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‘Expel Israeli Ambassador To SA’: How SA Responded To Gaza Killings

Wits graffiti of Israel and Palestine relations South Africa

From March 30, Gazans launched a six-week campaign, the “Great March of Return”. They were demanding the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to be allowed to return to their land. They were also protesting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. It started on March 30 which is Land Day and is to end on May 15 which marks the Nakba. On May 14, Israeli forces killed 58 Palestinians protesters. 

In response to the violence and rising death, the South African government announced that they would be recalling the South African ambassador to Israel.

“Given the indiscriminate and gravity of the latest Israeli attack, the South African government has taken a decision to recall Ambassador Sisa Ngombane with immediate effect until further notice,” Department of International Relations spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said on Monday.

The decision comes on the back of a resolution from the ruling African National Congress (ANC)’s Nasrec Conference where they resolved to “immediately and unconditionally” downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a liaison office.

However, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa still remains in the country.

Land Day marks the 1976 commemoration of the day that Israeli government expropriated Palestinian land for their own use while the Nakba (Catastrophe) is the 1948 exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. The Nakba is also the day when the state of Israel was established on May 15, 1948.

For six weeks, Palestinians have been gathering at the border of Palestinian land in Gaza to protest against the Israeli Apartheid regime. The protest action reached its culmination on May 14, ahead of Nakba Day. The United States of America chose May 14 as the day that they moved their embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, reversing decades of American foreign policy on the Middle East conflict.

Palestinian protests for the Great March of Return intensified on Tuesday, with Israeli soldiers injuring thousands of people and the death toll rising to over 58 people. Since the protests began on March 30, Israeli forces had killed at least 90 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded close to 10,500 people. Protests also began in occupied West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron, as a response to the US embassy move. In Ramallah, Palestinians were expected to protest from the city centre to the Qalandia military checkpoint, the main northern crossing separating Ramallah from Jerusalem.

Asaad Abu Shariek, a spokesman for the movement, said demonstrators were following a path laid down by South Africa during its struggle against apartheid.

The Economic Freedom Fighters has welcomed the government’s response but had called on the Israeli ambassador to be expelled until Israeli ends its occupation of Palestine.

“To this day, many freedom-loving governments of the world have associated with Israel, despite its racist policies on Palestine. As a result, Israel has not only hardened its oppression on Palestinians, [but] it has expanded its occupation in the West Bank, through forceful removals of Palestinians from their lands.”

Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst told The Daily Vox that: “It is the strongest statement any country can show in relation to a matter such as this. We know South Africa has also taken a position in the past regarding the US decision to relocate their embassy to Jerusalem. South Africa had expressed themselves so it’s not a surprise to see South Africa coming out this way because of the historical solidarity between South Africa and the people of Palestine.”

He says South Africa has followed suit from how other countries have responded.

“Once you recall your own ambassador, what that means it you are actually suspending diplomatic relations with that country and I don’t know whether South Africa should expel their own ambassador or will Israel retaliate by withdrawing their own ambassador.” Mathekga says.

He also says that this is the strongest action from South Africa by their freezing diplomatic relations as this will affecting trade relations: “I really cannot imagine anything stronger than withdrawing your own ambassador. I cannot imagine anything stronger.”

Various African countries attended the opening including Angola, Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. Many African countries have had close economic and political ties with Israel.

With regards to the attending of African countries who attended the embassy opening, Mathekga says many of those countries are looking into their own interests as they rely on foreign aid from the USA and are therefore not able to take the kind of position that South Africa took.

“The extent to which a country responds is an indication of the extent of sovereignty a country has,” Mathekga said.

In commemoration of Nakba Day, civil society and Palestinian solidarity organisations are to hold marches in major cities in South Africa. In Cape Town, protesters are to march to the Parliament in support of the Palestine’s Great March as well against Israeli Apartheid while in Johannesburg, protester will picket outside the US Embassy in Sandton.

Steven Gruzd, the head of African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute for International Affairs said in an interview with The Daily Vox: “The South African government has been a supporter of the Palestinians for many years, and sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very much through the lens of its own experiences.”

Gruzd said that the withdrawing the ambassador is one of the strongest messages of dissatisfaction that a foreign government can demonstrate as pressure from activist groups has been mounting on the SA government to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv.

However, Gruzd said: “This incident may well precipitate that process. Withdrawing the ambassador will, however, likely negate any role South Africa may want to play as a mediator in solving this complex conflict.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) also released a statement condemning Israel’s actions against Palestinian protesters. The trade union has noted the decision by the South African government to recall the Ambassador to Israel. They say while this is certainly a step in the right direction much more needs to be done. Numsa also demands has the immediate expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from South Africa and that all trade ties between the two countries must be severed.

Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) representative in Palestine said in a press release that the events of May 14 are unacceptable and inhuman.

Ingres said: “This bloodbath is the continuation of Israeli army’s policy during the last seven weeks: shooting with live ammunition at demonstrators, on the assumption that anyone approaching the separation fence is a legitimate target. Most of the wounded will be condemned to suffer lifelong injuries.
MSF has called on the Israeli army to stop its disproportionate use of violence against Palestinians protestors.

Palestinian solidarity group, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) has welcomed the decision by the government but also called on the South African government to expel the Israeli ambassador in SA. Additionally, they want the ruling party’s 54th National Conference resolution for the “immediate and unconditional downgrade of the SA Embassy in Israel to a liaison office” and for the government to lead an international arms embargo against Israel to be implemented.

Ahmed Abu Rtaima, one of the organisers of the Great March to Return told Turkish media, TRT World  that the march was organised because he wrote a Facebook status about an idea of Palestinians in Gaza marching peacefully to the insulation gate and saying: “We want to go back to our lands, we want life and nothing more than life.” From that status, the movement evolved.

Rtaima says Gazans are living in a prison so why should they not break the walls of the prison. He also said May 15 won’t be the last day of the protesting because Palestinians are struggling for freedom, dignity and self-determination and will only stop protesting when they have achieved that.

“You cannot be a human unless you struggle for the sake of freedom and if you do not struggle for your freedom, then your humanity is incomplete.” said Rtaima.

The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) shadow minister of international relations and cooperation Stevens Mokgalapa has condemned the violence but said they are disappointed that the South African government has chosen to withdraw the ambassador to Israel precisely at a time when South Africa should be showing leadership.

Mokgalapa says it is crucial that South Africa remains a mediator and a special envoy in this conflict, advocating for a two-state solution so that the violence in the Middle East can come to an end.

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