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The South African government has issued an unusually harsh statement condemning Israel for approving 900 new housing units in Gilo and evicting Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes, comparing Israel's actions to the "forced removals" of the apartheid era.

"We condemn the fact that Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem is coupled with Israel's campaign to evict and displace the original Palestinian residents from the City," the statement said. "South Africa is deeply concerned that these activities by Israel will only serve only to deepen the cycle of violence in the region."

Israeli officials and Jewish leaders in South Africa condemned the statement.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said: "We deeply regret this unexplainable statement, which ignores key facts while presenting as realities nonexistent matters. It is highly misleading not to take cognizance of Israel's repeated calls to renew peace talks unconditionally and without deferral. It is simply unjust to call the neighborhood of Gilo a 'settlement,' or to conjure a phantasmagorical 'campaign to evict Palestinians.'"

"One cannot equate building new homes for Israelis... in Gilo with the forced removals that occurred under apartheid," said David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. "In the latter case, many thousands of non-whites were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for white settlement; in Gilo, by contrast, no one is being forcibly removed to make way for new developments."

Israel says the two Palestinian families evicted from homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood over the summer were living in buildings that have been owned by Jews since before Israel's founding, and that a court ordered the evictions because the families had violated the terms of their leases.

Another leader of the South African Jewish community said that while individual government officials have occasionally invoked the apartheid comparison, it's unusual for the government itself to do so.

A spokeswoman for the South African Zionist Federation, Bev Goldman, said the group "questions again why Israel is always judged to a standard different from that of the rest of the world." She said the statement would "do little more than create and heighten tensions within the local Jewish community and with South Africa's radical pro-Palestinian elements."