South African minister vows to visit Ramallah despite Israeli ban

South African minister vows to visit Ramallah despite Israeli ban

Pretoria will ‘take action’ if Blade Nzimande not allowed to enter Israel, spokesman says

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

Blade Nzimande (photo credit: State Department / Wikipedia)
Blade Nzimande (photo credit: State Department / Wikipedia)

A South African minister who planned to visit Ramallah but was denied entry permission by Israel insists that he will visit the Palestinian Authority nonetheless.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande will “definitely” visit Ramallah, though how he will get there has yet to be established, his spokesman Alex Mashil told The Times of Israel on Monday. Pretoria might “take action” if the ban is not lifted, he threatened.

“We will not allow Israel to determine for us which minister in the cabinet can or cannot visit Palestine. That undermines our sovereignty and national self-determination and we will not allow it,” Mashil said.

Nzimande maintains that the Israeli government cannot intimidate him and therefore “he wanted to rebel against them,” sources close to the issue told the South African newspaper The Citizen.

Last week, Nzimande — the leader of the South African Communist Party — reacted furiously to Israel’s refusal of a visa, calling it a “declaration of diplomatic aggression on our government” and vowing to intensify nationwide efforts to boycott Israel.

Israeli officials confirmed that Nzimande had been denied entrance but did not specify a reason. The South African minister said he was told the reasons for the ban related to his anti-Israel agitation. Jerusalem had labeled him an “enemy of Israel,” his spokesperson told The Citizen.

One Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recalled that Nzimande and his party last year vocally called on the government in Pretoria to deny an entry visa to the Dalai Lama, citing their good ties with China. Last year, the South African Communist Party accused the Tibetan monk of using his planned (and ultimately canceled) trip “to use the political prestige of visiting South Africa to try and legitimate his secessionist agenda.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday called the minister’s response “hypocritical,” saying that there is much racism and xenophobic violence in South Africa and that the government and the Communist Party “should stop preaching to and attacking Israel, which is a glorious democracy.”

One Israeli official suggested that Nzimande was barred from coming to Israel since he was planning to use the country merely as “a transit point” on his way to Ramallah, refusing to meet Israeli officials.

Nzimande is known to be ferociously critical of Israel, but other senior South African officials with similar views have been receiving visas in recent months, including Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau and Deputy Minister Obed Bapela, the head of the ruling ANC party’s international relations committee.

Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria, Arthur Lenk, refused to comment on this “specific consular issue that was decided in Jerusalem,” but confirmed that Israel regularly facilitates travel arrangements for South African officials, even if they are only interested in visiting the Palestinians and do not interact with Israelis.

Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk, right, hands his letter of credence to South African President Jacob Zuma, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Ilana Lenk)
Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk, right, hands his letter of credence to South African President Jacob Zuma, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Ilana Lenk)

“We have no problem with the fact that South Africa has a close relationship with our neighbors,” Lenk told The Times of Israel on Monday, adding that the ANC’s historical relationship with the Palestinians could actually be helpful.

“South Africa and its achievements 21 years ago came about through negotiation, compromise and co-existence. Those are all lessons that the Palestinians should hear and learn from,” he said. “It’s not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t have to be that we’re friends with one side and not friends with the other a priori.”

The denial of Nzimande’s planned trip to Ramallah meant that a government minister would never be able to travel to Israel or Palestine, his spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana said last week, and “has effectively barred all South African officials from visiting both countries.”

Nzimande was meant to meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Khawla Shksheer, to discuss the implementation of a memorandum of understanding between Ramallah and Pretoria signed in November by presidents Jacob Zuma and Mahmoud Abbas, Mashilo, the Communist Party’s national spokesperson, said.

“This cooperation agreement has to be taken forward, whether the Palestinian minister comes to South Africa or the South African minister comes to Palestine. But we will not abandon our quest to demand the right to visit Palestine,” Mashilo said.

Nzimande and three aides had attempted to reach Ramallah via Jordan, but as Israel controls the border crossings into the West Bank, the South African delegation asked for visa permits. The minister had no intention of meeting with any Israeli officials, Mashilo confirmed.

“Israel has no right to determine who the Palestinians associate with,” he told The Times of Israel. “We experienced apartheid in the past. We can’t let that happen again.” Restricting access to the Palestinian territories constitutes a violation of international law, which Pretoria was unwilling to accept, he added, threatening to “take action” if Israel upholds its policy.

Ties between Jerusalem and Pretoria have long been cool, and South Africa is one of the most hostile countries with which Israel has diplomatic ties. And yet, Lenk, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, said that he and his team have been finding more “ways for interaction” than the public is aware of, citing visits to the country by senior Israeli officials. “There are lots of positives in the bilateral relationship,” he said, emphasizing that in 2014 Israeli imports to South Africa increased for the fifth consecutive year.

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