A day after 60 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army, the South African government recalled its ambassador to Israel. The decision was in protest against the “indiscriminate [nature] and gravity of the latest Israeli attack”, the department of international relations and co-operation said.
South Africa was among the first states to announce such a decision and the move is seen to be indicative of a more robust implementation of South African foreign policy. Although the country’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause has long been established, the diplomatic ties between the two states have raised doubt about South Africa’s true commitment to Palestinian solidarity and a two-state solution.
Although it is not the first time South Africa has recalled its ambassador, this week’s move marked a more decisive response to Israeli aggression; the decision could not have been made lightly because South Africa risks further alienating the United States government and the local Israeli lobby.
An academic, speaking to the Huffington Post this week, argued that relations between South Africa and Israel have deteriorated in recent years, in line with the Middle East peace process coming to a halt, and the implementation of South African policy on Palestine and Israel deserves further scrutiny.
If anything, South Africa has continued to be vocal about the Palestinian struggle while maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel. And, although the current impasse in the peace process, exemplified by the US opening a new embassy in Jerusalem while Israel was mowing down people in Gaza, is cause for concern, it is not altogether US President Donald Trump’s doing.
The truth is the peace process has only ever been a veneer. It can’t be said to have held much promise when Israeli settlements were expanding in Palestinian territory, quashing any possibility of a Palestinian state.
The settlements, which have been taking place in the West Bank since it came under Israeli occupation in 1967, are a major impediment to peace. It is estimated that about 500 000 Israelis live in the settlements, of which there are about 130 scattered around the West Bank. About 75% of settlers live on or near the West Bank border with Israel.
In effect, the settlements blur the boundaries of any future Palestinian state. And that is exactly the point: the most hardline settlers want the West Bank to be fully incorporated into Israel.
The settlements and military occupation required to defend them have seen apartheid-like infrastructure being established. Palestinians are excluded from some Israeli-only roads and forced to go through a number of security checkpoints, for example. Most international lawyers believe the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of population into occupied territories but the Israeli government disputes this.
It is the expansion of settlements that continues to inhibit any real chance of peace and, although South Africa has expressed its dissent about the settlements, it has continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.
This week, explaining the killings on Monday, Israel said it had the right to protect itself and its borders. But it is the concept of those borders, of the possibility of the borders of a Palestinian state, that Israel has flouted with its expansion of settlements. And South Africa has been party to that.