South Africa to pull diplomats from Israel to protest war

Pretoria accuses Jerusalem of ‘collective punishment’ of Gazans in offensive against Hamas, says Israeli envoy slandering pro-Palestinian voices

File: South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor speaks during a press conference with her Iranian counterpart in Tehran on October 22, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
File: South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor speaks during a press conference with her Iranian counterpart in Tehran on October 22, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The South African government said on Monday it would recall all its diplomats from Israel to signal its concern over the situation in Gaza.

Pretoria also said the position of the Israeli ambassador to the country was becoming “more and more untenable,” accusing the diplomat of having made “disparaging remarks” about people criticizing Israel.

“The South African government has decided to withdraw all its diplomats in Tel Aviv for consultation,” Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, a minister in the president’s office, told a press briefing without providing further details.

South Africa is the latest country to downgrade ties with Israel over the war, which erupted when Palestinian terrorists stormed across the border into Israel under the cover of heavy rocket fire, killing 1,400 people and taking over 240 hostages to Gaza. Most of those slain were civilians at their homes and at a music festival.

Israel declared war and vowed to topple Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip has claimed that some 9,700 people have been killed since the beginning of Israel’s offensive. However, that figure cannot be independently verified and is believed to include Hamas terror operatives as well as civilians killed by misfired terror group rockets that fell within the enclave.

Pretoria has long been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party often linking it to its own struggle against apartheid. In 2019 it downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv and pulled out its ambassador.

Pro-Palestinian activists gather during an anti-US and anti-Israel demonstration in front of the US Consulate in Johannesburg, on November 04, 2023. (MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the recall of the diplomats was “normal practice,” adding the envoys would give a “full briefing” to the government, which will then decide whether a “continued relationship is actually able to be sustained.”

“We are… extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians in the Palestinian territories and we believe the nature of response by Israel has become one of collective punishment,” Pandor told a press conference on Monday, as she hosted her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.

“We felt it important that we do signal the concern of South Africa while continuing to call for a comprehensive cessation (of hostilities).”

‘Displeasure with the ambassador’

Earlier, Ntshavheni accused Israeli ambassador Eliav Belotsercovsky of making derogatory comments about South Africans, including members of government, “who are speaking against the holocaust being committed by the Israeli government.”

The South African Foreign Ministry had been instructed “to convey the South African government displeasure with the ambassador” through diplomatic channels, she said.

“We felt it important that we should call the ambassador in,” added Pandor.

“There seems to be a strange practice among some ambassadors in South Africa, that they can just say what they like… I don’t know if it’s because it’s an African country and they disrespect us but it’s something that we should not tolerate.”

The Foreign Ministry later pushed back on the criticism of Belotsercovsky, expressing its full backing for the envoy and slamming South Africa’s decision to recall its diplomats from Israel as “a victory for the Hamas and a prize for the massacre it committed on October 7.”

“Israel expects South Africa to condemn the murderous terror group Hamas, which is worse than ISIS, and support Israel’s right to defend itself from an assault by a terror group that raises the banner of destroying the State of Israel,” a ministry statement said.

Last month, Pandor denied she had expressed support for Hamas’s October 7 onslaught in a phone call with the terror group’s leader, which she said had focused instead on humanitarian aid.

Numerous pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests have taken place across South Africa over the past month.

A man waves an Israeli flag as attendees take part in an event called Cape Town Stands With Israel, which consisted of speeches, prayers and songs, at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town on October 15, 2023. (RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is among several ANC officials who have participated with flags and keffiyeh scarves, in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Home to the largest Jewish community in sub-Saharan Africa, the country has also seen several pro-Israel demonstrations and initiatives, including a Shabbat dinner table set up in Johannesburg with empty chairs and photos of the hostages held by Hamas.

It is the second African country to downgrade ties during the war, after Chad recalled its charge d’affaires Sunday.

Turkey, Jordan, and Bahrain are among the Middle Eastern countries to pull their ambassadors, while leftist-led Latin American countries Honduras, Chile, Bolivia, and Colombia have also pulled theirs.

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