Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chadian President Idriss Déby on Nov. 25, 2018. Image: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO

Africa’s Israel Dilemma: Between Solidarity For Palestine and Politics of Interest

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The Israel-Palestine war has become a seismic force in the tumultuous landscape of global politics, laying bare the fractures in the international community’s response to Israel’s unrelenting airstrikes and ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.? As the Arab and Muslim world remains entangled in its own divisions over Israel’s aggression, particularly against the backdrop of the Abraham Accords, a parallel narrative unfolds in Africa. 

Across the continent, countries find themselves entwined in a complex web of conflicting foreign policy reactions to the crisis. This schism is rooted in the historical tapestry of relationships between African nations and Palestine’s enduring struggle for independence, set against the backdrop of an expanding Israeli presence and influence on the African continent. The geopolitical chessboard is seemingly evolving, and the repercussions resonate far beyond the borders of the Middle East and Africa.

As the death toll from Israel’s bombardment exceeds 13,000, the harrowing toll weighs heaviest on women and children, spurring impassionate global calls for an immediate ceasefire and urgent humanitarian assistance for the beleaguered residents of Gaza. These calls find resonance not only among numerous governments but also among protesters worldwide. In the past month, an ever-growing solidarity movement has gained traction, spanning both the Global North and the Global South, fervently advocating for the rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people.

Sub-Sahara Africa’s muted response

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED), more than 3,600 pro-Palestinian protests break out worldwide – about 90 percent of the global protests that have taken place since the beginning of the war, which is estimated to be 4,200 protests. In contrast, about 520 events took place in support of Israel, and 100 events were neutral. 

Significantly, a surge of protests unfolded prominently in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa, mirroring a global outcry in solidarity with the Palestinians. With the exception of South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa has shown fairly limited engagement in the solidarity movement protests. The country, a longtime backer of Palestinian independence, stood out as a vociferous supporter among the region’s more constrained activity. 

In his speech during a peace summit in Cairo in October, President Ramaphosa emphasized South Africa’s solidarity with Palestine, asserting: “The fighting must end. Israel must stop its siege and shelling of Gaza. Hamas must stop launching rockets into Israel. Hostages must be returned. We must discourage any action that fuels this conflict and threatens to engulf the entire region. Humanitarian corridors must be opened to alleviate human suffering.”

During the Russia–Ukrainian war, several African countries positioned themselves as neutral and strategic nonalignment actor in the conflict. In June 2023, a delegation of six African countries visited both Russia and Ukraine to push for a peace agreement – a move seen by analysts as a new chapter for Africa’s diplomacy as a neutral peace broker despite the limited leverage of the continent. Moreover, during two voting rounds for a UN resolution to condemn the Russian war on Ukraine in 2022, almost 50 percent of African countries either voted against the resolution, abstained from voting, or reported absent. 

In a parallel vein, 2023 witnessed a distinctive diplomatic stance from African nations as over 70 percent either voted against, abstained, or were absent from the vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Despite this proactive diplomatic involvement in the Russian–Ukraine conflict, there appears to be a noticeable shift in engagement and unity within the continent, particularly among Sub-Saharan countries, when it comes to Israel’s current war on Gaza. This stands in contrast to their prior diplomatic endeavors and peace deal attempts amid the Russian–Ukraine war.

A wavering stance

In recent years, the stance of African countries on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has exhibited a discernible division and shift. In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s relationship with the African continent entered a turbulent phase, exacerbated by the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) decision to sever ties with Israel. However, after nearly two decades of diplomatic overtures, Israel secured approval in 2021 as an observer state within the African Union – a move that stirred renewed divisions and disagreements among member states of the AU. In 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Africa tour marked a historic moment, being the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to the continent in decades. Netanyahu visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, with Kenya and Rwanda emerging as diplomatic allies, contributing to Israel’s observer status in the African Union.

Despite the firm position of the AU for a two-state solution and the longstanding support of the bloc to the Palestinian cause, the decision was approved by the AU chairperson after a request by several AU member states. This decision was strongly opposed by a number of member states forming a pan-African bloc, led by Algeria and South Africa. Due to this increasing tension across the AU, the decision was revoked later in 2023 after ousting the Israeli Ambassador from an African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Both Algeria and South Africa have been continuous supporters of Palestine at the AU and in other international forums, including the UN General Assembly.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his Africa tour in 2016. Image: NewArab/AFP.

Israel’s expanding roots in Africa

Pertinently, Israel has arguably forged robust ties and garnered increased support from various African nations over the years. Since the early 1990s, a number of African countries have actively pursued their economic interests by strengthening their connections with Israel. This engagement predominantly centers around Israel’s cutting-edge technological prowess, particularly in the agriculture sector, alongside collaborative efforts in trade and security.

Since the early days of the Gaza war, a number of African countries, including Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other African countries, have taken a firm stand to support Israel’s position. The growing influence of Israel in a continent that is traditionally in support of Palestine’s independence and long has suffered from colonialism can be attributed to several factors. 

Increasing Israeli aid to some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and strengthening trade relations among these factors. According to the OECD aid statistics, between 2013 and 2021, Israel provided an Official Development Assistant (ODA) with a total of approximately 53 million USD to Sub-Saharan African countries. Moreover, Israel’s trade transactions with Sub-Saharan African countries are equivalent to 569 million USD of exports and 193 million USD of imports.

According to African affairs expert Teresa Nogueira Pinto, the Trump administration’s mediation efforts within the Abraham Accords framework have further played a pivotal role, linking strategic decisions for Sudan and Morocco, such as removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara, to the normalization of ties with Israel.

Despite the long historical support of African countries to the Palestinian cause, the future relations with Israel on the economic front seem to be a driving force for the current neutral stance of many countries. While most North African countries and South Africa have shown a clear political position against Israel’s war on Gaza and openly condemned Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinian people, the rest of the continent seems to either be neutral or provided some sort of support to Israel at the beginning of the conflict. This current stance of many Sub-Saharan African countries is a sign of rising political heterogeneity among the continent, highlighting the prevalence of self-interest politics in their relationships with Israel. 

Ahmed El Assal

Ahmed El Assal is a PhD Candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies. His current research focuses on governance, political economy of aid assistance, civil society, and accountability of public service provision in Africa and the Middle East.

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