One can understand the anger motivating people in the Jewish community to place a full page advert last weekend in the Sunday Times, denouncing Hamas and the ANC’s enthusiastic welcome of its leaders to South Africa two weeks ago. The ad was intended to inform the public of the true – and terroristic – face of Hamas, hidden behind the smiles and speeches. But was it a good idea, tactically?
In any event, it didn’t happen. The Sunday Times – South Africa’s biggest-selling weekly newspaper with a claimed readership of some 3 700 000 – pulled the ad on Friday afternoon, despite the fact that it was paid for.
The SA Zionist Federation informed the Jewish community about this in an e-mail, criticising the newspaper: “…These are the facts that they did not want their readership to know about Hamas!” In a further development on Tuesday, however, the Sunday Times agreed to run the ad this weekend, but without the original photograph showing a masked Hamas operative in a threatening pose.
Among other things, the original ad said: “Unlike South Africans, who achieved peaceful resolution to conflict through dialogue, negotiation, truth and reconciliation, the political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, emphatically insists: ‘Jihad and armed resistance are the true and correct way… There will be no concession on an inch of the land’.” In other words, Israel must be eliminated.
Placing such an ad raises issues familiar to any media expert. Firstly, no matter how well composed it is, you cannot control how it will be exploited and understood by sectors of the newspapers’ colossal readership.
Among many, particularly in the Muslim communities, it will have the opposite effect than intended: Hamas will be seen as heroes from Gaza fighting courageously for the return of their “stolen” land.
The ad will be viewed as a crude attempt by the “Zionist lobby” to discredit Palestinians fighting Israeli oppression, using Jewish money and influence – a full page ad in the Sunday Times costs an enormous amount.
Secondly, such an ad gives Hamas massive, free publicity. People who have never heard of it will want to know its story. With ANC heavyweights – including President Jacob Zuma – openly embracing it, many will assume there must be something good there. In most places, there will not be anyone to put the Israeli side of the story.
Political adverts are by their nature problematic, by condensing complex topics such as the Middle East conflict into a few sentences and emotive slogans. The nuances are lost.
The Jewish community was outraged a few years ago when BDS placed billboard adverts along the highway to Pretoria, containing simplistic maps purporting to show how Israel progressively stole Palestinian land over several decades. The billboards’ accuracy was challenged and they were ultimately removed.
There is a good chance the Sunday Times and those behind the Hamas ad would be challenged in court over the original ad’s tone and veracity. Ensuing court battles could again give Hamas huge public opportunities for arguing its case against Israel.
So what to do about the ANC’s embrace of Hamas? Some points in the proposed ad were on target. Such as asking why on earth the ANC would want to “warmly” welcome them in South Africa, when the European Union, US, Canada, Australia and many democracies, “keep Hamas on their terrorism blacklist”, and “Hamas is unwelcome in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh”.
That question, however, would be better targeted directly at people who can engage with the Middle East’s complexity and the Israeli dilemma regarding how to achieve security in that chaotic region. The majority of Sunday Times readers are either not interested, or will be instinctively suspicious of the ad’s message.
Given the ANC’s increasingly beleaguered condition as South Africa unravels under its rule, it is puzzling why it chose this moment to do something as provocative as hosting Hamas.
The recent nationwide student uprising over university fees is one illustration that the party is hopelessly out of touch with the people’s needs. What has Hamas got to do with those needs? Is the ANC simply trying to capture the Muslim vote in the Western Cape by parading Hamas’ Meshaal as their guest? The harm this does to the country’s image is enormous.
The ANC should be made to pay for its blundering and for contradicting its own policy of supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there are better ways to do this than a one-sided, expensive ad in a newspaper which will in any case be misinterpreted. We wait to see what reaction the ad will have if the newspaper does indeed run it this weekend. The ad’s sponsors may come to regret it.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in SAJR on November 6, 2015)