BERLIN (JTA) — The leader of Germany’s main opposition party acknowledged that he may have gone too far when he wrote on Facebook that Israel is running an "apartheid regime" in Hebron.
Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, said Thursday that the choice of words he used on the social network the previous day had been "drastic."
"But that is exactly how the Palestinians in Hebron experience the situation," he said. "This drastic terminology came to mind for me, and not only for me, during our discussions and visits in Hebron."
Gabriel’s original remarks following a visit to Hebron this week spread rapidly on the the social network.
"It’s a zone without legal rights for Palestinians," he wrote. "It is an apartheid regime, and there’s no justification for it."
Gabriel in Thursday’s comments said he never intended to compare Israel with the former regime in South Africa "because this comparison would be worse than unfair to Israel, and would also have the effect of downplaying" the crimes of the apartheid state.
His original statement came as Israel was reeling from a series of rocket attacks from Gaza. The comments elicited hundreds of impassioned responses attacking and supporting Gabriel, and prompted an outcry from political and Jewish leaders.
Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, posted a response on his own Facebook site calling Gabriel’s comment "idiocy" that reflected poorly on his party.
While agreeing that the situation for some 180,000 Palestinians in Hebron is a "catastrophe" due to the actions of a "few hundred very, very radical settlers," this does not amount to apartheid, Kramer said. "It’s a stupid comparison."
Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, told JTA that the comment "exceeds all acceptable boundaries to a critical discussion about Israel and compares one of Germany’s closest allies to a racist, nondemocratic state."
The Jewish caucus of the Social Democratic Party also found Gabriel’s comments inappropriate. Gregor Wettberg, co-chair of the Berlin Brandenburg chapter of the caucus, said it was perfectly fair to criticize the situation for Palestinians in Hebron, which "is not in any way positive for the State of Israel or something that needs to be supported or defended by Jews or anyone." But it is neither accurate nor wise to use the word apartheid, he said.
"We all know in Germany, and he should know it, too, that the term is used by certain kinds of people in a certain kind of way … to express their general dislike of Israel," Wettberg said.
Gabriel should have thought twice before expressing his emotions via Facebook, he added.