In a highly unusual move for a senior diplomat, the former South African ambassador to Israel accused the Jewish state of practicing apartheid and indicated that it is built on “stolen” land.
“I have supported the struggle against Apartheid South Africa and now I cannot be a proponent of what I have witnessed in Israel, and that is, a replication of Apartheid!” Ismail Coovadia proclaimed last week in a letter to a group of pro-Palestinian filmmakers.
The statement drew a harsh reaction from Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem, who said Coovadia was not acting like a diplomat and castigated his “uncouth” rhetoric.
Coovadia served as Pretoria’s ambassador in Tel Aviv until December. He made the statement to a group of filmmakers critical of Israel’s policies toward Bedouin communities in the Negev.
He was commenting on a gift sent to him by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which included the planting of trees by the Jewish National Fund in a forest in Israel. After Coovadia finished his term in Israel, the Foreign Ministry’s director general, Rafael Barak, sent him a certificate stating that 18 trees had been planted in his honor by the JNF.
“Regrettably, my permission was not sought to plant a tree/s in my or the name of a South African Ambassador on usurped land, the rightful land of the Palestinians and Bedouins. I reserve the right to the usage of my name with or without my permission,” Coovadia wrote.
Barak’s certificate is “nothing less than an offence to my dignity and integrity,” the diplomat continued. “I was not a party to, and never will be, to the planting of ‘18 trees,’ in my ‘honour,’ on expropriated and stolen land.”
The JNF only plants trees inside the pre-1967 lines, in what the international community recognizes as Israeli territory. Critics and human rights advocates claim that the JNF’s “Ambassador’s Forest,” north of Beersheba (where the trees in Coovadia’s honor were presumably planted) was built on the ruins of a Bedouin village called al-Araqib.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem reacted with disbelief and indignation at Coovadia’s statements. “These utterly uncouth words are not those of a diplomat. When he served in Israel, Ambassador Coovadia’s language was diametrically opposed to what he is saying in this letter. The insurmountable gap between his discourse and attitude in Israel and those expressed by his letter can only be explained by himself,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel Tuesday.
The diplomat’s statement are “just as absurd and immoral as it would be to deny South African any legitimacy because of its blood-soaked history,” Palmor added.
In a response to a Times of Israel query, the JNF stated it that “has never banished a person from his or her land, nor has it planted a single tree on land that does not belong to it or to the state.” The planting actions of the JNF throughout Israel “are carried out only under the direction of the Israel Land Administration, on land that is owned by the State of Israel or owned by the JNF itself — in accordance with the law.”
The South African Embassy in Tel Aviv did not respond to requests for comments.
Relations between Jerusalem and Pretoria have been frosty for years, but reached a low point in 2012 when South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim discouraged his compatriots from visiting Israel. “Israel is an occupier country which is oppressing Palestine, so it is not proper for South Africans to associate with Israel,” he said.
Tensions flared again this year when the South African government obligated retailers to attach special labels to goods imported from East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Coovadia served as South Africa’s envoy in Israel from March 2009 until December 2012. He was replaced on February 28, 2013, by Sisa Ngombane.
During a ceremony in Jerusalem, Ngombane told President Shimon Peres that South Africa believes that “Israel deserves genuine peace and supports any step in that direction,” according to a statement by the President’s Residence.