It has been nearly two weeks since Israel and Hamas began exchanging rocket fire. In that relatively brief time, over 200 Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed. Most of the world’s news media outlets are covering the crisis with many supporting one side or the other. To quickly summarize, Hamas is firing rockets into Israel from civilian positions and the Israeli Defense Force is responding by attacking those sites. That is as detailed as this blog is going to be in discussing the specifics of the conflict. Why? Because of a question I was asked recently by a close friend. He wanted my opinion about how Rwanda views the seemingly never-ending conflict. This question is important not only for Rwandans, but for many who are neither directly involved nor indirectly affected by the conflict.
Officially, the Government of Rwanda has called on the Security Council (it currently occupies the Security Council President’s chair) to push for a ceasefire and has reiterated the United Nation’s time-worn rhetoric that has not helped solve the 60 year old conflict. Some of my close Jewish colleagues have told me that Rwanda should immediately support Israel, because it is in a similar situation. Across Rwanda’s border is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a terrorist group determined to destroy nearly all the country’s accomplishments over the last decade. The most similar characteristic with Israel is the FDLR’s desire to resume the genocide that butchered over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus (but directed at the Rwandan Tutsi population). This threat of possible extermination that both nations face is at the center of the comparison. Another comparison is the seemingly biased nature of criticism that both nations face with national security.
Returning to my Jewish colleagues, who believe Rwanda should be publicly standing up with Israel and condemning Hamas’s actions. I have no doubt that this has been discussed by members within Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. However, that is probably the farthest it will go. The country has nothing to really gain from supporting Israel or indeed Hamas. Rwanda is still a small nation and occupying the Security Senate Presidency for a month will not change that. In addition, the two countries have a rather quiet relationship that extends from agriculture and economic development to military training. I would not be surprised (based on past interviews I have conducted) if many within the Rwandan military (the Rwandan Defense Force) are rooting for Israel to win the conflict.
I have discussed the conflict with some non-political Rwandans who are confused by it. What they read on the internet (BBC, CNN and etc) leads them to support Israel based off of their own experiences. Rwanda suffered horrific terrorist attacks from former genocide forces after the 1994 genocide. This past has the residual effect of Rwanda having a strong military that protects the civilian population. Israel is arguably acting similarly in protecting its civilians. However, the deaths of civilian Palestinians is something that cannot be overlooked or whitewashed. Intriguingly, a Rwandan military soldier told me in prior research I conducted that, “in wars, people die. You do not want the innocent to die, but it unfortunately happens.”
So, it seemed difficult to answer my colleague’s earlier question. Yes, I do think Rwandans generally are supporting Israel, but they have little to gain in either keeping quiet or speaking out in support or condemnation. I did say that Rwanda might be able instead to provide an answer or at least an important first step towards sustainable long-term peace in the Middle East. One of the core problems between Israel and the Palestinians is trust. Neither side trusts the other. Both sides have valid reasons for this, but the lack of mutual trust renders ceasefires only temporary, with no possibility for these agreements to grow into a larger peace deal. This is where Rwanda can come in and help create trust in both Israel and Palestine for real negotiations which hopefully fosters a long-term solution.
After the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, the former mechanism of justice, the Gacaca courts, were re-introduced in an attempt to settle the disputes of individuals who were involved in the genocide. Gacaca originally was found in pre-colonial Rwanda to handle local disputes. It was utilized again for Rwandans accused of committing acts of genocide by bringing them to the attention of the public. Citizens of the local villages were required to attend the hearings either as witnesses to the fact that justice was being locally performed against genocide perpetrators, or in providing evidence to convict or free a defendant. The accused were given a chance to admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness from the people or community that they wronged. If they confessed, they received a lesser punishment than ones found guilty of the crime. The key role of Gacaca was to try to get the guilty party to admit what they had done in order to promote reconciliation. The community then embraced those former genocide perpetrators who admitted their guilt.
The significance of Gacaca in the context of the current Middle East conflict is how it was a mechanism for communities mired in distrust and prior conflict to come together and discuss their accusations and concerns with their neighbors. Decades of distrust among neighbors slowly dissipates as pain and fear are shared and are transformed into trust. I do not want to depict Gacaca as a perfect mechanism towards reconciliation and peace, because there are some problems. However, it does provide a mechanism that Israelis and Palestinians have not previously had. These two communities have not come together to share their pain, sorrow and distrust. At most, these feelings have been expressed through the political manipulation of self-interested leaders who seem to care more about their own selves rather than the people they are suppose to be representing. What both sides of the conflict need most is to trust each other for a real and lasting compromise that incorporates the region as a whole. The United Nations or other nations like Rwanda cannot create these compromises or solutions, it must come from the people most affected. And Gacaca might be a promising first step.