By Carien du Plessis and Bhargav Acharya
PRETORIA (Reuters) -South Africa is recalling diplomats from Israel to assess its relationship with the country amid a rise in civilian casualties from its war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, its foreign minister said on Monday.
South Africa has long been an advocate for peace in the Middle East and has rallied behind Palestinians, likening their plight to its own under an apartheid regime that ended in 1994.
Calling the return of diplomats a “normal practice”, Naledi Pandor said the recall was to determine “whether there is any potential for you to be of assistance and whether the continued relationship is actually able to be sustained in all terms.”
South Africa does not have an ambassador in Israel.
The country is “extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians” in the Palestinian territory, the foreign minister said.
“We believe the nature of response by Israel has become one of collective punishment,” she said, adding the country would continue to call for a comprehensive ceasefire in Palestine.
Over 1,400 people were killed by Hamas in the deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which South Africa has condemned, while also calling for the return of hostages. More than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, health officials in Hamas-controlled Gaza have said.
“The South African government’s decision to recall its diplomatic staff is a victory for the Hamas terrorist organization and rewards it for the massacre it carried out on October 7,” the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said Israel expects South Africa to condemn Hamas and “respect Israel’s right to defend itself.”
During the Cairo Peace Summit last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on countries to not supply weapons to either side of the conflict while its foreign ministry urged the United Nations to deploy forces to protect civilians in Gaza.
Pandor made the remarks in Pretoria during a joint press briefing with her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.
She said there had been progress in two of the 10 points tabled during the African peace initiative aimed at ending the conflict between Russia and Ukraine – return of the children to Ukraine from Russia and continued exchange of prisoners.
The minister did not provide any further details on the progress.
(Reporting by Carien du Plessis, Tannur Anders and Bhargav AcharyaWriting by Bhargav AcharyaEditing by Promit Mukherjee, Christina Fincher and Deepa Babington)