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South Africa to ‘downgrade’ Israel embassy in support of ‘Palestinians, peace’

South Africa’s president also reaffirmed his country’s support for Israel’s right to security,

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday said his government is in the process of downgrading its embassy in Israel in response to concerns over the humanitarian cost of its conflict with the Palestinians.

“The government is in the process of giving effect to a resolution of the governing party that South Africa should downgrade its embassy to Israel,” Ramaphosa said during a question and answer session at the National Assembly.

“In implementing this conference resolution, we are mindful of South Africa’s responsibility to continue engaging with all parties to the conflict to see where we would be able to provide assistance.

“As such, the South African government remains seized with the modalities of downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel and we will communicate once Cabinet has fully finalised on this matter,” he said.

In September, South African Ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, returned to Tel Aviv after being recalled back in May over violence on the Gaza Strip border.

In a letter marked to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated September 20, 2018, the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa states that it “has the honour to inform, that the Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa, H.E. Mr Sisa Ngombane has returned to Tel Aviv.”

South Africa hurriedly withdrew its envoy from Israel on at the start of the summer due to Israel’s “violent aggression” in Gaza on May 14, where at least 55 people were killed by Israeli fire during violent border clashes on the day of the US embassy move to Jerusalem that coincided with Israel’s Independence Day.

“Given the indiscriminate and grave manner of the latest Israeli attack, the South African government has taken a decision to recall Ambassador Sis Ngombane with immediate effect until further notice,” a statement from the foreign ministry in Johannesburg said back in May.

Popular protests coincided with the embassy move, with South Africans marching against Israel’s use of deadly force against Gazans in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The decision came as Turkey’s government also recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Tel Aviv back to Ankara “for consultations” after President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s fierce criticism of the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The South Africa statement at the time condemned what it called “the latest act of violent aggression” against civilians protesting peacefully.

“The victims were taking part in a peaceful protest against the provocative inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem,” it said, condemning “violent aggression carried out by Israeli armed forces”.

“This latest attack has resulted in scores of other Palestinian citizens reported injured, and the wanton destruction of property,” it added.

South Africa’s government has been fiercely critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza.

Last year the ruling African National Congress (ANC) decided to downgrade the country’s mission in Israel to a liaison office, however the motion is yet to be implemented. Some factions of the ANC have also called on Pretoria to cut ties with Israel completely.

The letter reinstating the South African ambassador did not elaborate about the reasons of his withdrawal or the decision for him to return, a gaping omission given that the weekly border clashes have only continued since the “March of Great Return” protests began on March 30, reaching a death toll of more than 250 Palestinians.

On Friday, in what Gazans marked as the “50th Friday” of the demonstrations, some 8,000 Gazans gathered at the border with Israel at five different points, during which two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

A mortar shell was fired into Israel from Gaza several hours later on Friday night, where it exploded in an open area causing no damage or injuries in the southern Eshkol region, according to a statement from Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF).

Hours later, the IDF executed a retaliatory attack, bombing Hamas targets near the border fence in the southern and northern parts of the coastal enclave. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

At least 50 of those killed were identified as Hamas members, with dozens more affiliated with armed factions engaged in ongoing hostilities with Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.

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