC gatherings open with a prayer. More than 80 percent of our people are religious, but they are not fundamentalist. During the struggle, all the religions were able to find each other.

"Ours was a political struggle, not a religious one. But central people were highly religious. Here the foundation is religious. Whenever religion is central to the struggle, it's difficult to control. There's hatred, hatred, hatred. It's very dangerous, because people want to prove that their God is superior."

You talk of a political culture that was accommodative, inclusive. That's not the case in the Middle East.

"Here I think there is a winner-takes-all culture. We don't believe in that. You need to sit down. Again. As equal partners. Without preconditions. And you must talk, talk, talk. And then be prepared to compromise. There is no absolute position."