- - Sunday, November 19, 2023

JOHANNESBURG — The Israeli-Hamas war is proving divisive not just in the United States.

After a volatile debate between the government and the opposition, South Africa appears set to suspend ties with Israel over the war in Gaza.

A motion to expel Israeli Ambassador Eliav Belotsercovsky and shut down the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria is set for a vote Tuesday — a formality, given the ruling African National Congress has pledged to use its majority in the national Legislature to secure victory. South African diplomats have already been brought home from Tel Aviv.

Should the measure pass, South Africa would become only the third country in the world to break off diplomatic relations with Israel over the Gaza fighting, after Bolivia and Belize.

The stark response could have repercussions across the region, given South Africa‘s size and economic influence. It also is the latest twist in a tangled history between South Africa and Israel.

The former White-minority government recognized the Jewish state in May 1948, just 10 days after President Harry S. Truman and the U.S. government did.

Before the end of the apartheid state and the triumph of the ANC in 1994, South Africa numbered Israel among its closest allies. Both saw themselves as engaged in counter-insurgency wars: South Africa against the exiled ANC and Israel with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. In the early days of ANC rule, Arafat was a regular visitor as guest of South African President Nelson Mandela, who referred to him as a “comrade in arms.”

ANC politicians regularly compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with White-apartheid rule, but domestically, the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa treads a delicate path.

Only one South African is known to be among the foreign hostages snatched by Hamas during the murderous Oct. 7 assault that triggered the latest round of Middle East violence, but South Africa is also home to Africa’s largest Jewish community, estimated at more than 70,000 and active in business, politics and the arts.

Some Jewish families can trace their roots here back more than 350 years, having fled pogroms in czarist Russia and the aftermath of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.

At the same time, there are some longstanding links with Islam in this predominantly Christian nation.

When the Dutch set up a trading post at Cape Town in 1652, they brought artisans, slaves and farmers from their colonies in Asia, many of whom were Muslim. The city’s oldest mosque still in use was built in 1794. And in recent years, thousands of migrants, many of them illegal, have arrived from Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Africa.

In the streets

Since the start of military operations in Gaza, there have been marches and protests around the country by people of all faiths carrying Palestinian flags and banners calling for a cease-fire.

In Cape Town on Nov. 12, a prayer vigil for Israel was attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

There have been concerns for the safety of Jews across the country, Karen Milner an academic who chairs the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. told The Washington Times.

She said her board had met with the “security cluster” — an inter-departmental group in Pretoria that includes police, justice and security officials — and were assured that “no violence against our community will be tolerated.”

“We are South Africans and this is where we want to live,” Ms. Milner said. “But antisemitic chants at some of the marches have unnerved people. And we see hate-speech coming from protests in Paris, London and Washington.”

She said her board had been inundated with public calls of support. “But I also have Jewish people asking whether they should hide evidence or their faith, and is it safe to visit the synagogue? In a democracy, we should never need to worry about who we are or how we pray.”

Ms. Milner described South Africa as “a very wonderful and tolerant place to live,” but she called on the authorities to “take every necessary step to make sure no one in the Jewish community is at risk of harm or abuse.”

Government pressure

The government has been far more outspoken in its willingness to condemn Israel and what it says are the humanitarian costs of the Israeli retaliatory campaign against Hamas in Gaza to avenge the Oct. 7 attack.

On a recent visit to Qatar, Mr.  Ramaphosa revealed he had referred Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

“We have put through a referral because we believe war crimes are being committed,” Mr. Ramaphosa told reporters. “And of course, we do not condone the actions that were taken by Hamas earlier, but similarly, we condemn the actions that are currently underway and believe that they warrant an investigation by the ICC.”

The continent’s largest charity, South Africa-based Gift of the Givers, announced Thursday that its head of operations in Gaza, Ahmed Abbasi, had been killed. Mr. Abbasi was supplying food parcels to orphans and running a desalination plant for drinking water.

Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman, who founded the charity more than 30 years ago, denounced those responsible for Mr. Abbasi’s death as “inhumane Zionist Israeli murderers” who were guilty of “ethnic cleansing and genocide.” He said backed cutting off diplomatic ties with Israel.

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has been a more moderate voice in the ANC government. Mrs. Pandor has said both sides in the conflict had violated international law and supported a negotiated settlement to end the violence. But the ministry has also called in the Israeli ambassador for his public statements criticizing South African policy on the Middle East.

Economic fallout

South Africa has an economic stake in the fighting as well.

Israeli carrier El Al flies direct to Johannesburg, and until the outbreak of hostilities, tourist numbers had been growing in both directions. Israel also has shared its technology on farming in dry zones with South African counterparts.

Benji Shulman is director of public policy at the South African Zionist Federation, the country’s oldest Jewish organization, established in the 1890s. He said the real threat could lie in how the Israeli-Palestinian war alters South Africa‘s foreign policy orientation overall. A strong tilt against Israel could strain relations with the United States as well.

“T government‘s embrace of Russia, Iran and Hamas could lead to the United States removing South Africa from the African Growth and Opportunity Act,” he said, “which would be enormously damaging to the agricultural sector and the wider economy.”

The Middle East crisis has also become a domestic political football.

The opposition Democratic Alliance is the largest party in Parliament after the ANC.

The DA shadow foreign minister, Emma Powell, on Thursday accused the government of using the war as “a diversion” to rising crime and jobless rates at home, and warned that cutting relations with Israel would only reduce South Africa’s voice on the issue at a time when the country should be demanding “a swift and peaceful resolution to this abhorrent war.”

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