South Africa's Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, on a trip to Gaza, invited Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to South Africa, in what would be Haniyeh's first trip outside the Muslim world.
"We stand by you and support you," Kasrils said of the new Palestinian unity government. "We in South Africa look forward to you being able to lead a delegation to our country," Kasrils told Haniyeh at a joint news conference.
Haniyeh said he accepted the invitation and intended to visit at "the appropriate time," but did not specify a date.
Israel condemned the invitation.
"Giving legitimacy and recognition to an unreformed Hamas leadership, a leadership that has stubbornly and consistently refused to accept the three international benchmarks, that refuses to renounce terrorism and violence, and refuses to support peace, cannot help peace," Foreign Minister spokesman Mark Regev said.
Regev said that Hamas's invitation could be seen as "unfortunately reinforcing" its extremist positions.
South Africa's move, however, did not really come as much of a surprise, as it has long been considered in Jerusalem one of the leading countries that would try to help Hamas break through its international isolation.
As early March 2006, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza announced that South Africa had invited a Hamas delegation to visit Kasrils demanded in Gaza that the international community lift its embargo on the Palestinian Authority. "The people of Palestine are facing a collective punishment by those who were not happy with the result of a democratic election," he said.
Regarding the international call on Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements with Israel, Kasrils said the South African government believed "the government of Mr. Haniyeh and President Abbas have gone a long way to meeting those requirements as we understand them."
Kasrils, a Jew, sent a message of support in February to the organizers of "Israeli Apartheid Week" at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.
"Please convey to all involved my wholehearted support for your week of solidarity with the Palestinian people in your appropriately entitled 'Israeli Apartheid Week,'" he wrote to the Palestinian Society at the school at the time.
"This year sees the 60th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan that set in motion the monstrous Zionist plot to violently dispossess the Palestinian people of their land and rights, and their dispersal through serial ethnic cleansing that has continued in one form or another to this day.
"To any fair minded person, this process of colonial-style dispossession is the fundamental cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is certainly akin to the racist-style humiliation and brutality of the notorious apartheid system under which South Africa's landless and dispossessed people suffered," he continued.