Tel Aviv is on a charm offensive in West Africa, taking advantage of Arab absence to court ECOWAS states.
A group of Palestinian activists, academics, and civil society organisations have launched a campaign to deter African nations from partaking in the upcoming Africa-Israel summit, slated to take place in Togo in October.
Several African countries, including South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania, have already decided to boycott the summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet leaders from more than 20 countries to rekindle a diplomatic and economic relationship. The summit will be the first of its kind.
According to activist Razan Zuayter, a campaign organiser based in Jordan, the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad is seeking to point out to African countries Israel’s “dangerous” activities in the continent, such as its diamond trade, often illegally imported from Africa as revealed in a 2009 United Nations report, and its mistreatment of African minorities in Israel.
“If it [the summit] happens, we want a counter movement to emerge in Africa that can act in parallel to it,” Zuayter told Al Jazeera.
The summit, scheduled for October 23, will have leaders from Africa and Israel discuss ways to enhance cooperation in the fields of technology, development and security.
In a letter addressed to African governments and their respective embassies, the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad organisation called for the boycott of the summit on the basis that establishing relations with an “apartheid state” and condoning its actions against the occupied Palestinian people comes in violation of various UN conventions.
“African countries which fought colonialism for decades and became free after a long suffering should never associate themselves with the only, longest and most brutal colonial project in the world today,” the letter reads.
“In the name of justice and freedom and in the name of the African legacy of long struggle for freedom, we ask your country to disassociate from Israel’s Apartheid regime.”
Netanyahu previously pledged to strengthen ties with the continent and described his pledge as a “priority” at a regional security conference he attended in Liberia in June 2017.
“I believe in Africa, I believe in its potential- present and future. It is a continent on the rise,” he said in his address to West African leaders.
Historically, African leaders did not have warm relationships with the State of Israel. Following the 1973 October War, sub-Saharan African countries severed ties with Israel. In 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to visit sub-Saharan Africa in almost three decades.
The organisation, representing the Palestinian diaspora, is also working with civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground to pressure participating governments into pulling out from the summit.
While these new friendships with Israel might bring certain African countries short-term benefits…they should beware of Israel's longer-term agenda, which may ultimately be detrimental to their own national interests.
Salman Abu Sitta, Chairperson of the organisation, told Al Jazeera that these African countries have been “hard, determined fighters” in the battle against western colonialism.
“It [the summit] is a very sad regression; it is regrettable that they deny that history and became enemies of their history…to become aligned with the very epitome of racism and discrimination that is Israel,” he said.
“Is Togo ready to send ships of slaves from Togo to Israel in annotation of their long history?” he added.
According to Abu Sitta, the main consequence of a renewed Africa-Israel relationship is losing what is now a “solid majority” in the UN General Assembly in favour of ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Traditionally, African nations have been supporters of the Palestinian cause when voting on resolutions concerning the right of return, the dismantlement of the Separation Wall, and ending the illegal settlement expansion project.
Out of 193 member states, there are 54 African states in the UN.
“If we lose them [African votes], it is very dangerous,” Abu Sitta explained.
“Israel will have centres of influence in these countries, which will actively increase Israel’s influence in the UN and in the African continent,” he added, pointing out that the countries involved with organising the summit, including Togo, may have “private or monetary” motives for setting up the summit.
Al Jazeera reached out to the summit organisers for comment but received no reply in time for publication.
Similarly, Ghada Karmi, an academic and spokesperson for the organisation, told Al Jazeera that the campaign is significant in encouraging a discussion about Israeli “apartheid” policies and in raising awareness.
Israel, Karmi said, is determined to carry out the summit to reverse or abolish the pro-Arab policy of the African states. If the summit were successful, it would be “a milestone on the Israeli campaign”, she explained.
“We have to ask what is Israel offering to the African countries – it seems to us that it is offering support for dictators,” she said, which would aid governments in repressing “liberation movements”. “This [campaign] should be done at the state level,” said Karmi, describing the lack of government action as problematic.
“We have been reaching out to states to condemn this summit, not only African governments.”
South African human rights activist and political analyst Ayesha Kajee, based in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera that Israel has been on a mission to strengthen ties with Africa, even to the “extent of attempting to gain observer status at the African Union”.
“While these new friendships with Israel might bring certain African countries short-term benefits…they should beware of Israel’s longer-term agenda, which may ultimately be detrimental to their own national interests,” she said.
During Netanyahu’s visit to the continent in 2016, the Israeli government approved a $13m deal in development packages for African countries. The move was intended to symbolise the start of a closer economic relationship.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from the Occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Mustafa Barghouti, the former Palestinian information minister and general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative political party, said that Israel is taking advantage of its technological abilities and of its military and security services to carry out the summit.
“We started seeing changing trends in the UN with regards to the Palestinian cause,” he said. “Loss of support could lead to dominance of the Israeli narrative about the Palestinian issue and about the situation today.”
In addition to utilising support from the United States to establish a base in African countries, Barghouti said that this relationship is a chance for Israel to “market” their products and surveillance services, especially at a time where the activities of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are proving effective in curbing Israel’s economic success.
Naeem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera that a relationship with Israel would undermine African countries’ sovereignty.
Through marketing their products and services, Israel seeks to penetrate into the security services of these countries, Jeenah explained.
“It is a problem when a foreign state takes over the security functions of another government…they [African governments] become dependent on the Israelis,” he said.
Despite ongoing efforts to raise awareness, according to Jeenah, some 15 African countries are already in the “Israeli camp”, and no amount of civil society can reverse that.
African countries who oppose Israeli policies have not been vocal, he says, but with more government pressure, countries “on the fence…could be influenced”.