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The growing diplomatic backlash against Israel's war on Gaza

The growing diplomatic backlash against Israel's war on Gaza
7 min read
15 November, 2023
In-depth: An increasing number of countries are breaking ties with Israel or recalling envoys in protest over its intense air and ground assault on Gaza. But will it be enough to pressure Israel and its Western allies?

In the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza following Hamas' 7 October attack, a host of countries have moved to recall their ambassadors or sever diplomatic relations in condemnation of the relentless bombardment of the besieged enclave.

Bolivia was the first country to cut ties with Tel Aviv in late October, followed by Belize this week. Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Chad, and South Africa have all pulled their ambassadors from Israel in the face of its refusal to agree to even a pause in the conflict, as public anger amounts across the world over the soaring death toll and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

South Africa, in particular, has been acutely critical of Israel’s war. On Wednesday, the country’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called for an end to “this real crime against humanity”, saying there were “very, very clear similarities” between Israel’s occupation and the former system of apartheid in South Africa.

Pandor also reiterated calls for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold Israel accountable for violations of international criminal law resulting from its ground offensive and airstrikes in Gaza.

South Africa’s active stance reflects the pledge of solidarity with the Palestinian people expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa last month in his closing remarks to the National Executive Committee of the country's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), when he said Palestine echoed the history of apartheid and South Africa’s struggle against white-minority rule.

Lessons from South Africa

South Africa’s vocal opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza reflects its long history of support for Palestinians and the ANC’s deep links with anti-discrimination activism, with many drawing parallels between how apartheid ended and the struggle against Israel’s military occupation.

The governing party has itself often likened Israel’s ongoing treatment of Palestinians to the apartheid regime that lasted from 1948 to 1994, with solidarity for the Palestinian cause dating back to the years of struggle against white-minority rule.

In a famous speech in 1997, three years after becoming the country's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, said: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” He frequently stated that “Palestine was the greatest moral issue of our time”.

In resisting apartheid, South Africans have long acknowledged the importance of international solidarity in challenging an oppressive system, with international boycotts and sanctions against the South African government in the 1980s eventually playing a key role in the downfall of the apartheid regime.

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This historical accomplishment has inspired the growing Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which draws on the same fight to isolate what it sees as a system of racial domination, and the weight of global solidarity efforts could well play a crucial role again in Palestine.

“It is clear that like the apartheid state of South Africa it is going to take a massive boycott, sanction & divestment campaign to force justice for the colonized Palestinian peoples,” Ajamu Baraka, an international human rights activist and organiser, tweeted last week.

But unlike white South African leaders, who eventually chose to end their system of supremacy, Israeli leaders have maintained and entrenched the 56-year military occupation.

“The biggest difference between the South Africa’s late apartheid regime and that of Israel is that there has not been any serious attempt to reach lasting peace from the latter party for decades now,” Ryan Cooper, the managing editor of the American Prospect, wrote in a recent article.

There have been large-scale protests across the world condemning Israel's brutal bombardment of Gaza. [Getty]

“In South Africa, they understood that apartheid could not continue and indefinitely suppress a large population. But that’s not the case for Israel,” Bruce Riedel, non-resident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told The New Arab.

In a 2013 policy brief, Samer Abdelnour, co-founder of Palestinian think-tank Al-Shabaka, noted that while agreements between white Afrikaners and anti-apartheid leaders brought about the dismantling of apartheid, in Palestine agreements have concluded with “the advancement of segregation and Palestinian dispossession”.

Abdelnour also argued that in the South African case huge global pressure was exerted to end racial segregation within a one-state solution, whereas in Palestine the international community is prone to back statehood “without any serious contestation of Israeli apartheid”.

Global backlash against the war on Gaza

Widespread protest marches have been held around the world calling for a ceasefire since the war in Gaza began. South Africans themselves have staged demonstrations almost weekly by the US Consulate in Johannesburg and Israeli embassies in Pretoria and Cape Town.

The rising death toll in the besieged Palestinian territory and increasing unease in Washington have significantly strained the US' posture amid mounting pressure domestically and abroad. There are concerns in the White House about the potential for further diplomatic backlash overseas in response to Israel’s military aggression.

Cutting diplomatic ties may get the US leadership’s attention, though whether it will persuade the United States and other allies of Israel in the West to meaningfully pressure Tel Aviv is uncertain.

Although the Biden administration has increasingly shifted its public messaging to underscore the importance of safeguarding civilians and following international law, it has so far avoided direct public criticism of Israeli actions.

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US allies in the Arab world have also clearly voiced anger at the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, rejecting Israel’s claims of self-defence. But Arab nations, notwithstanding their outcry over the war, don’t seem willing to make serious moves vis-à-vis Israel as they rejected a proposal to cut diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv during a recent Islamic-Arab summit in Riyadh.

Jordan is one key regional player whose diplomatic gestures could have an impact. With close to half of its population being of Palestinian descent, sharing a long border with the West Bank and Israel, and serving as the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, for the Hashemite Kingdom the Israeli onslaught on Gaza is a matter of national security.

Despite a nearly 30-year-long peace treaty with Israel, bilateral relations have been particularly complicated in the last decade, mainly due to tensions over Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

In reaction to the indiscriminate Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, the Jordanian parliament unanimously voted on Monday to review agreements signed with Israel, including the 1994 peace treaty.

A boy waves a Jordanian national flag as people gather for a rally in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in Amman on 27 October 2023. [Getty]

Riedel, from the Center for Middle East Policy, pointed out that though Israel and Jordan’s relationship has been marked by many crises, the current war has put enormous pressure on Amman to take a strong stance against Israel.

“If this crisis continues to go on, Jordan might have to break ties which would send a very powerful signal,” the Middle East analyst said, adding that severing its relations with Israel would “undermine” the much-needed financial and military assistance provided by the US. He also maintained that the United States is “highly unlikely” to take any dramatic step like cutting off its military or diplomatic support to Israel.

The longer the offensive in Gaza drags on, and the humanitarian situation worsens, the more Arab countries could be pressured by their own populations to take further steps against Israel.

Yet, any such initiatives are expected to have little impact on the war’s conduct in Gaza as Israeli leaders don’t appear to show concern for global public opinion. “The Netanyahu government is extremely right-wing, it doesn’t pay attention to outside pressure,” Riedel added.

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Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told TNA that “it is high time the rest of the world applied pressure as per South Africa” though “much depends on how bad things get in Gaza”.  Some Western leaders, however, are shifting ground amidst calls for action from their own populations and the global south.

Despite multiplying appeals for a decisive international response, continuous pressure by the Biden administration on Israel to declare a humanitarian pause has produced very few concessions.

Tel Aviv has only agreed to symbolic four-hour daily pauses of military operations in Gaza, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that there will be no ceasefire without the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec