South Africa levels apartheid charge at Israel, drawing seething response

Israel protests after Pretoria diplomat at UN Human Rights Council says Jewish state is the only apartheid state in the world

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A segregated bus stop in Johannesburg in 1982. (UN/DB)
A segregated bus stop in Johannesburg in 1982. (UN/DB)

South Africa accused Israel of being the world’s only apartheid state, triggering an angry Israeli reaction.

At a standard review of Israel’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Tuesday, a South African official said the term formerly used to describe black disenfranchisement in South Africa could now be applied to Israel because of its policies toward the Palestinians and other non-Jews.

“Israel is the only state in the world that can be called an apartheid state,” diplomat Clinton Swemmer said. “We remain deeply concerned at the denial of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people, in the absence of which no other human right can be exercised or enjoyed.”

South Africa itself was an apartheid regime between 1948 and 1991. The word, from the Afrikaans, was generally only used to specifically denote South Africa’s racial separation under white minority rule, but it has seeped into criticism of the Jewish state with increasingly regularity in recent years.

Israel has long bristled at use of the term to describe Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and officials regularly point out differences between South Africa’s policies and Israel’s, dismissing use of the word as calumny meant to defame the Jewish state.

South African diplomat Clinton Swemmer speaking at a review of Israels human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, January 23, 2017 /UN website

At the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review, member states comment on each other’s human rights records, asks questions and make recommendations. Dozens of countries took the floor during Tuesday’s discussion, many attacking Israel for alleged human rights abuses and calling on the government to cease settlement construction and allow for a creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines.

Swemmer, a political counselor at Pretoria’s mission to international organizations in Geneva, made five recommendations to Israel on how to improve its human rights record, including halting all settlement construction, intensifying efforts “to address racism against Africans in Israel,” desisting from “abusing human rights defenders” and ceasing “the arbitrary detention of children.”

“South Africa is of the view that the issue of East Jerusalem and the two-state solution are fundamental to the right to self determination of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Israeli diplomat Yoel Mester responded to Swemmer in the council, accusing him of using inappropriate language.

“We came here with the intention of having a serious discussion on human rights issues. Unlike what some delegations seem to believe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved in the Human Rights Council and certainly not during today’s UPR,” he said. “We asked that delegates stick to the appropriate language of the UN and we would ask that the discussion is steered toward human rights and not politicized issues.”

The Human Rights Council during an interactive dialogue with the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip on June 29, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. (UN photo)

Another Israeli diplomat said Pretoria’s “baseless allegation is not only false, but also illegitimate,” though he added that countries are entitled to have their own positions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It certainly has no place in the cooperative exchange of the Universal Periodic Review, a peer-review mechanism where countries are expected to voice constructive criticism,” the diplomat said Wednesday.

“Many countries took the opportunity and made useful recommendations. But it is deplorable that countries like South Africa took advantage of this forum to throw baseless politicized allegations against Israel, missing the opportunity to contribute to the discussion in any meaningful way.”

President of South Africa Jacob Zuma attends the last day of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 20, 2017, during the African National Congress (ANC) 54th National Conference (AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET)

Israel was one of the few countries to maintain robust ties with South Africa during a large-scale international campaign to isolate it in order to end apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s. The pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement meant to pressure Israel is modeled on the anti-apartheid campaign.

The countries have gone through periods of frayed relations since, with the ruling African National Congress seen as generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The ANC last month voted to urge the government to immediately downgrade Pretoria’s embassy in Israel. At the African National Congress’ biannual National Conference in Johannesburg, the party unanimously passed a resolution to turn the embassy in Ramat Gan into a “liaison office.” However, it is unclear whether the government in Pretoria will implement the decision.

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