Sigmar Gabriel
Sigmar Gabriel Reuters

A prominent Jewish organization in Germany and rival politicians reacted angrily on Thursday, after the country’s top opposition leader suggested Israel was using apartheid policies against Arabs.  

According to a report in the European Jewish Press (EJP), the comments were made by the head of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel.

Gabriel, who visited the city of Hevron, wrote on his Facebook page upon his return, “This is a lawless area for Palestinians. This is an apartheid regime for which there is no justification.”

The comments were criticized by the director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, Deidre Berger, who was quoted by EJP as having said, “The comparison of Israel to an apartheid state is an incendiary historical falsehood that delegitimizes the state of Israel.”

Gabriel’s remarks were attacked by his political opponents as well, according to the report. The general secretary of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, Hermann Groehe, called on Gabriel to apologize immediately for his “verbal failure.”

The report said that Gabriel, who hopes to replace Merkel as leader of Germany in elections expected in late 2013, sought to clarify his remarks in later postings on his Facebook page.  

Acknowledging that his words were “dramatic”, he added, “If my formulation led to the misinterpretation that I wanted to compare Israel and its government with the old South African apartheid regime, I am sorry.”

Gabriel added, “I believe the current settlement policy is wrong. I believe the conditions in Hebron are shameful. Both these things would not move me so much if I were not a friend of Israel.”

He concluded by saying, “We do neither ourselves nor our friends in Israel any favors by always dressing up our criticism in flowery diplomatic language.”