South Africa has become the latest country to pull back diplomats from Israel, signalling the growing unhappiness of much of the developing world with the continuing Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
The South African government announced Monday that it is recalling all its diplomats from Israel because of what it called a “genocide” and “holocaust” suffered by Palestinians in Gaza.
Similar diplomatic protests have been lodged in recent days by a range of countries, including Chile, Chad, Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras, Turkey, Jordan and Bahrain. Most countries simply recalled their ambassadors for consultations, but Bolivia went further, completely severing its diplomatic relations with Israel.
The protests are a setback for the Israeli government, which spent years trying to cultivate support across Africa and other regions in the developing world – with some success, before its war with Hamas erupted last month.
South Africa, traditionally a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, has voiced some of the harshest international criticisms of Israel during the war, which began when Hamas gunmen massacred and abducted hundreds of Israelis on Oct. 7. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza says the Israeli bombardment has killed more than 10,000 people in the past four weeks, while the Israeli government says Hamas killed about 1,400 people and abducted a further 240 during its attacks on southern Israel.
“The genocidal air strikes by the government of Israel on the people of Palestine continue with a rising death toll that includes women and children,” the South African cabinet said in a statement released Monday.
The cabinet had decided at its regular meeting last Wednesday to recall South African diplomats from Israel, but the decision was not announced until Monday’s statement.
“Another holocaust in the history of humankind is not acceptable,” said Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni at a news conference.
South Africa had already downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel in 2018, turning its embassy into a liaison office.
In addition to recalling its diplomats, South Africa is also vowing to take action against Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Eli Belotserkovsky, although it did not specify what action would be taken. Its cabinet said the ambassador had made “disparaging remarks” against South Africans who spoke out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. It did not disclose those remarks, and a search of South African media found no clear examples.
The ambassador’s status in South Africa is “more and more untenable,” the cabinet statement said.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, at a separate news conference, said the recall of diplomats is a signal that there is “a great deal of harm and concern to a country.”
She added: “We are extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians in the Palestinian territory. 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.”
The Palestinian embassy in South Africa said it welcomed the “decisive action” by the government to recall its diplomats. But a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, Lior Haiat, said the South African decision was “a victory for the Hamas terrorist organization.”
Iran, a long-standing enemy of Israel, praised South Africa for its recent actions. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a statement on Monday, said the country was grateful to South Africa for its “commendable action” in supporting Palestinians, and for its calls for the International Criminal Court to take action against Israel.
South Africa was slow to criticize Hamas or express sympathy for the Israeli victims after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. In a statement Saturday, for example, South Africa’s International Relations Department referred to the estimated 1,400 victims of the Hamas attack as “settlers and soldiers” – ignoring the hundreds of children, women and elderly people who were killed or abducted.
At a meeting last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa and other senior members of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, wore black clothing and Palestinian kaffiyehs to express their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Some also waved the Palestinian flag.
The ANC has always viewed the plight of the Palestinians as being similar to its own fight for the liberation of South Africa’s black majority from the oppression of apartheid.
The Palestinians are “waging a war against a government that has been dubbed an apartheid state,” Mr. Ramaphosa told journalists during the ANC meeting last month. “As people and an organization that has struggled against an oppressive regime of apartheid, we pledge solidarity with the Palestinian people.”