South African divisions exposed by Israel-Hamas conflict

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The war between Israel and Hamas has exposed deep divisions in South Africa, with the government’s staunch support for the Palestinians coming in for criticism from leaders of the country’s Jewish community, among others. The government has announced the withdrawal of its diplomats from Israel, and suggested that the position of Israel’s ambassador to Pretoria was becoming “untenable”.

This has been sharply criticised by the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies which has called for an urgent meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa. South African sympathy for the Palestinian fight for an independent state goes back to the days of late anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. He famously said in 1997, three years after he became the country’s first democratically elected president after decades of struggle against white-minority rule: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

The unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, which killed some 1,400 people, has not changed the position of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), even though two South African nationals were among the dead and another is among the more than 230 people taken hostage. President Ramaphosa has pledged the ANC’s solidarity with the Palestinians, saying their history had echoes of apartheid – and South Africa’s struggle against white-minority rule. Although he did condemn the Hamas assault, a week later he led 60 party leaders as they waved Palestinian flags, while wearing the traditional chequered black and white Palestinian scarf, the keffiyeh.

“They are people who have been under occupation for almost 75 years,” he said of the Palestinians. “They have been waiting and waging a war against a government that has been dubbed an apartheid state. “We have always pledged our solidarity, and have always insisted that the only solution, especially with the issues of Palestine, is a two-state solution.” South Africa’s foreign ministry has gone even further, suggesting that the Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed more than 10,000 people, might amount to a genocide. In the statement announcing the withdrawal of its diplomats, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor accused the Israelis of imposing “collective punishment” on Palestinian civilians – an allegation rejected by Israel.

The government has not commented on the South African hostage, or named them. Its pro-Palestinian position has been condemned by the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation and the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). Because of the passionate views on both sides, some South African talk radio stations have deliberately limited airtime around taking calls from listeners keen to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas. Large pro-Palestinian protest marches have been held around South Africa since the conflict began. Smaller pro-Israel marches and rallies have been held in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Last Friday members of the Jewish community hung up 221 big red balloons across Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge to bring attention to the Israeli hostages and call for their release.

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