The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has ended with no end to the current violence in the Middle East. Nearly two thousand people have died in this horrible wave of violence. Since the start of the conflict, I have been residing in Rwanda interviewing Rwandan government officials for my PhD research. No matter the topic, somehow we always discuss the current Middle East conflict. Many know my religious background and automatically assume that I have an opinion on the current conflict. I try to avoid communicating my personal views of the conflict, but I am still pressed to give an answer.
What I have learned over the last few weeks is about the divisions within Rwandan society about the conflict. The Rwandan government has supported Israel’s claim about it being a matter of security. Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo traveled to Israel during the second week of the conflict with former Israeli President Simon Peres to witness rockets being fired from Gaza. Her voice of support for Israel was welcomed by many of my Jewish colleagues. However, she does not represent all Rwandans, who have very different and polarizing views of the conflict. So far I have encountered four different opinions, each containing its own logical explanation and its sense of moral superiority over contending views.
The first argument falls in line with the Foreign Minister’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself. It is rather difficult for many in the West to have the lived experience of their nations were in serious danger. Even though Europe was on the frontlines of the Cold War, the last serious military treat that actually caused civilian deaths was World War Two.
Over the last two decades, Rwanda has and continues to face serious security threats from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, Rwanda is fighting against the terrorist group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). After the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi Genocide, former genocide forces were able to regroup to be a serious military threat against the new government in Kigali, Rwanda. The Congo Wars and internal security crackdowns in Northwestern Rwanda made this security threat one of terrorism rather than a standing rebel army that could, through traditional military practices, topple the Rwandan government.
Many in Rwanda see Hamas as Israel’s FDLR. Hamas is a strategic threat that might not be able to destroy Israel, but it does have the capabilities to conduct terrorism and kill civilians in order to establish a Palestinian nation with the blood of Israelis. So, the supporters of Israel regard it as a great hypocrisy if Rwanda is against the Israeli offensive, given that their own nation is also in combat against a terrorist group that wishes to destroy the Rwandan government.
The second Rwandan perspective on the Middle East conflict supports Hamas, but more accurately the Palestinians. These people are not necessarily pro-peace, but more anti-Israel, and they are especially against the Israeli offensive. They can be categorized into two sub-groups. The first believes that Israel should not be carrying out its current military offensive, because it is killing too many civilians. The justification of killing Hamas terrorists is not strong enough to excuse the 1,500 Palestinian civilian deaths. One person commented that Israel should not be implementing, let alone want, the military tactic of just firing missiles into Gaza, based on the experiences of the Holocaust. This can loosely be related to the Rwandan government’s involvement in global peacekeeping missions in order to correct the past mistakes of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), which failed to stop the 1994 genocide.
Through its peacekeeping activities, Rwanda is showing its commitment to preventing others from experiencing genocide. Rwanda learned its lesson and wants to make sure it is not repeated, which Israel should do as well. The second sub-group comprises old anti-West ideologues. These former Maoists view Israel not necessary as a colonizing state, but as an instrument of colonizing Western interests in the Middle East. In short, they believe that Israel is just following the implicit as well as unspoken orders of the West to destabilize the region in favor of Western business interests.
What I have seen that fascinates me more than either of the previous two views is that of the extreme pro-Israel supporters. I should state upfront that none of these people are going to do anything rash or senseless. They comprise mostly highly religious Christians who view Jews as the chosen people and Israel as the holy state, and thus both deserving of their full support. These people are the same ones who love me because of my religious background (Jewish Brother of Rwanda) before I even learn their names!
For those who are unaware, Rwanda is a very religious Christian country with growing political, economical, military and agricultural ties to Israel. It is not surprising that religious ties have grown since many priests tell their congregations, especially in the Evangelical community, about the holy sanctuary of Israel that is found in the Bible. They do not differentiate between Biblical Israel and the current political state. Following this logic, the political state of Israel contains the holiness and righteousness of Biblical Israel.
The last Rwandan opinion on the conflict should come as no surprise to most; it is that of indifference or simple lack of awareness. Rwanda is still an agricultural-based country with most of the population focused more on growing crops, sending their children to school and making sure there is food for dinner, than on geo-political conflicts. These daily tasks leave little room for anything going on outside their lives, let alone outside their country. They hear about the conflict on their radios, or if they have televisions they watch the images unfold, but are just not that interested. They have more important issues to worry about.
In my last blog entry, I spoke of how some in the Rwandan Defense Force regard the Israeli Defense Force very highly and believe that Hamas cannot put up a serious challenge to Israel’s military. But in truth, the future is unknown, and this is the common thread running through the four Rwandan responses to the Middle East Conflict. No one is truly sure what the outcome will be. All we, or at least I, hope for is an end to the fighting even if that seems impossible right now.