Africa’s Divergent Stance: Support for Palestine Amid Israel-Gaza Conflict

Kenyan President William Ruto condemned Hamas fighters attacking southern Israel, stating that there is no justification for terrorism and attacks on civilians. He called for the international community to mobilize to bring the perpetrators, organizers, financiers, sponsors, supporters, and enablers of these criminal acts of terrorism to justice. This endorsement of Israel’s position and the response Israel has launched on the Gaza Strip, which has killed over 1,900 people, underscores Israel’s growing influence in Africa.

As the death toll from the war mounts, African governments are engaging in heated debates surrounding the conflict, with the continent split as different nations take opposing sides. South Africa blames the escalation on Israel’s illegal occupation and desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and sacred Christian sites.

Algeria declares “full solidarity with Palestine” early in the war, while the African Union Commission under Moussa Mahamat Faki blames the “denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians” and calls for a two-state solution. Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among African nations that have aligned with Israel’s position.

Africa, a continent that has historically supported Palestine, is currently split due to governments compartmentalizing their interests and strengthening ties with Israel. The divisions highlight deep-rooted ties with the Palestinian movement and the offer of cutting-edge technology, military assistance, and aid from Israel.

The outcome of this conflict could determine how Africa tilts if it continues. African countries that suffered the worst ravages of colonialism and racism in the 1960s were cold to Israel and sympathetic to the struggle of Palestinians uprooted in 1948.

Following the October War of 1973, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) severed ties with Israel. Algeria has been a leading critic of Israel, even as Morocco’s relations with Israel have blossomed after normalizing ties in 2020. Algeria’s sentiments are rooted in the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence and Algeria’s history under French colonialism.

South Africa, a post-apartheid nation, has been a strong supporter of Palestine, drawing parallels between the struggle of Black South Africans against white rule and Palestinians against Israel’s occupation. South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor urged the UN to declare Israel an “apartheid state” in July 2022, highlighting the intricate relationship between African nations and Israel.

After the 1973 war, only a few African nations retained relations with Israel, while most broke ties. Today, 44 of 54 African countries recognize Israel’s statehood, and nearly 30 have opened embassies or consulates in Tel Aviv. Israel’s agricultural prowess has helped many African countries combat drought, floods, and extreme weather phenomena, with a fifth of Africa’s population undernourished.

A key turning point came in 1978 with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. This trend gained momentum after the Oslo Accords of 1993, which 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, normalization deals struck with Chad, Morocco, and Sudan represent major wins for Israel.

In 2021, trade between Israel and Sub-Saharan African countries reached over $750m, with machinery, electronics, and chemicals being the most traded goods. South Africa and Nigeria were the most traded countries, with goods worth $129m in 2021. Palestine also had a significant impact on trade, with Palestinian exports of olive oils and other edibles increasing 34% between 2009 and 2021.

Israel has strong ties with nations beyond trade, such as pumping millions of dollars in humanitarian aid into Ethiopia, training Kenyan students in agriculture and medicine, and training Senegalese entrepreneurs in management. Israeli forces are believed to be training soldiers in multiple African nations, and an Africa-Israel summit was scheduled for 2017, but it was called off due to a crisis in Togo.

Despite these gains, Israel has faced setbacks in Africa, such as Aleligne Admasu’s request for Observer Status for Israel in the African Union in 2021, which was suspended after Algeria and South Africa protested the move. Palestine has retained AU Observer Status since 2013.

African governments are two-faced about the Israel-Palestine conflict, trading with Israel and strengthening ties with it while also speaking up for Palestine. Experts argue 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.

Civil society is pushing for South Africa to take a clearer position in favour of Palestine, as there is growing pressure from civil society for Pretoria to take a clearer position. South Africa’s parliament passed a resolution to downgrade its diplomatic relations and embassy in Israel, and civil society is advocating for boycotts of all relations and trade with Israel.

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