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

Brazil's ambassador to Israel Frederico Meyer (C) visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, where he was summoned by Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz (L)
— Brasília (AFP)

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 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," and Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Lula is "persona non grata in the state of Israel so long as he doesn't retract his remarks and apologize."

Katz summoned Brazil's ambassador Frederico Meyer for a meeting Monday at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

In a tit-for-tat move, the Brazilian foreign ministry then said it had also summoned the Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Daniel Zonshine, for a meeting later that same day, and recalled Meyer from Tel Aviv for consultations.

According to a diplomatic source, Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira and Zonshine had a "harsh, but appropriate" conversation, as Vieira "demonstrated dissatisfaction" with the treatment of Meyer and Lula in Jerusalem over the situation.

That included Meyer being forced to listen to a statement in Hebrew "without an interpreter, without knowing what was being said," the source added.

- G20 meeting -

Veteran leftist Lula, 78, is a prominent voice for the Global South and his 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 Sergei Lavrov gather in Rio de Janeiro, with the divisive Gaza conflict high on the agenda.

The war started 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.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva accused Israel Sunday of committing 'genocide' in Gaza

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 "fueling 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, posted on X.

Political allies meanwhile rushed to Lula's defense. 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.