Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the country’s main opposition party, has accused Israel of running an “apartheid regime” in Hebron. On his page on the social networking site ‘Facebook’, he posted: “I was just in Hebron. There is a legal vacuum there for Palestinians. This is an apartheid regime, for which there is no justification.” The post quickly drew hundreds of responses, mostly from pro-Israel surfers, some of whom threatened to cancel their memberships in the SPD. The secretary-general of the governing CDU, Hermann Gröhe, called Gabriel’s statement “scandalous” and urged him to apologize for it immediately.
World Jewish Congress Vice President Maram Stern criticized the statements by the SPD leader and accused Gabriel of deploying “friendly fire” and “calumnies” against the Jewish state.
Gabriel – a potential challenger of Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year’s elections - later clarified his remarks in two follow-up posts, saying that he had not meant to compare Israel with South Africa’s apartheid regime but wanted to express his “immense” anger on how Palestinians were treated in Hebron. “I think [Israel's] current settlement policy is wrong and I consider the conditions [in Hebron] undignified. We are not doing any favors to us or our friends in Israel if we continue veiling our criticism in diplomatic flowers of speech.”
Gabriel, who said he traveled to Israel about 20 times, added that the situation for Palestinians in Hebron was “indeed terrible.” Even Israeli soldiers he had met there had told him they found the conditions “unbearable,” he wrote. Israel had the right to defend itself, as it was the only state in the world whose neighbors questioned its right to exist and whose citizens suffered daily from rocket attacks, the 52-year-politician added. “But that is no justification for continuing with a settlement policy such as the one that can be witnessed in Hebron. It shouldn’t lead to us prohibiting ourselves from criticizing the errors of the Israeli government.”
In a second post, Gabriel answered his critics who were offended by him speaking of Israel as an apartheid regime. “I am aware that this a very drastic term. But that’s exactly how the Palestinians in Hebron see their situation. That drastic term is what came to my mind during the talks and visits in Hebron.” Gabriel then clarified that it would be “more than unfair” to Israel to liken it to the South Africa of the apartheid era. “But the humiliating treatment of Palestinians in Hebron goes beyond much of what one is used to from the West Bank. And this makes even someone like me, who supports Israel, immensely angry.”
Gabriel supports Palestinian unilateralism, talks with Hamas
During his current Middle East trip the SPD leader met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He said that he wanted Israel to engage in dialogue with Hamas. He had planned to meet with a representative of the terror group but canceled due to the recent cross-border violence between Israel and Gazan terrorists.
“Hamas is a factor in this conflict. And you can’t solve a conflict if one factor is being ignored,” Gabriel told reporters in Jerusalem. He also said that he fully supported the Palestinians’ efforts to have Palestine accepted as a member state of the United Nations, “because there is no counterargument to that.” He said that an SPD government would vote in favor of Palestinian membership at the UN General Assembly. The center-right government of Angela Merkel is opposed to Palestinian unilateralism, as are most EU countries.
In his article for the German news portal ‘FOCUS Online’ WJC Vice-President Maram Stern wrote that the use of the term ‘apartheid’ Gabriel’s call for talks with Hamas represented a worrying change of policy toward Israel that could also be witnessed in other Social Democratic parties in Western Europe. Stern ended his article by saying: “Good statesmen behave differently. Friends too.”
[with material from 'The Times of Israel']