Israel-Gaza war: Why is Africa divided on supporting Palestine?

Israel has made deep inroads into a continent traditionally sympathetic to Palestine. But Israel’s gains have limits too.

[Nataliia Shulga/ Al Jazeera]
[Nataliia Shulga/ Al Jazeera]

As reports of Hamas fighters attacking southern Israel last Saturday flooded phones and television sets around the world, Kenyan President William Ruto took to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“Kenya joins the rest of the world in solidarity with the State of Israel and unequivocally condemns terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians in the country,” he wrote. “There exists no justification whatsoever for terrorism, which constitutes a serious threat to international peace and security.”

“The international community must mobilise to bring the perpetrators, organisers, financiers, sponsors, supporters and enablers of these reprehensible criminal acts of terrorism to account and speedily bring them to justice.”

It was an explicit endorsement of Israel’s position and – some would argue – the response that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has since unleashed on the Gaza Strip, with a bombing campaign that has killed more than 1,900 people. And it was a social media post that underscored Israel’s growing influence in Africa.

As the death toll from the war mounts, African governments are wading into heated debates surrounding the conflict – with the continent split, as different nations take opposing sides.

Authorities in South Africa blamed the escalation on Israel’s illegal occupation and desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as sacred Christian sites, in a statement on Sunday. A top official, Zane Dangor, told local news channel eNCA that Hamas’s bloody attack, while not a solution, was unsurprising and that the conflict would not stop “until the occupation ends”.

Algeria declared “full solidarity with Palestine” early on in the war. The African Union Commission under Moussa Mahamat Faki, while expressing concern over the violence, has blamed the “denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians” and called for a two-state solution.

But Kenya, Zambia, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among other African nations that have aligned with Israel’s position.

So why is a continent that suffered the worst ravages of colonialism and racism for centuries and that has historically, for the most part, supported Palestine, split now?

The short answer: Africa’s divisions highlight each government’s attempt to compartmentalise their interests, experts say, and underline some countries’ strengthening ties with Israel. On the one hand, there are deep-rooted ties with the Palestinian movement; on the other, the offer of cutting-edge technology, military assistance and aid from Israel. Which wins out could determine how Africa tilts if this conflict drags on – and in the future.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela (R) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (L) address the media after holding talkson the crisis in the Middle East May 3, 2001. Arafat is in South Africa to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting on Palestine, and also to inform President Thabo Mbeki about developments on the Middle East.
Late South African President Nelson Mandela, right, and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, left, address the media together on May 3, 2001, during a visit by Arafat to South Africa [File: Reuters]

A ‘historical and emotional’ relationship

African countries shedding the pain of brutal colonial rule in the 1960s were cold to a newly formed Israel and were sympathetic to the struggle of Palestinians uprooted from their land and homes in 1948.

Following the October War of 1973, the continental bloc, then the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) severed ties with Israel.

Algeria has been a leading critic of Israel on the continent – even as its rival Morocco’s relations with Israel have blossomed after they agreed to normalise ties in 2020.

Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a researcher with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) traces some of Algeria’s sentiments to the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence in Algiers and even further back to Algeria’s history under French colonialism.

“The Algeria-Palestine relationship is very historic and emotional,” Ghebouli told Al Jazeera, adding that Islam as a common religion solidifies those ties. “We were occupied by France, and this history of brutality is similar.

“On my social media feed right now it’s all about solidarity with Palestine at the moment.”

But post-apartheid South Africa has perhaps been Palestine’s most staunch supporter on the continent, with Nelson Mandela famously drawing parallels between the struggle of Black South Africans against white rule and of Palestinians against Israel’s occupation. Many human rights groups have subsequently also made that comparison.

In July 2022, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called on the United Nations to declare Israel an “apartheid state”. Amid Russia’s war on Ukraine, as Western pressure grew on South Africa and other nations in Africa and Asia to condemn Moscow’s actions, Pandor pushed back, asking why Western capitals weren’t willing to apply the same principles of international law when it came to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

Still, that vocal diplomatic support for Palestine masks a more complex relationship between African nations and Israel – one that has rapidly grown in recent years, reshaping the continent’s approach to the Middle  East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, right, walk together after giving a joint press conference at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Netanyahu is in Kenya as part of his four-nation tour of Africa. (AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and former Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, right, walk together after giving a joint press conference at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Netanyahu has made multiple trips to African nations as Israel expands its influence on the continent [File: Sayyid Abdul Azim/AP Photo]

Israel’s growing footprint

After the 1973 war, only a handful of African nations retained relations with Israel, while most broke ties. Yet, today, that tide has turned dramatically: 44 of 54 African countries recognise Israel’s statehood, and close to 30 have opened embassies or consulates in Tel Aviv.

