Israel’s interests in Africa have historically aimed at breaking its political isolation, especially in the Middle East, and also exploiting Africa’s rich resources. Presently, being much more technologically advanced than most African countries, Israel is able to offer its superior ‘security’ and irrigation technology to poor African states in exchange for diplomatic ties and support at the United Nations. The Israeli gambit seems to be working, especially as African leaders, particularly those who lack any true democratic credentials, hope that their closeness to Israel will protect them against western – especially American – meddling and scrutiny.
But will Israel succeed in reversing its isolation in Africa, and, by extension, isolate Palestine and the Palestinians?
Embracing, then rejecting Israel
Israel’s influence on the African continent is growing, and, as a direct result, Africa’s historically vocal support for the Palestinian struggle on the international arena is dwindling. The continent’s rapprochement with Israel comes at a diplomatic and political cost for Palestinians because, for decades, Africa has stood as a vanguard against all racist ideologies, including Zionism – the ideology behind Israel’s establishment on the ruins of historic Palestine. If Africa succumbs to Israeli enticements and pressures, thus fully embracing the Zionist state, the Palestinian people will lose a treasured partner in their struggle for freedom and human rights.
According to Israeli political analyst Pinhas Anbari, Israel’s current ‘charm offensive in Africa’ started after Israel failed to convince European states to support its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. ‘When Europe openly expressed its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel made a strategic decision to focus on Africa.’ But Anbari’s analysis is only partly correct; Europe’s continued support for a Palestinian state and occasional criticism of the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories was not the only reason behind Israel’s decision to turn its focus towards Africa.
Most African countries – like most countries in the Global South – have long voted in favour of pro-Palestinian resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), contributing to Israel’s sense of isolation on the international stage. As a result, winning back Africa became a key goal in Israeli international affairs – ‘winning back’ because Africa has not always been hostile towards Israel.
The initial African affinity for Israel began in the 1950s but ceased abruptly in the early 1970s. Ghana officially recognised Israel in 1956, just eight years after the latter’s creation and one year before Ghana won its independence, initiating a trend that continued among African countries for years to come. Ghana’s first post-independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, had a particular soft spot for Israel. By the early 1970s, Israel had established a strong position for itself on the continent. On the eve of the 1973 Israel-Arab war, Israel had full diplomatic ties with thirty-three African countries.
The ‘October War’, however, changed all this. Back then, under Egyptian leadership, Arab countries functioned, to some extent, with a unified political strategy. When African countries had to choose between Israel – a country born out of western colonial designs – and the Arabs – who had suffered at the hands of western colonialism as much as Africa had done – they, naturally, backed the Arabs. The war, and Israel’s consequent occupation of the Sinai, resulted in a strongly-worded resolution by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which condemned Israel’s ‘negative attitude’ and ‘acts of terrorism’, and warned Israel that its actions might result in African states taking ‘political and economic measures’ against it. One after another, African countries severed ties with Israel. Soon enough, no African state, other than Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and apartheid South Africa, had official diplomatic relations with Israel.
Oslo, the end of solidarity
As Israel exited the African stage in the mid-1970s, solidarity with Palestine began to rise – especially as it was rightly understood that the struggle in Palestine was integral to the pan-African liberation project. The OAU – the precursor to the African Union, in its 12th ordinary session held in Kampala in 1975, became the first international body to recognize, on a large scale, the inherent racism in Israel’s Zionist ideology. It adopted Resolution 77 (XII), which was cited in UNGA Resolution 3379, adopted in November 1975.
‘Taking note also of resolution 77 (XII) adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity at its twelfth ordinary session, hold at Kampala from 28 July to 1 August 1975, which considered “that the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being”, … Determines that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.’
Resolution 3379 remained in effect until it was revoked by the General Assembly in 1991, under intense US pressure.
Regrettably, Africa’s solidarity with Palestine began to erode in the 1990s. It was during this time that the USA-sponsored ‘peace process’ gained momentum, resulting in the Oslo Accords and other agreements that normalised the Israeli occupation without Palestinians attaining their freedom and basic human rights. With numerous meetings and handshakes between beaming Israeli and Palestinian officials featuring regularly in news media, many African nations bought into the illusion that a lasting peace was finally at hand. By the late 1990s, Israel had reactivated its ties with thirty-nine African countries. As Palestinians lost more land under the Oslo Accords, Israel gained new, vital allies in Africa, and, in fact, all over the world. Yet, Israel’s fully-fledged ‘scramble for Africa’ – as a political ally, economic partner and a client for its ‘security’ and weapons technologies – did not fully manifest itself until recently.
