CAPE TOWN – Statesmanlike, reasoned, informed and genteel – this is the Khaled Meshal that was discovered by the African National Congress and South African Muslim groups last week. More importantly, he appeared as the guardian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and a representative of the current Palestinian rebellion.
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The Hamas leader made sure not to present the organization as an alternative to the PLO but rather the other way around – as part of the overall Palestinian political alignment. But in the undeclared, under-the-surface contest to lead the Palestinian people, he undoubtedly won this round against the PLO and especially the Palestinian Authority’s gray compromising bureaucrats.
The visit had been planned long ago and was described as part of relations between two sister parties. So Meshal met Jacob Zuma as ANC president, not state president; the two signed a document pledging cooperation between the movement for liberation from apartheid and its Palestinian counterpart today.
“We can teach from our experience in struggle and conflict resolution without forcing our position on anyone,” an ANC delegate said. He and his colleagues made clear to the media they still supported a two-state solution.
"Comrade Khaled" was how the master of ceremonies, dressed in a BDS shirt, addressed Meshal at a rally Wednesday at Darul Islam High School in Surrey Estate, a Cape Town suburb. The rally was the last stop on a four-day visit that had been kept secret until the last moment. South African Muslim activists said they had been trying to arrange it since 2001.
Hamas’ 19-strong delegation, including bodyguards, was headed by Meshal, Moussa Abu Marzouk and Mohammed Nazzal. When the crowd rose to sing the South African national anthem, Meshal, with his neatly trimmed beard and white shirt, gazed with shining eyes at the sympathetic audience.
Some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims as their dress indicated and many of them students brought by bus from nearby schools, filled the hall. Students in a wine-colored school uniform and a white head scarf didn’t know who would be speaking, but one of them knew that the rally showed “we support Palestine, not Israel.”
The first speaker to greet the guests was Igsaan Hendricks, president of the Muslim Judicial Council of Cape Town.
“As Ismail Haniyeh said, we won’t recognize the State of Israel,” he said solemnly, referring to the Hamas leader in Gaza. The audience applauded. The South African state security minister, David Mahlobo, and the ANC president in the Western Cape, Marius Fransman, did not join the applauders.
Hendricks, who spoke in Arabic and English, said “your leadership is ours and ours is yours” to the audience’s response of “Allahu Akbar.” He said the Al-Aqsa Mosque was in danger and quoted the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Raed Salah: “The time to sleep has past.” Some people in the crowd called out: “We will redeem Al-Aqsa with spirit and blood.”
Hendricks said he was personally involved in the 15-year effort to arrange the visit. “It’s a defining moment in South Africa’s history, a decisive moment in the Palestinians’ history and a decisive moment in the history of their liberation,” he said.
Meshal opened with greetings to his ANC comrades and everyone who supports the Palestinian struggle – Muslims, Christians and Jews. “All the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and in ‘48 thank you for your solidarity with the struggle,” he said, with ‘48 referring to Israel on the other side of the Green Line.
The Hamas leader, who lives in Qatar, sounded as if he had just taken part in demonstrations on the brink of a third intifada. He spoke in short sentences, which the translator extended (adding words like “illegal” after Israel).
Meshal praised the Hamas military wing's successes against the world’s strongest army – the IDF – during last year's war and hinted that not only Israel but the Palestinian Authority and other regional players were thwarting Palestinian efforts to arm in the West Bank. He said today’s knives and stones were a substitute for those arms, and then spoke about the dangers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque: “Each one of you must come out of here and ask: What am I doing for Al-Aqsa?”
In interviews with South African journalists and at a meeting in Pretoria with activists and reporters, he answered questions at length and eschewed catchphrases. A Muslim activist asked him about the problematic Hamas covenant, to which he replied that it was written 28 years ago and that the movement had since developed its positions, Dr. Ran Greenstein, an Israeli academic who teaches in South Africa and attended the meeting, told Haaretz. There was no need to amend the old document under outside pressure, Meshal said.
He said Hamas had agreed to a two-state solution for the sake of unity with the Arab League, but Israel had rejected that option by word and deed. So this solution was no longer relevant and the future would usher in a democratic Palestinian state for Muslims, Christians and Jews, Meshal said.
Like South Africa in the past, Israel’s strength is its role as a tool for the imperialists, Meshal said in an interview with the South African newspaper The Star.
“Some can see that Israel is losing this status, this importance, as an imperial tool in the region; it is gradually losing,” he said. “But I think it will take some time until it is obsolete as an imperialist tool. And we can see more and more, mostly after last year’s war on Gaza, that Israel is becoming a burden on the shoulders of the Western powers.”
As Greenstein told Haaretz, Meshal kept presenting Hamas first and foremost as a national liberation movement that operates within the framework of Islam. However, the majority of pro-Palestinian activists in South Africa are indeed Muslims, and, in the rally in Cape Town – the only province ruled by the opposition Democratic Alliance – the local ANC leader implored them to vote for the ruling party.
Some pro-Palestinian activists got the impression that the great effort the ANC put in this visit was for internal political purposes. But Greenstein does not agree and assumes it was meant to demonstrate the independence of South African foreign policy.
Either way, Meshal’s visit was pushed aside Wednesday as a wave of student protests washed over South Africa’s universities. In Cape Town thousands of students besieged parliament and shouted at the police sent to disperse them with clubs and rubber bullets: We’re students, not criminals.