Israel’s widely recognised prowess in agriculture has helped its cause – at a time when many African countries battle drought, floods and extreme weather phenomena at increasing frequencies. A fifth of Africa’s population is undernourished.

“Israel’s role as one of the world’s leaders in agricultural technologies is a very attractive incentive for African countries battling insecurity and for economies with arid and semi-arid lands,” Tighisti Amare, deputy director of the Africa Programme at the London-based Chatham House think tank said.

“As such, many African countries have chosen to exercise their agency and separate economic interests from political positions in international fora,” she added.

But it’s not just agriculture. Trade and security interests too have made many African countries warm up to Israel, said Alhadji Bouba Nouhou, a lecturer at the University of Bordeaux.

A key turning point came in 1978, with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

“Things really started to change following the Camp David agreements,” Nouhou told Al Jazeera. With a major Arab country signing a peace deal with Israel, many African nations decided it made little sense for them to stay away.

That trend gained more momentum after the Oslo Accords of 1993 – a period that also marked the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the end of the Cold War, and the promise of rapprochement between Israel and African nations. More recently, the normalisation deals struck with Chad, Morocco and Sudan represent major wins on the continent for Israel.

South Africa, one of Israel’s fiercest critics on the continent, is also its biggest trading partner in Africa – by far.

In 2021, trade between Israel and Sub-Saharan African countries reached over $750m. Israel exports machinery, electronics, and chemicals to the continent. Of that, nearly two-thirds were traded with South Africa, followed by Nigeria, with which Israel traded goods worth $129m in 2021. South Africa also trades with Palestine, with Palestinian exports of olive oils and other edibles jumping 34 percent between 2009 and 2021.

Yet, Israel also has strong ties with nations beyond trade.

For decades, it has pumped millions of dollars in humanitarian aid into Ethiopia. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews have made their way to Israel.

Mashav, Israel’s international aid agency, has also flown in Kenyan students for training in agriculture and medicine and trained Senegalese entrepreneurs in management.

Meanwhile, in Cameroon, Israeli forces are believed to be propping up longtime ruler Paul Biya by training the BIR, an elite fearsome army unit that answers directly to the president. Israeli media reports have suggested that the country is also training soldiers in multiple African nations.

An Africa-Israel summit was scheduled to be held in 2017, although a crisis in the host country Togo led to it being called off. But earlier that year, Netanyahu, speaking to West African leaders at a meeting in Liberia, declared: “Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel.”

Despite all of these gains, however, Israel has also continued to face setbacks in Africa.

Previous inroads bolstered Aleligne Admasu, Israel’s ambassador to the African Union, to seek Observer Status for Israel in the bloc in 2021. Although the request was granted, Israel’s status was suspended this February, after Algeria and South Africa protested the move. Palestine, on the other hand, has retained AU Observer Status since 2013.

Members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign protest outside the Israeli consular office in Cape Town, South Africa October 11, 2023. REUTERS/Nic Bothma
Members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign protest outside the Israeli consular office in Cape Town, South Africa, on October 11, 2023. As Israel’s bombing of Gaza continues, public pressure could build across Africa for forceful criticism of attacks on the besieged strip [Nic Bothma/Reuters]

Two-faced governments?

So are African governments two-faced about the Israel-Palestine conflict – trading with Israel and strengthening ties with it, while also, in some cases at least, speaking up for Palestine?

Experts say that neither their seeming contradiction nor the divisions within Africa on the issue are surprising – and point to the recent split in positions after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“When the war broke, while Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country was not condoned, a third of African countries chose to remain neutral in the UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion,” Amare of Chatham House reminded.

“It is not unusual for this to happen and expectations that African countries will have the same response to a crisis is generally misguided,” she said.

In another example, African countries, despite intensifying relations with Israel, voted overwhelmingly against the US decision to open an embassy in disputed Jerusalem in a UN emergency meeting back in 2017.

And politics might soon seep into trade relations. While South Africa is the pillar of Israel’s trade with the continent, there is growing pressure from civil society for Pretoria to take a clearer position in favour of Palestine, Muhammed Desai, director of the South African advocacy group Africa4Palestine, told Al Jazeera.

“Last year, South Africa’s parliament passed a resolution to downgrade South Africa’s diplomatic relations and embassy in Israel,” Desai said.

“As we speak, South Africa does not have an ambassador in Israel,” he pointed out. “As civil society, we are advocating for our government to do more: All relations and trade with Israel should be boycotted, both at a public level but also by the private sector.”

If Israel’s deadly bombardment of Gaza continues and is followed by a land invasion, expect such calls to grow.

Source: Al Jazeera