A senior Israeli diplomat has been removed from the African Union’s annual summit in Ethiopia as a dispute over Israel’s accreditation to the bloc escalated.
A video posted on social media showed security personnel walking Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li out of the auditorium during the opening ceremony of the summit in Addis Ababa on Saturday.
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Ebba Kalondo, the spokesperson for the African Union’s chairman, said the diplomat was removed because she was not the duly accredited Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia – the official who was expected.
An AU official later told AFP news agency the diplomat who was “asked to leave” had not been invited to the meeting, with a non-transferable invitation issued only to Israel’s ambassador to the African Union, Aleli Admasu.
“It is regrettable that the individual in question would abuse such a courtesy,” the official added.
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The move was swiftly condemned by Israel.
“Israel looks harshly upon the incident in which the deputy director for Africa, Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, was removed from the African Union hall despite her status as an accredited observer with entrance badges,” the Israeli foreign ministry said.
Israel blamed the incident on South Africa and Algeria, two key nations in the 55-country bloc, saying they were holding the AU hostage and were driven by “hate”.
Vincent Magwenya, spokesman for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa present at the summit, demanded that Israel “substantiate their claim” after the latter accused arch-foe Iran of orchestrating the move with help from Algeria and South Africa.
Israel’s foreign ministry said the charge d’affaires at South Africa’s embassy would be summoned for a reprimand.
South Africa rejected the claim, saying Israel’s application for observer status at the AU has not been decided upon by the bloc.
“Until the AU takes a decision on whether to grant Israel observer status, you cannot have the country sitting and observing,” Clayson Monyela, head of public diplomacy in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, told Reuters news agency.
“So, it’s not about South Africa or Algeria, it’s an issue of principle.”
The dispute over Israel’s observer status to the bloc was set in motion in July 2021 when then-chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, accepted unilaterally the country’s accreditation.
The move triggered an uproar from a number of member states demanding the status be withdrawn.
The protest was spearheaded by South Africa and Algeria, two powerful members who argued the decision flew in the face of AU statements supporting the occupied Palestinian territories.
South Africa’s governing party has historically been a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause.
In a statement on Sunday, the African National Congress (ANC), which compares Israel to an “apartheid state”, gave clear support for Bar-li’s ousting.
The ANC said her removal was aimed at “thwarting an attempt to undermine the current sitting AU Summit from considering a report that is supposed to guide discussions on whether Israel must be granted an observer status”.
Palestinian groups on Sunday hailed Bar-li’s removal.
“The expulsion is consistent with the AU support for our people and their legitimate rights,” the Fatah movement, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.
It also called on all African countries “to take similar steps to besiege Israel to force it to halt its crimes against the Palestinian people, their territories and holy sites”.
Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said in a statement: “These efforts are consistent with the values and principles of the AU.”
Palestine already has observer status at the AU and pro-Palestinian language is typically featured in statements delivered at the AU’s annual summits.
In February last year, the AU decided to suspend the debate on whether to suspend Israel’s observer status for fear that a vote would have created an unprecedented rift in the 55-member body.
The then newly elected AU chairman, Macky Salk, said the vote would have been postponed until 2023, adding that a committee had been set up with the goal of consulting with member states and building consensus on the matter.
It had taken 20 years of diplomatic efforts for Israel to win observer status. It had previously held the role at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Still, it was long thwarted in its attempts to regain it after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.