The National Assembly on Thursday held a debate on a motion proposed by the Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Mr Julius Malema titled, “Closure of the Israel Embassy in South Africa and suspension of all diplomatic relations with Israel.”

Mr Malema said South Africa must suspend its relations with Israel and shut down the embassy until the human rights of Palestinians are respected, promoted and protected.

“We call on the Ramaphosa ANC government to shut down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and end all diplomatic relations with that brutal apartheid Israeli regime. We call on all the world to isolate Israel by boycott, disinvestment and sanctions until they end their military occupation and allow Palestinian refugees in surrounding countries like Lebanon and Syria, the right of return,” said Mr Malema.

He also accused Israel of failing to comply with international law and of “declaring war against children, hospitals, ambulances, journalists, and a general campaign to wipe Palestinians off the face of the earth”. “We can’t share a territory with murderers. We say no to the embassy of Israel in South Africa. It must go and it must go now.”

Mr Malema also dismissed claims that opposing Israel and condemning its actions against Palestine was antisemitic because Israel identified as a Jewish state. “There is nothing antisemitic about opposing injustice, particularly apartheid. Zionism doesn’t equal Jewishness or Judaism. No one must manipulate scriptures in the Bible or the Torah to promote ethnic cleansing, racism and the mass murder of people.”

Grave violations 

The Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ms Candith Mashego-Dlamini told the National Assembly that government was still in discussions on the matter of closing the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and would need to take into consideration that it may affect South Africa’s diplomatic presence in Palestine.

“The demands from South Africans for the closure of the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria have merit. The government is engaging all relevant stakeholders regarding our diplomatic relations with Israel given the war crimes and genocide we are witnessing in Gaza.

“South Africa cannot have normal relations with Israel for as long as Israel is committing war crimes and genocide against the Palestinians, is intent on removing Palestinians from their land and is unwilling to negotiate a viable peace plan without preconditions,” the Deputy Minister said.

She also echoed the views of the EFF that Israel, with its attacks on civilians, was in violation of international law, including the United Nations charter, the Geneva Convention and its protocols.

The Deputy Minister said that by taking hostage and killing Israeli civilians, Hamas had also violated international law.

Ms Mashego-Dlamini said international law prohibits attacks on civilians and properties such as schools and hospitals during armed conflict. She said the instruction issued by Israel to the people of Gaza to immediately leave their homes coupled with denying them food, bombing apartments, schools and hospitals, were grave violations of international humanitarian law.

South Africa has since referred Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Deputy Minister called on the ICC to expedite its investigation into Israel for committing war crimes, including genocide by bombarding and laying siege to Gaza. She also called for Hamas leadership to be investigated for violating international law for kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians.

Some opposition parties, including the NFP, ATM and Al Jamah-ah, supported the EFF motion, while others opposed it and urged for caution.

Rejected, urging for caution

Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament Ms Emma Powell, however, dismissed the EFF’s motion and labelled it political opportunism. She said it was important for South Africa to retain diplomatic channels with both Israel and Palestine.

“Any decision to close the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and recall our ambassador in Tel Aviv will diminish our country’s ability to demand accountability in that region (Middle East) and to influence a swift and peaceful resolution to this war.”

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also rejected the motion, saying cutting ties with any of the parties involved in the conflict will disadvantage South Africa’s efforts to influence any peace process.

IFP MP Mr Mkhuleko Hlengwa argued that the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot be stopped by silencing one of the parties. “We do not believe that cutting diplomatic ties with Israel is the best cause of action as it relates to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. Isolation in a time of war is not a solution. It is tantamount to running away,” he said.

“On the international stage South Africa has portrayed itself as a country that believes in equality, democracy and negotiations. Therefore, all voices need to be given an equal opportunity to state their case to resolve this conflict,” said Mr Hlengwa.

Dr Corné Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus warned that suspending relations and closing the Israeli embassy in Pretoria would be shortsighted.

“If you expel the Israeli ambassador or cut all diplomatic ties with Israel, South Africa will not be in any position to play any role whatsoever in any mediation or have a chance to play a constructive and positive role to bring this conflict to an end. South Africa should think very carefully before we take that kind of approach,” said Dr Mulder.

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) also rejected the call to close the Israeli embassy in Pretoria and called it “a dangerous motion full of lies, inaccuracies and deceptions”.

“The EFF and the ANC must stop being hypocrites and accept the fact South Africa has many needs – and Israel has the expertise to meet them in areas such as healthcare, innovation, technology, agriculture, and economic growth. Without Israel, we risk diplomatic tensions that can hinder communication channels for addressing regional issues and ending business collaborations that would reduce economic opportunities, trade, investments, and job creation,” said ACDP Leader, Reverend Kenneth Meshoe.

MPs are expected to vote on the motion next week.

By Sakhile Mokoena

17 November 2023