For years, Kenya has served as Israel’s gateway to Africa. Israel has been using the strong political, economic and security relations between the two states as a way to expand its influence on the continent and turn other African nations against Palestine. Unfortunately, Israel’s strategy seems, at least on the surface, to be succeeding – Africa’s historically vocal support for the Palestinian struggle on the international arena is dwindling.
The continent’s rapprochement with Israel is unfortunate, 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 Palestine. If Africa succumbs to Israeli enticement and pressure to fully embrace the Zionist state, the Palestinian people would lose a treasured partner in their struggle for freedom and human rights.
Regrettably, Africa’s solidarity with Palestine started to erode in the 1990s. It was in those years that the US-sponsored peace process gained serious momentum, becoming the Oslo Accords and other agreements that normalized the Israeli occupation without giving Palestinians their basic human rights. With many 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 a whopping 39 African countries. As Palestinians lost more land under Oslo, Israel gained many new vital allies in Africa and all over the world. Yet Israel’s full-fledged “scramble for Africa” – as a political ally, economic partner and a client for its “security” and weapons technologies – didn’t fully manifest until recently.
On July 5, 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu kick-started Israel’s scramble for Africa with an historic visit to Kenya, which made him the first Israeli prime minister to visit Africa in the last 50 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. Within the same month, Israel announced the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and Guinea.
The new Israeli strategy flowed from there. More high-level visits to Africa and triumphant announcements about new joint economic ventures and investments followed. However, diplomatic and economic efforts to win over Africa soon proved insufficient for Israel’s prime minister. So, he succumbed to rewriting history to improve Israel’s standing on the continent. In June 2017, Netanyahu took part in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), held in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. “Africa and Israel share a natural affinity,” Netanyahu claimed 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 cover the ugly face of Zionist colonialism and deceive Africans, but also rob Palestinians of their history.
Despite Netanyahu’s blatant lies about “similar histories”, Israel’s charm offensive in Africa went from success to success. In January this year, for example, Chad, a Muslim-majority nation and central Africa’s geo-strategically most important country, established economic ties with Israel. 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.
When, for example, in December 2016, Senegal co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned 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 – The projects had previously been “widely promoted as a major part of Israel’s contribution to the fight against poverty in Africa.” Israel not only used projects like these to punish African nations when they failed to give blind support to Israel in international forums, it also used this new relationship to turn Africa into a new market for its arms sales.
African countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and Cameroon, among others, became clients of Israel’s “counterterrorism” technologies, the same deadly tools that are actively used to suppress Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for freedom. And all this as Israel continues to champion the same racist, colonial mindset that enslaved and subjugated Africa for hundreds of years. This fact seems to have escaped African leaders who are lining up to receive Israeli handouts and support in their precarious “war 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 legitimize its Apartheid. “Israel is making inroads into the Islamic world,” said Netanyahu during the first visit by an Israeli leader to Chad’s capital, Ndjamena, on January 20, 2019. “We are making history and we are turning Israel into a rising global power.”
Palestinians and Arabs, of course, share some of the blame in all of this for abandoning their African allies in a fruitless chase after US-Western promises of a peace that never actualized. Arab politics have massively shifted since the mid-1970s. Not only are Arab countries no longer speaking in one voice and, thus, have no unified strategy regarding Africa or anywhere else, but some Arab governments are actively plotting with Tel Aviv and Washington against Palestinians. The Bahrain economic conference, held in Manama on June 25-26, was the latest case in point.
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 mattered little in the limited and self-serving calculations of the Palestinian Authority. For the PA, only Washington, London, Madrid, Oslo and Paris carried any geopolitical importance – a deplorable political blunder on all accounts. But this historical mistake must be remedied before Israel’s success story denies Palestinians any leverage in Africa and throughout the rest of the global south.
Yet, 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. True, Israel has won the support of some of Africa’s ruling classes, but it has failed to win the African people, who remain on the side of Palestinians. Throughout my 10-day visit to their country, Kenyans from all walks of life showed me their support for Palestine in the most uplifting, authentic and natural ways.
Palestine will always be close to the heart of all Africans because of the painful, proud history of colonialism and resistance that we share. With that in mind, Palestinians should wake up to the fact that Israel is actively trying to rewrite their history and deprive them of the solidarity of peoples that perhaps understand their plight much better than most. This would be a moral injustice that must not be allowed to prevail.