Mauritania has ordered staff at Israel's embassy to leave the country within 48 hours after freezing ties with the Jewish state over its invasion of Gaza, a senior Mauritanian official said on Friday.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said in response that Ambassador Miki Arbel was "going on a vacation", following a request made by Mauritania on January 19.
Diplomatic relations between Mauritania, one of only three Arab countries to have full ties with the Jewish state, have been strained since Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip in December.
"The Mauritanian authorities have given staff at the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott 48 hours to leave the country," the official said.
Another official close to Mauritanian military ruler General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said the decision to expel the Israeli diplomats followed the decision in January to freeze relations with the Jewish state.
"This is the logical consequence of the freezing of relations between Israel and Mauritania ... there is nothing new," said the official, who declined to be identified.
"This was expected. After General Aziz took the decision at the Doha summit, an envoy from the Mauritanian Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the ambassador of Israel to leave the country," the official said.
Staff were seen leaving the embassy in Nouakchott. A senior Foreign Ministry official confirmed that the Mauritania authorities have given Israeli Ambassador Miki Arbel and his staff a limited amount of time to leave the embassy building.
Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and former Ambassador Boaz Bismuth in 2006 meeting with desposed Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdullah (Photo: Moshe Ben Gershom, GPO)
Sources in Jerusalem expressed their fear that the authorities would remove the fences around the building, and are therefore preparing to evacuate and return the embassy staff to Israel.
Abdel Aziz announced the decision to freeze relations at a summit of Arab nations in Doha, Qatar, in January. Qatar said at the time that it would freeze its own relations with Israel, which are at a lower level than full diplomatic ties.
During the Gaza operation, Mauritania called back its ambassador to Israel for consultation
A symbolic relationship
Boaz Bismuth, who served as the Israeli ambassador to Mauritania until recently, was saddened by the report.
"Every time I was asked by the importance of the relationship between Mauritania and Israel, I always described it as a symbolic relationship," he told Ynet. "How many embassies are there in Arab countries with an Israeli flag? Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania.
"Personally, I have a sentimental connection to that place due to the many years I spent there. I don’t think we are to blame, with Operation Cast Lead, as there have been grave incidents throughout the years, including the Second Lebanon War and the second intifada, which did not affect our relations with them."
Bismuth explained that the internal context should also be taken into account. "Mauritania is controlled today by a military junta which is not recognized by the West. This is a military coup after a democratic procedure.
"This decision basically means that Mauritania has chosen to strengthen the radical camp. As a friend of that country I am extremely frustrated by this. It only shows that there are many elements in the country and that there are people with whom we can try and exert efforts for peace, but sometimes there are other elements as well. Personally, I am extremely saddened by this."
Last year, a number of gunmen attacked the Israeli embassy building. Eyewitnesses reported that the gunmen had fired at the compound while shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), and that the embassy guards had fired back at them.
Anat Shalev contributed to this report