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WORLD | 19-02-2024 21:14

Brazil-Israel row escalates as Lula declared 'persona non grata'

Brazil recalls its ambassador from Israel, which declares Lula "persona non grata" after controversial remarks.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's comparison of Israel's military campaign in Gaza to the Holocaust has unleashed a diplomatic firestorm, with Brazil recalling its ambassador Monday and Israel declaring Lula "persona non grata."

The row erupted the day before when Lula said the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip "isn't a war, it's a genocide," and compared it to "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Lula had "crossed a red line." His government summoned Brazil's ambassador for a meeting Monday with Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

"He's persona non grata in the state of Israel so long as he doesn't retract his remarks and apologise," Katz said of Lula.

In a tit-for-tat move, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry then said it had also summoned the Israeli ambassador to Brazil for a meeting later that same day, and recalled its own ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations, "given the gravity of the statements this morning by the government of Israel."

The Brazilian ambassador will depart Tel Aviv Tuesday, it said in a statement.

 

G20 meeting

Veteran leftist Lula, 78, is a prominent voice for the Global South whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20.

His comments came as Brazil prepares to host a G20 foreign ministers' meeting Wednesday and Thursday, when top diplomats including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will gather in Rio de Janeiro, with the divisive Gaza conflict high on the agenda.

The war started on October 7, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages – 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

 

Political divide

In the aftermath of Hamas's attack, Lula condemned it as a "terrorist" act.

But he has since grown vocally critical of Israel's response.

He has faced backlash at home for his latest comments on the conflict, which came during a press conference on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

The Brazil-Israel Institute called his statements "vulgar," and warned they risk "fuelling anti-Semitism."

The Israelite Confederation of Brazil called them a "perverse distortion of reality [that] offends the memory of Holocaust victims and their descendants."

Hitler's Germany systematically exterminated six million Jews during the Holocaust – an estimated one-third of world Jewry.

After World War II, the newly founded state of Israel took in hundreds of thousands of survivors.

Lula's conservative opponents also pounced on his remarks, which outraged many in the powerful Evangelical Christian community, which is staunchly pro-Israel.

"Lula not only showed his ignorance of history, he showed the world the hatred in his heart against the state of Israel," lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Political allies meanwhile rushed to Lula's defence. First Lady Rosangela 'Janja' da Silva, a long-time member of his Workers' Party (PT), said his comments "defended... women and children, who represent the majority of victims" in the conflict.

"His statements referred to the genocidal (Israeli) government, not the Jewish people," she wrote on X.

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by Ramon Sahmkow & Ilan Ben Zion, AFP

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