Pretoria recalls its Tel Aviv envoys, prepares to act against Israeli ambassador to South Africa

The South African government has recalled its diplomats from Israel over the country’s continued bombing of the Gaza Strip, in which more than 9 500 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed. 

An expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, whose position has been described by Pretoria as “untenable”, over his aggressive stance in defence of apartheid policies being imposed by the Zionist state is likely to follow.

In a post-cabinet briefing on Monday, Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshaveni said the government was “disappointed” by the “impunity” of the Israeli government and its “refusal” to respect international law and United Nations resolutions.

This is after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution late last month calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the bombing of Gaza, which has been taking place since the 7 October raid into Israel by Hamas in which 1 400 people were killed and about 250 people taken hostage.

Ntshaveni said humanitarian corridors remained closed, preventing civilians from leaving Gaza, despite the ongoing ground offensive and the continued airstrikes on and shelling of schools, hospitals, ambulances and civilians.

“A genocide under the watch of the international community cannot be tolerated. Another holocaust in the history of humankind is not acceptable,” Ntshaveni said.

For this reason, the South African government had decided to “withdraw all its diplomats in Tel Aviv, for consultation”.

South African withdrew its ambassador from Israel in 2018 after a decision by the governing ANC to do so in response to the Israeli government’s ongoing expansion of its settler policy.

It has since maintained a small team of lower level diplomats in a liaison office.

Turning to Belotsercovsky, who presented his credentials to President Cyril Ramaphosa only last year, Ntshaveni said the cabinet had noted his “continuing disparaging remarks …  about those who are opposing the atrocities and the genocide of the Israeli government”.

“This is despite the condemnation by the previous ambassadors of Israel to South Africa who were clear that the acts of the Israeli government are a repeat of apartheid and no different to the apartheid antics,” she said.

“The position of the ambassador of Israel in South Africa is becoming very untenable. Cabinet has decided to instruct Dirco [department of international relations and cooperation] to take necessary measures within the diplomatic channels and protocols to deal with the conduct of the ambassador of Israel to South Africa,” Ntshaveni said.

Speaking at an event with visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, said Belotsercovsky should refrain from making such comments.

Pandor drew parallels between his comments and those of US ambassador to South Africa Ruben Brigety, whose public remarks about weapons and the Russian cargo ship Lady R caused significant diplomatic and economic damage to the country.

Pandor said it was “normal practice when there is a situation which is causing a great deal of harm and concern to a country” to recall its diplomats for consultation.

“We are, as you would be aware, 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, which falls fully outside of the practice of international humanitarian and international human rights law.” 

She said the Israeli ambassador had been making comments “almost akin to the statements that were made without proof by the United States ambassador a few months ago”.

“We felt it important that we should call the ambassador in, and really he should desist from making the kinds of statements he’s making, without having had any discussion with senior members of the government of South Africa,” Pandor said, adding that there seemed to be a “strange practice among some ambassadors in South Africa that they can just say what they like”.

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