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

By AFP - Feb 20,2024 - Last updated at Feb 20,2024

This handout photo released by the Brazilian Presidency shows Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaking during a press conference in Addis Ababa on Sunday (AFP photo)

BRASÍLIA — Brazilian President Luiz Inacio 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 on 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 on Monday with Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre 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 departed Tel Aviv on 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 on 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.

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

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 6 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, 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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