Two South African winners of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate peace, with former archbishop Desmond Tutu comparing the regional crisis to apartheid.
Their comments came as Pretoria condemned Israel's ground offensive into the Gaza strip and several prominent South Africans of Jewish descent called for the country to cut ties with Israel.
"It is not a Muslim or Jewish crisis. It is a human rights crisis with roots to what amounts to an apartheid system of land ownership and control," Tutu said at a news conference on this year's annual summit of peace prize winners to be held in Cape Town in October.
Criticism of Israel from South Africa is not new, but the Jewish state is always outraged by any comparison of its policies towards Palestinians with the racist apartheid system.
Fellow Nobel prize winner and former president FW de Klerk said Israel and the Palestinians needed to work for peace.
"For the Israelis and Palestinians, the lesson to be learnt from South Africa is that there is no dispute which cannot be resolved by meaningful negotiation if there is the will on both sides to negotiate," said De Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, who will co-host the Nobel summit with Tutu.
The feisty cleric, who won the prize in 1984 and has drawn the apartheid analogy in the past, said the latest flare-up in the Middle East crisis was the result of a void in global leadership.
"Yes, we condemn those who fan the flames, who launch the missiles against Israel, but missiles do not justify Israel's excessive response," he said.
"As an old man, my appeal to my fellow laureates and peacemakers is to step into the leadership void, to make your voices heard from all corners of the globe, to advocate or pressure your government and institutions to cajole, to persuade," Tutu said.
Speaking on the day former President and peace prize winner Nelson Mandela would have turned 96, Tutu said helping to overcome what he called "the greatest peace challenge of our times" would be a fitting tribute to the late South African leader.
Mandela died on December 5 last year but his birthday is commemorated internationally as Mandela Day.
- 'Time to sever links' -
South Africa's African National Congress government, which came to power under Mandela, issued a strongly-worded condemnation on Friday of the latest Israeli military action in the Gaza strip.
"South Africa is gravely concerned that the illegal ground invasion, which had been rejected by the international community, will continue the endless killing of innocent Palestinian civilians, especially vulnerable groups -- the elderly, women and children," the government said in a statement.
In a letter to the Cape Times, over 50 prominent South Africans of Jewish descent said: "We believe the time has come for the South African government to sever all links with Israel, including trade and investment, and to expel Israel's ambassador and recall ours".
The signatories included academics and anti-apartheid activist and renowned cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, who draws under the name Zapiro.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian supporters protested outside the Israeli Embassy trade office in Johannesburg, calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and chanting: "Hey, hey Israel, how many kids have you killed today?".
Thirty-three Gazans were killed on Friday as Israel pressed a major ground offensive in the coastal enclave, raising the overall Palestinian death toll since July 8 to 274, medics said.