South Africa on Thursday announced that it was recalling its ambassador to Israel for consultations over the Gaza flotilla incident earlier this week.

South African Embassy spokesman Judika Tladi told The Jerusalem Post that Ambassador Ismael Coovadia was being recalled to Pretoria so that the government can get a “better understanding” of what happened off the coast. He could not say when Coovadia, who was leaving the country this weekend, would return to Israel.

Tladi added that Pretoria was not planning on expelling Israel’s ambassador to South Africa or severing ties.

“This will not affect ties between the two countries. We have no intention of expelling the Israeli ambassador or cutting ties with Israel,” Tladi said.

Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Dov Sergev-Steinberg was summoned earlier this week to a meeting and given a demarche from Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Sue Van Der Merwe.

“This was done in order to register the Government’s strongest possible protest to the Israeli Government, for its unjustified military action and resultant loss of life inflicted by The State of Israel on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian relief supplies to Gaza,” Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said in a statement to reporters on Thursday.

“The recall of Ambassador Ismael Coovadia for consultations is a way of protesting and a way of showing our strongest condemnation of the attack. This recent Israel aggression of attacking the aid flotilla severely impacts on finding a lasting solution to the problems of the region,” Ebrahim told journalists in Pretoria.

Some 3,500 protesters in Cape Town on Thursday called on South Africa to sever ties with Israel, E-tv, which is based in the city, reported.

South Africa’s diplomatic recall comes several days after Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel. Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol arrived in Ankara Thursday. Nicaragua cut ties with Israel earlier this week and Ecuador announced Thursday that it was recalling its ambassador as well.

Israel expressed its regret and disappointment at the South African move.  

“Those who criticize Israel would be better advised to turn their criticism against the terror-supporting rioters from the flotilla, who have nothing to do with humaneness,” spokesman Yigal Palmor said in a statement.

Relations between Israel and South Africa are for all intents and purposes in a “freeze,” one diplomatic official said Thursday.

South Africa, a close trading partner with Iran, votes against Israel in almost every possible international forum.

“We try to strengthen ties and South Africa tries to break them. They are very much like Turkey now,” the official said.

Pretoria also joined the many in the international community calling for the naval blockade of Gaza to be immediately lifted.

“This siege, which has brought untold hardships to the ordinary people of Gaza and made their lives nightmarish, is unconscionable and unsustainable,” said Ebrahim.

Ebrahim also spoke of the government’s commitment to contributing towards peace in the region and ensuring an independent and viable Palestinian state.

“A long-term solution to the region can only be achieved through negotiation. What is needed is the creation of a climate of mutual trust and peace,” he said.

A low point in relations with South Africa was reached during Operation Cast Lead, when then-South African deputy minister of foreign affairs Fatima Hajaig unleashed an anti-Semitic tirade against Israel.

“In fact, no matter which government comes into power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barack Obama or George Bush, the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries is in the hands of Jewish money, and if Jewish money controls their country, you cannot expect anything else,” Hajaig was recorded as saying, to thunderous applause, at a pro-Palestinian rally in the Lenasia township outside of Johannesburg in January 2009.

South Africa had one citizen on board the flotilla. Gadija Davids, a journalist with Radio 786 in Cape Town, was aboard the Mavi Marmara , on which the deadly raid that killed nine activists occurred.

Radio 786 is a community radio station, whose license holder is the Islamic Unity Convention, The Mail and Guardian reported. The journalist was not hurt and is expected back in South Africa Friday.

In a statement released Thursday, the South African Jewish leadership said that while it is saddened over the deaths and injuries incurred during the Gaza flotilla incident, it nevertheless saw the South African government’s decision to temporarily recall its ambassador in response as “premature and inappropriate.”

“The relevant facts of the incident are not yet fully known; they will become so only after the investigation into its causes has completed its work and reported its findings to the international community,” the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies said.

“In this regard, the leadership expresses its profound disappointment at the decision, as it goes against the South African way of engaging in dialogue and not jumping to conclusions before all the facts are known. The Jewish leadership regrets that South Africa is thus far the only country, aside from Turkey, to have taken so radical and disproportionate a step, despite not being directly involved in the matter,” the statement said.

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