South Africa has an obligation to uphold highest standards on human rights as per its Foreign Policy

President Zuma has a bilateral with UNSG Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of UNGA70 at the United Nations.

President Zuma has a bilateral with UNSG Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of UNGA70 at the United Nations.

Published Mar 21, 2023


By Alvin Botes

What is starkly lacking from Kenneth Mokgatlhe’s oped in the City Press on Sunday 12 March, is that the situation on the ground in Palestine worsens by the day.

Israel becomes ever more oppressive against the Palestinians, settlement expansion escalates with impunity, Palestinians are killed, their homes demolished, and settlers burn their homes to the ground with impunity.

On February 12th Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government announced plans to authorise nine new Jewish settler outposts in the occupied West Bank. The plan also outlined the mass construction of new homes in established settlements.

Even the United States issued a rare rebuke against Israel, saying that the US is deeply dismayed by Israel’s settlement expansion plans, and that settlement activity "creates facts on the ground" that reduce chances for a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at the time that, "The United States strongly opposes these unilateral measures which exacerbate tensions, harm trust between the parties and undermine the geographic viability of the two-state solution."

The Biden administration also warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against following through on a government coalition agreement that would give Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich control over administration in the occupied West Bank, equating it with annexation.

Unfortunately, even the sternest warnings from Israel’s closest ally has not deterred Israel from its current trajectory. Israel recently transferred large sections of the occupied West Bank’s administration from the military to the far-right cabinet minister Smotrich, who himself is a settler and longstanding proponent of West Bank annexation, in a move that experts say amounts to “dejure annexation.”

Contrary to what Kenneth Moeng Mokgatlhe says in his oped, Israelis have not shown that they are against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, and they have instead voted in the most far right wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties which seek to annex far greater swathes, if not all Palestinian land.

These are the realities on the ground which informed the vote in South Africa’s National Assembly on March 7th, when a majority of members of parliament voted in favour of downgrading South Africa’s diplomatic relations with Israel, downgrading the embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office.

This is the minimum that South Africa can do to send a message that it finds Israel’s actions on the ground unacceptable, and that just as other nations ultimately refused to maintain normal relations with South Africa when it exercised oppression as an apartheid state, so is the case now with Israel.

While Mokgatlhe argues that the situation on the ground in Palestine does not constitute apartheid, a plethora of human rights organisations disagree. Amnesty International has joined Human Rights Watch and the Israeli rights group B'Tselem in accusing Israel of the international crime of apartheid based on its nearly 55-year military occupation of Palestinian lands, and because of its treatment of its own Arab minority.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory, Michael Lynk, has called on the international community to accept and adopt the findings in his current report. The report echoes recent findings by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations, that apartheid is being practiced by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The responsibility now rests with UN member states to take the necessary action, as was eventually done with Apartheid South Africa. As the international community, we must not turn a blind eye to the persisting injustices Palestinians face under the illegal Israeli occupation. We have an obligation to speak up and take action to ensure that Israel is held accountable for their violations of international law, international humanitarian and human rights law, including laws on the prohibition on the acquisition of territory by force.

The ANC government since 1994 has consistently promoted the path of peace between Israel and Palestine. When former President Nelson Mandela visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in 1999, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and encouraged him to implement the Oslo Accords.

Under the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa hosted former Israeli generals in South Africa at the Spier wine estate to share with them the South African experience of peaceful transition.

South Africa was invited to participate as one of 20 countries in the Paris peace initiative between Israelis and Palestinians, hosted by France. But when the process moved on to Paris 2, Israel refused to attend.

Under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma, Zola Skweyiya and Aziz Pahad were appointed as special envoys to the Middle East peace process, and twice travelled to Israel with messages for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. On both occasions Netanyahu broke protocol and refused to receive or meet the South African envoys.

Determined to pursue the path of peace, when there was no movement on the political side, South Africa pursued a second track approach whereby Directors of the South African NGO In-Transformation Initiative (ITI) engaged in shuttle diplomacy in both Israel and Palestine over a number of years.

ITI managed to bring together influential political figures from Palestine at the Boschendal wine estate in historic informal talks. Separate talks were also held with former Israeli generals and intelligence chiefs. Former ANC struggle stalwart Ebrahim Ebrahim played a pivotal role in bringing the sides together.

Earlier this year DIRCO DG Zane Dangor met with the Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Ambassador Eli Belotsercovsky, wherein Mr Dangor reiterated our country’s commitment to a peaceful negotiated and lasting resolution to the conflict in Palestine/Israel.

Over the course of the past almost 29 years, South Africa has expended significant resources on trying to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and thus the decision to downgrade relations with Israel is not taken lightly. South Africa has an obligation in term of our human rights principles, particularly during Human Rights month, to uphold the highest standards of human rights in executing our Foreign Policy.

* Botes is the Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in South Africa.

** The views expressed do not reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.