Israel’s success in recapturing the support of many African countries was not entirely of its own making. Arab politics have shifted massively since the mid-1970s. Not only do Arab states no longer speak in one voice, but they have no unified strategy regarding Africa – or anywhere else, for that matter. On the contrary, some Arab governments actively side with Tel Aviv and Washington against the Palestinians. The Bahrain Economic Conference, held in Manama from 25 to 26 June 2019, was a case in point. While the Conference provided no tangible economic support to Palestinians as promised, it eventually resulted in further normalisation between Israel and certain Arab states. On 13 August 2020, Israel and the UAE signed a joint statement in Washington, opening the stage for full diplomatic normalisation, a route subsequently also followed by Bahrain.
Moreover, the Palestinian leadership has itself shifted its political focus away from the Global South, especially since the signing of the Oslo Accords. For decades, Africa was insignificant in the limited and self-serving calculations of the Palestinian Authority (PA). For the PA, only Washington, London, Madrid, Oslo and Paris carried geopolitical importance – arguably one of the greatest political miscalculations of the Palestinian leadership.
Palestine and Africa: A Shared history
The reason that solidarity for Palestine in Africa remains strong is directly related to the shared past and present experiences between the long-oppressed Palestinians and the African peoples, whereas Israel, like Europe, represents the cruel coloniser with an insatiable appetite for resources and cheap labour.
Additionally, European exploitation of Africa never truly ended. The attempt at dominating the continent using old and new strategies continues to define western relationships with the rich continent. This ongoing exploitation has given new life to classic anti-colonial and liberation discourse, still visible in academic and intellectual circles. As opposed to traditional colonialism, the relationship between many independent African countries and their former colonists is now defined by neocolonialism. Political meddling, economic control, and, at times, military interventions – as in the recent cases of Libya and Mali – point to the unfortunate reality that Africa remains, in myriad ways, hostage to western priorities, interests and diktats.
In the infamous 1884 Berlin Conference, western colonial regimes attempted to mediate among the various powers that were competing over Africa’s riches, a period known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. It apportioned to different European powers a share of the African continent, as if Africa was uninhabited and the property of the West and its white colonists to do with as they please. Millions of Africans died in this protracted, bloody chapter unleashed by the West, which shamelessly promoted its genocidal oppression as a civilisational project.
Like most colonised peoples in the southern hemisphere, Africans fought battles against disproportionate odds to gain their precious freedom. In Kenya – Israel’s early access point to Africa, for example, Kenya’s freedom fighters rose in rebellion against the brutality of their British oppressors who had colonised the country in the 1920s. Most notable among the various resistance campaigns, the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s remains a stark example of the courage of Kenyans and the cruelty of colonial Britain. The British colonial administration responded to the uprising with a fierce crackdown, including the declaration of a State of Emergency in 1952, which lasted until 1960. This resulted in thousands of Kenyans being wounded, imprisoned in concentration camps, killed or disappeared, under the harshest of conditions.
Palestine fell under British occupation, the so-called British Mandate, at around the same time that Kenya also became a British colony. Palestinians too fought and fell in their thousands as they employed various methods of collective resistance, including the legendary strike and rebellion of 1936-39. The same British killing machine that operated in Palestine and Kenya during that period also operated with the same degree of senseless violence against numerous other nations around the world. While Palestine was handed over to the Zionist movement to establish the State of Israel in May 1948, Kenya achieved its independence in December 1963.
On 5 July 2016, Netanyahu kickstarted Israel’s own ‘Scramble for Africa’ with a historic visit to Kenya, which made him the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Africa in the last fifty years. After spending some time in Nairobi, where he attended the Israel-Kenya Economic Forum alongside hundreds of Israeli and Kenyan business leaders, he moved on to Uganda, where he met leaders from other African countries, including South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. In the same month, Israel announced the renewal of diplomatic ties with Guinea.
The new Israeli strategy continued with more high-level visits to Africa, and triumphant announcements about new joint economic ventures and investments. However, diplomatic and economic efforts to win over Africa soon proved insufficient for Israel’s leaders; Netanyahu resorted to rewriting history as a way to bolster the budding Israeli narrative in the continent.
In June 2017, Netanyahu participated in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit held in the Liberian capital Monrovia. ‘Africa and Israel share a natural affinity,’ Netanyahu thundered in his speech. ‘We have, in many ways, similar histories. Your nations toiled under foreign rule. You experienced horrific wars and slaughters. This is very much our history.’ With these words, Netanyahu attempted not only to redefine the actual mission of Zionist colonialism, but to rob Palestinians of their history as well.
Despite Netanyahu’s blatant distortions about ‘similar histories’, Israel’s charm offensive in Africa has gone from success to success. In January 2019, for example, Chad, a Muslim-majority nation and central Africa’s geo-strategically most important country, established economic ties with Israel.
