Tshwane takes sides – again – in Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Everyone is relieved that the guns have fallen silent – for now – in the worst Palestinian-Israeli clashes since 2014. The South African government hasn’t minced its words in standing steadfastly behind the Palestinians. Recent pronouncements from both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Naledi Pandor, the minister of International Relations and Cooperation, have been extremely emotive and one-sided, pointing fingers only at Israel. Why does this happen, and is this a shift away from Tshwane’s decades-old position on a two-state solution?
On 14 May, a Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) statement said, “The South African government strongly condemns the unjust attacks on civilians by Israel in Gaza and Jerusalem. The continued escalation of attacks by Israel on Palestinians in Gaza is totally unjust and shameful, particularly the targeting of the most vulnerable section of the Palestinian community, children, women, and the elderly.”
Not a word is said about the thousands of rocket attacks against Israel from Hamas, or stone-throwing at policemen on the Temple Mount, or, indeed, Israel’s right to defend itself.
Then on 17 May, the president wrote in his newsletter, “For all who believe in equality, justice, and human rights, we cannot but be moved and indeed angered at the pain and humiliation being inflicted on the Palestinian people; for it echoes our own.”
Ramaphosa wrote, “The senseless and continued Israeli bombardment of Gaza will have devastating consequences … the continued occupation of Palestinian land and the suffering of the Palestinian people is a blight on the conscience of humanity.”
He said the controversy over land in Sheik Jarrah, Jerusalem, “was not just about a local dispute; it was fundamentally about the forced dispossession of land, about colonial occupation, about racial discrimination, and about the violent suppression of dissent”.
While Ramaphosa calls for the parties to “find each other”, there is no mention, again, about rocket barrages, Hamas aggression, or use of Palestinian civilians as human shields in residential areas, schools, and hospitals. There is no mention that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. No mention of Hamas tunnel networks, dubbed “the metro”. No mention of Israelis having only seconds to seek refuge in bomb shelters.
On 20 May, in her budget speech, Pandor said, “Sadly, we all watched as Palestine suffered more and more brutally … We continue to stand in full solidarity with the people of Palestine … the cruel bombings and killings of the innocent we witnessed in the past two weeks are a sad testimony of the cruel impunity the world has granted to Israel. The international community must stop this impunity. South Africa should support the International Criminal Court in the planned investigation of the abuse of human rights by the Israeli government. We hope sanctions and other measures to show the world’s offence at this brutality will soon be evident.”
Again, this is completely partisan, and further evidence that the African National Congress makes friends for life. Any hope that South Africa could be an “honest broker” in solving this conflict is long gone.
In a radio interview on 702 on 24 May, Pandor said, “We withdrew our ambassador from Israel because we have reduced the diplomatic representation as a sign of protest, given the constant aggression, the occupation of land, and the intransigence of the Israeli government.”
When asked why South Africa still has ties with Israel, Pandor said, “We have wanted to engage in a positive manner, but I think it has become clear that you now have a stance among the leaders of the Israeli government where South Africa may certainly have to reconsider its engagement.” South Africa hasn’t had an ambassador in Israel since May 2018.
“Do remember,” she continued, “that Israel is the aggressor, and the Palestinian people are trying to protect themselves with inadequate means. They are trapped in an apartheid-style township manner. They can’t move without permits. They don’t have a livelihood. They don’t have land, their land is usurped. So they respond by whatever means they can. But they remain the victim and we should not forget that.”
Every time there is a flare-up in the conflict, it ratchets up more pressure on Israel, and provokes its opponents to adopt more radical measures – alluded to by Pandor. Senior members of the South African government filter this Middle East conflict through their own apartheid experiences. They also are genuinely horrified by the violence shown on TV. The Palestinians can be nothing more than victims, never aggressors, in their view, whatever the realities on the ground. This same South African government, remember, “noted with concern” the Abraham Accords of 2020 that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates (and subsequently Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan), calling them “regrettable”.
The DIRCO statement – and the president’s newsletter and minister’s views – reiterated South Africa’s commitment “to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, existing side by side in peace with Israel within internationally recognised borders, based on those existing on 4 June 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in compliance with all relevant UN resolutions, international law, and internationally agreed on parameters.” Such a Palestinian state should not be “devoid of sovereignty, territorial contiguity, and economic viability”. This remains South Africa’s official position.
So, in spite of its venom-tipped rhetoric, Tshwane still sticks to its old two-state principles, even if its conditions would be mostly unpalatable to the Israeli electorate, and disregards how the situation has shifted over the past 54 years. Tshwane is implacably opposed to the pragmatic peace plan developed by the Trump administration. It’s calling for the Biden administration to reverse the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and revoke the Trump peace plan. Biden has been reluctant to tackle foreign policy issues with his urgent domestic agenda.
South Africa, it should be noted, never calls for a Jewish state. It’s therefore presumably in favour of a not-so-distant demographic day when Palestinians will outnumber the current eight million Jewish Israelis. They could then vote a Jewish state out of existence.
Pandor’s call for sanctions on Israel or a rethink about relations shouldn’t be taken lightly. The president’s sentiments should also give us pause.
Maybe a small ray of hope is that Tel Aviv isn’t on the list of 10 South African diplomatic missions slated for closure for financial reasons. But is it only a matter of time?
- Steven Gruzd is a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. These are his personal views.