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South Africa minister suspended over 'friend of Israel' comment

A group of students hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel's policies at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 8, 2017 [Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency]
A group of students hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel's policies at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on 8 March 2017 [Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency]

Johannesburg's Health Minister Mpho Phalatse was suspended yesterday after declaring the South African city a "friend of Israel".

Phalatse made the comments while speaking at the South African Friends of Israel Conference, an event sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy.

According to a video of her speech, Phalatse said: "I would like to declare that I am a friend of Israel and the city of Johannesburg is a friend of Israel," according to the New Arab. The Minister also told pro-Israel conference attendees: "we value you, we celebrate you, we appreciate you, feel at home."

READ: South Africa urged to downgrade embassy in Israel

The city's Mayor, Herman Mashaba, said he was "disappointed" by Phalatse's comments, explaining "I was disappointed by the remarks, not as they relate to her personal beliefs [but rather] my disappointment stemmed from the attribution of those sentiments to the City of Johannesburg on a matter of such an emotional and sensitive nature."

He added: "I believe in a peaceful two-state solution that sees a secure and prosperous Palestine living alongside a secure and prosperous Israel," according to South African IOL.

Councillors, including some from the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, called for Phalatse to be fired following the comments. EFF spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, said:

Friendship with Israel is a direct offence to our constitutional values. Israel doesn't respect the sovereignty of Palestine [or] its right to self-determination. Until they end their military and colonial occupation of Palestine, we can't be friends!

The South African wing of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement hailed Phalatse's suspension and called on the government to begin an investigation into Israeli agencies operating in South Africa which are "sowing discord and interfering with local civil society and domestic affairs."

Phalatse has since issued an apology. The Democratic Alliance, the party to which she belongs, plans to further investigate the matter internally.

READ: Palestine's own Sharpeville massacre by its own Apartheid oppressors

In May, South Africa recalled its Ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, following the killing of over 120 unarmed Palestinian protesters during the Great March of Return in Gaza. The South African government condemned the killings "in the strongest terms possible" and reiterated that "the Israeli Defence Force must withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories."

Previously South Africa has considered severing diplomatic ties with Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestinians. In February, South Africa's Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, told parliamentarians that the majority party had agreed the government must cut diplomatic ties with Israel "given the absence of genuine initiatives by Israel to secure lasting peace and a viable two-state solution."

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