Of course, conveniently absent from the fabricated new discourse on the supposedly ‘natural affinity’ between Israel and Africa is the fact that Israel practises institutionalised racism not only against Palestinian Arabs, but against Africans as well. The story gets even more interesting and tragic as certain compliant African countries are being used as ‘dumping grounds’ for thousands of destitute and penniless African migrants to Israel, in exchange for agreed-upon sums of money paid by Tel Aviv directly to these African governments. Uganda and Rwanda are two of ‘third countries’ to which Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are sent before continuing their desperate journey elsewhere. According to Amnesty International, ‘Israel’s deportations to Uganda violate Israel’s obligations under international law. Israel’s deportation policy is a way to abdicate its responsibility towards the refugees and asylum-seekers under its jurisdiction and shift it to less wealthy countries with bigger refugee populations.’
As it tried to establish itself as a partner to African nations, Israel did make some contributions that benefited Africans, such as delivering solar, water and agricultural technologies to regions in need. However, these contributions came at a significant cost for the recipients. When, for example, Senegal co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016, condemning the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Netanyahu recalled Israel’s ambassador to Dakar and swiftly cancelled the Mashav drip-irrigation projects there. The projects had previously been, as described by parliamentarian Ras Mubarak, ‘widely promoted as a major part of Israel’s contribution to the “fight against poverty in Africa”’.
Israel not only used such projects to punish African nations when they failed to give blind support to Israel in international fora, it also used this new relationship to turn Africa into a market for its arms sales. African countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon became clients of Israel’s ‘counterterrorism’ technologies, the same deadly tools that are actively used to suppress Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for freedom.
All of this as Israel continues to champion the same colonial mindset that enslaved and subjugated Africa for centuries. This fact seems to have escaped those African leaders who are lining up to receive Israeli handouts and support in their specious ‘wars on terror’. Moreover, barefaced anti-African racism that defines mainstream Israeli politics and society also seems of no consequence to the growing Israel fan club in Africa. Many African governments, including those of Muslim-majority nations, are now giving Israel exactly what it wants – a way to break out of its isolation and legitimise its Apartheid. ‘Israel is making inroads into the Islamic world,’ said Netanyahu during the first visit by an Israeli leader to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, on 20 January 2019. ‘We are making history and we are turning Israel into a rising global power.’
This normalisation of Israel in Africa has deep spiritual and religious connections as well. Leading the process of integrating Israel into African communities are Evangelical churches, which serve as intermediaries between Israel and various African nations. Many of these are heavily supported by right-wing churches in the USA. Additionally, there is a deliberate attempt by Israel to target African independent churches. For example, the Zion Christian Church of South Africa (ZCC), the largest church in the country that, despite its name, has not been a political Zionist group, has been courted and has become a solid supporter of frequent visitor to Israel and occupied Palestine. This relationship between the ZCC and Israel has been facilitated by the South African Zionist Federation and South African Friends of Israel. Through such exchanges, these churches play the role of Israel’s ambassador among their followers, while receiving funds and easy access to the Holy Land. With the rising support of Evangelical Christians and the active pacification of Muslim nations, Israel hopes to win back Africa, not just its ruling classes and political elites, but its ordinary people as well.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords starting in September 1993, it, expectedly, abandoned a decades-long Palestinian discourse of resistance and liberation. Instead, it subscribed to a new discourse, riddled with carefully-worded language sanctioned by Washington and its European allies. Whenever Palestinians dared to deviate from their assigned role, the West would decree that they had to return to the ‘negotiating table’, as the latter became a metaphor for obedience and submission.
Throughout these years, Palestinians mostly abandoned their far more meaningful alliances in Africa. Instead, they endlessly appealed to the goodwill of the West, hoping that the very colonial powers that had primarily created, sustained and armed Israel would miraculously become more balanced and humane. However, this has turned out to be a devastating mistake and something that must be remedied before Israel’s success story denies Palestinians any leverage in Africa and throughout the rest of the Global South.
On the other hand, despite its many successes in luring African governments to its web of allies, Israel has failed to tap into the hearts of ordinary Africans who still view the Palestinian fight for justice and freedom as an extension of their own struggle for democracy, equality and human rights. Certainly, Israel has won the support of some of Africa’s ruling classes, but it has failed to win the masses of African people, who remain supportive of Palestinians.
Often, Palestinians and their allies recall such historic proclamations as those of the iconic anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, who said, ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’, or, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who said, ‘We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land’. However, these sentiments, which reflected the anti-apartheid and revolutionary spirit in many African countries in the past, are no longer adequate to ensure African solidarity for Palestine and the Palestinian people. It will take years for Israel to diminish the rooted sympathy for Palestine in Africa, but if the comprehensive, centralised, and well-funded Israeli strategy is not countered with an equally cohesive and determined pro-Palestine strategy, it will be a matter of time before most of the African continent falls under Israel’s spell – beholden to Zionism and the lofty promises made by Tel Aviv in the name of aid and ‘security’.
* A version of this article was first published in the Long View Journal, Vol 2, Issue 4
** Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre and the Center for Islam and Global Affairs. He is a journalist, editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and author of five books. His latest book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons