Israel has denounced South Africa’s legal action at the international court of justice, accusing Israel of genocide and war crimes in Gaza, as amounting to support for Hamas.
Israel called the charge that it was intentionally killing thousands of Palestinian civilians – a “blood libel”. Jewish organisations in South Africa accused the ruling African National Congress of siding with terrorism and antisemitism.
But South Africa’s lawsuit seeking a halt to the Israeli assault on Gaza in response to the Hamas cross-border attack in October comes after years of deteriorating relations rooted in the ANC’s decades-long support for the Palestinian cause and the legacy of Israel’s close military alliance with the apartheid regime during some of the most oppressive years of white rule.
South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, responded to the ICJ filing by accusing the ANC government of acting “as Iran’s ally and proxy in the Islamic state’s plans to destroy the Jewish state” and of supporting “Iranian proxy Hamas in its war crimes”.
South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies joined the criticism, accusing the government of continuing “to humiliate itself in the international arena” and saying it had “no shame” in using international courts for political purposes.
The board’s critics have responded by accusing it of acting as a proxy for Israel. Andrew Feinstein, a Jewish former ANC member of parliament, said the criticisms will have little traction inside the country.
“The chief rabbi and the Jewish Board of Deputies have never criticised anything Israel has done for as long as I can remember. It’s worth reminding oneself that the organised Jewish community in South Africa found it extraordinarily difficult to criticise apartheid until the mid-1980s. So we’re not talking about people speaking from a position of moral integrity here,” he said.
Feinstein noted that while Jewish South Africans featured prominently in the struggle against apartheid, they were shunned by the Board of Deputies, which claimed to speak for the majority of the Jewish community. The organisation collaborated with the white regime and chose instead to honour figures such as Percy Yutar, the prosecutor who sent Nelson Mandela to prison.
Feinstein said that underpinning South African criticism of Israel is the ANC’s longstanding support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation and what he saw as the growing view that Israel was practising its own brand of apartheid in the occupied territories.
“There are certain things that run incredibly deep in the ANC and its support for the Palestinian people is one of them. There’s an affinity for the Palestinian struggle which is seen as very close to the South African struggle,” said Feinstein.
The South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, told representatives of the Board of Deputies last month that his government would continue to support the Palestinians “who have endured over seven decades of apartheid type of brutal occupation”.
Israel and apartheid-era South Africa developed a close military alliance that included collaboration on nuclear weapons, even though many of the Afrikaner leaders of the time had a history of deep antisemitism. John Vorster, the then prime minister, was feted on a visit to Jerusalem in 1976 despite having been interned during the second world war for Nazi sympathies and membership of a fascist militia that burned Jewish-owned properties.
After the ANC came to power in 1994 it established full diplomatic relations with Palestine while ties with Israel deteriorated over time. The foreign ministry in Pretoria said it maintains only “limited political and diplomatic interaction” because of Israel’s “antagonistic attitude” toward peace talks with the Palestinians and “disregard for international law regarding the rights of the Palestinians and their territories”.
In 2019, South Africa downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv to the status of a liaison office after the Israeli military killed more than 220 Palestinian protesters inside Gaza, mostly unarmed civilians, during months of protests. The ANC called the Israeli government and military “an outcast and blight on humanity”.
As the Israeli assault on Gaza escalated in November, South Africa recalled its diplomats from Israel. The parliament in Cape Town passed a resolution calling on the government to shut the Israeli embassy and suspend diplomatic relations entirely until there was a ceasefire in Gaza and Israel committed to negotiating “a just, sustainable and lasting peace” with the Palestinians.
South Africa has also called on the international criminal court to issue arrest warrants for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Israeli leaders for “statements of genocidal intent” and other alleged war crimes. Israel withdrew its ambassador from Pretoria amid the escalating diplomatic dispute.
Relations will not be improved by South Africa’s choice of John Dugard to head its legal team at the ICJ. Dugard served as the UN special rapporteur for human rights in occupied Palestine during the 2000s. His reports accused Israel of constructing a system of Jewish domination over Palestinians, of violating the 1973 international convention against apartheid and of committing war crimes. He also accused the Israeli army of collaborating in “settler terror” against Palestinians.
Feinstein said that far from damaging South Africa’s international standing, as the board of deputies claimed, the ICJ case was likely to strengthen respect among allies such as India, Brazil and China.
“The representatives of parts of the Jewish community on the other hand, they are perhaps the ones who are embarrassing themselves with uncritical support of whatever Israel does. I don’t see in any way how this humiliates South Africa. In fact, I think it does exactly the opposite,” he said.
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