South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel on Thursday in the latest of a mounting cascade of diplomatic rebukes to Israel over its killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists aboard a ship seeking to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
Israel's Gaza flotilla raid in international waters Monday has damaged Israel's international standing. Britain sharply criticized the raid, close Middle Eastern ally Turkey threatened to cut ties if Israel doesn't mend its ways, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, which he said "punishes innocent civilians." Turkey and Ecuador have also recalled their ambassadors.
South Africa has now joined that chorus. An official at the Ministry for International Affairs said that South Africa would call back Ambassador Ishmael Coovadia “for consultations,” a statement of protest just one step short of a full breakdown in diplomatic relations.
“As of today, Ebrahim Ebrahim indicated the government has decided to recall its ambassador for consultations,” said Mahlatse Mminele, spokesman for the Ministry of International Affairs. "It is the strongest possible form of protest.”
South Africa also delivered a stern demarche to Israeli Ambassador Dov Sergev-Steinberg. A demarche is the diplomatic equivalent of calling a student to the principal’s office, and a statement by South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations said that South Africa expressed outrage over what it called Israel’s “unjustified military action and resultant loss of life inflicted by Israel on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian relief supplies to Gaza.”
Strong global criticism
Criticism from the United States, Israel's closest friend, has been muted so far, but condemnation has poured in from members of the United Nation's Security Council, the 27 nations of the European Union, and the UN itself. The UN Human Rights Council has called for an international investigation of the incident.
“I am shocked by reports of killing of people in boats carrying supply to Gaza,” Secretary General Ban said. “I heard the ships were in international waters. That is very bad.”
Given its long struggle against apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) that now rules South Africa would appear a natural advocate for human rights and oppressed peoples. But political scientist Steven Friedman says the past 15 years of ANC government have favored pragmatism over idealism. South Africa’s strong support for the military junta in Burma (Myanmar) is emblematic of this general penchant for non-confrontation.
“You’d think that the parallels between the South African situation and the Palestinian situation would convince the South African government to take a strong stand on the issue, and it does go through the motions,” says Mr. Friedman, who is director of the Center for Democracy and Governance at the University of Johannesburg. Instead, he says, “there is a concerted effort to be on the side of everybody and hope that it benefits us as well.”
South African radio journalist Gadijah Davids was among the 682 protesters aboard the six ships of the flotilla, all of whom have since been deported.