SA withdraws ambassador to Israel following Gaza Strip attack

Violent clashes on border coincide with opening of US embassy in Jerusalem

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against US embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018.
Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against US embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

South Africa has withdrawn its ambassador to Israel following an attack in the Gaza Strip in which more than 40 civilians were killed.

“[South Africa] condemns in the strongest terms possible the latest act of violent aggression by Israeli armed forces along the Gaza border‚ which has led to the deaths of over 40 civilians‚” the Department of International Relations and Cooperation said Monday night.

It said the victims were taking part in a peaceful protest against the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

“Given the indiscriminate and grave manner of the latest Israeli attack‚ the South African government has [decided] to recall Ambassador Sisa Ngombane with immediate effect until further notice.”

The department said it believed the Israeli Defence Force should “withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories”.

Monday's attack was the highest Palestinian death toll in a single day since a series of protests dubbed the “Great March of Return” began at the border with Israel on March 30, and since the 2014 Gaza war.

The health officials said 900 Palestinians were wounded, about 450 of them by bullets.

Tens of thousands streamed to the coastal enclave’s land border yesterday, some approaching the Israeli fence – a line Israeli leaders said Palestinians would not be allowed to breach.

Clouds of black smoke from tyres set alight by demonstrators rose in the air.

Demonstrators, some armed with slingshots, hurled stones at the Israeli security forces, who fired volleys of teargas and intense rounds of gunfire.

“Today is the big day when we will cross the fence and tell Israel and the world we will not accept being occupied forever,” Gaza science teacher Ali, who declined to give his last name, said.

“Many may get martyred today, so many, but the world will hear our message. Occupation must end,” he said.

Israeli leaders and a US delegation including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Donald Trump’s daughter and sonin-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were due to attend the opening of the embassy, moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a controversial decision.

“A great day for Israel,” the US president, who stoked Arab anger by recognising disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, said in a tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in lockstep with Trump over fulfilling a long-standing US promise to move the embassy to the holy city and over Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last week, echoed the sentiment.

“What a moving day for the people of Israel and the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinians, who seek their own future state with its capital in East Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the US Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

The 41 Palestinian dead yesterday included a 14-year-old boy, a medic and a man in a wheelchair who had been pictured on social media using a slingshot.

The Israeli military identified three of those killed as armed militants whom it said tried to place explosives near the fence in the southern Gaza Strip.

The latest casualties raised the Palestinian death toll to 86 since the protests started six weeks ago. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

At the protest sites, families sat in the shade of tents nearly 800m from the border fence. Hundreds of protesters ventured to within several hundred metres of the barrier, while others moved even closer, rolling burning tyres and hurling stones.

Some flew flaming kites to try to torch bushes on the other side of the frontier and distract Israeli marksmen. Hundreds of Palestinians were treated for teargas inhalation.

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] will act forcefully against any terrorist activity and will operate to prevent attacks against Israelis,” the military said.

The killings have drawn international criticism, but the United States has echoed Israel in accusing Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement of instigating violence, an allegation it denies.

More than two million people are crammed into the narrow strip, which is blockaded by Egypt and Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah accused the US of blatant violations of international law.

The protests are scheduled to culminate today, the day Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of them were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting around Israel’s creation.

“Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history [to open the Jerusalem embassy] shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process,” Hamdallah wrote.