Africans and a number of their governments follow the ongoing war between Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Gaza Strip, which began on 7 October 2023. The scale of human loss and Israeli attacks on hospitals and civilians (1) have led to protests in African cities (2) despite the criticism directed at Hamas by some church leaders (3) and countries that have political and economic interests with Israel.
Between the stances of the AU and its member states
The current crisis revealed a complex relationship between Africa and Israel and how this relationship has fluctuated under the African Union (AU) in the past few years due to the Palestinian cause, which the AU is historically known for championing due to African history with occupation of lands and colonialism. The AU (formerly known as the Organisation of African Unity, [OAU]) severed its relations with Israel following the October War of 1973, while some African countries maintained relations with it informally. However, the end of the Cold War, the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and normalisation efforts with other Arab countries all paved the way for many African nations to reconsider their relations with Israel, especially for economic gains. (4)
Israel made great efforts in recent years to win the AU’s favour due to the importance of African voices in international organisations and forums, especially since Palestine has enjoyed observer status within the African Union since 2013, and most African nations voted in 2017 against Washington’s decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem. However, Israel succeeded after two decades, specifically in 2021, in obtaining observer status, (5) but the status was suspended (6) after a protest by some African nations led by Algeria and South Africa and following skirmishes that divided the AU members into conflicting groups. (7)
The suspension of observer status means a setback for Israel within the AU, as its officials will not be able to participate in the bloc’s summits, unlike Palestine, as the AU expressed in a Draft Declaration at the end of the February 2023 summit “full support for the Palestinian people in their legitimate struggle against the Israeli occupation" and criticised Israel’s illegal settlements and intransigence. (8)
Regarding Hamas's attack on Israel, Moussa Faki, Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), announced his full support for the position of António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in which he condemned the attacks but indicated that they “did not occur in a vacuum” because “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation," under which their lands are devoured by settlements; they suffer from violence, poor economic conditions and mass displacement as a result of their homes being destroyed; and their hopes of reaching a political solution to their plight are vanishing. Faki added that this position is “in line with international law, the position of the African Union, and the relevant United Nations resolutions.” (9)
The ongoing war also revealed that there is no consensus in the positions of the AU and its member states and that most African nations did not heed the AU’s call in February to “end all direct and indirect trade, scientific and cultural exchanges with the State of Israel.” Some African nations took positions criticising the Hamas attack and declared their support for Israel and its operations in Gaza, while others reiterated their support for the Palestinians and called for a ceasefire. There are also African nations that adopt "neutrality" by remaining silent or calling for a two-state solution as proposed by the United Nations.
Supporting the Palestinians
The positions of some sub-Saharan African governments differ from those of their citizens, as a large percentage of the region’s population—especially in the Muslim majorities and academics and some media analysts—supports the Palestinians and holds Israel responsible for what is happening in Gaza as a result of the Hamas’s attack.
Some countries in the region believe that establishing diplomatic relations or commercial dealings with Israel will not affect their historical position against Israel and its activities in the Gaza Strip. South Africa, Djibouti and Somalia are among the countries in the region that support Palestinian liberation movements explicitly and publicly. South Africa’s stance is not new. Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, reiterated his support for the PLO despite it being considered a terrorist organisation at the time by the United States (US) and Israel.
It is worth noting that South Africa today is Israel's largest trading partner on the continent. (The country also trades with Palestine, especially in olive oil.) However, its authorities took every opportunity to criticise Israel and Western double standards. In fact, the South African Foreign Ministry has pointed out the Western double standard during increasing Western pressure on South Africa and other African countries to condemn Moscow for the Russia-Ukraine war (10), criticising the West's unwillingness to apply the same principles of international law when it comes to Israel's activities in the Palestinian territories. In 2022, the South African Foreign Minister asked the United Nations to declare Israel an “apartheid state”. (11)
What distinguishes South Africa’s reactions to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war is that there is a sort of alignment between the positions of the government, which is ruled by the African National Congress (ANC), and the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which is the third largest political party in the South African parliament. (12) Many South Africans have also expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians, criticised the losses and damages as a result of the conflict, and organised protests (13) to denounce the continued Israeli occupation. Also, South African authorities blamed the escalation on the illegal Israeli occupation and the desecration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and holy Christian sites, pointing out that the Hamas attack, although it did not represent a solution, was not surprising due to the situation in Gaza. The South African government also summoned its ambassador and diplomatic mission to Israel, accusing it of committing “genocide”. (14)
Solidarity with Israel
The Israel-Hamas conflict showed that despite the setbacks that Israel faced in the AU, it has made progress in terms of its individual relations with a number of African nations. Since the beginning of the conflict on 7 October, some countries have sided with Israel and adopted in their statements Israeli and Western narratives, describing Hamas as a terrorist movement and emphasising Israel’s right to defend itself, with little or no mention of the rights or conditions of the Palestinians.
These Israeli successes in Africa came after its strategic moves in recent years, designed according to the needs of each country while exploiting the decline in the sense of common struggle against injustice and colonialism as a result of the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the end of the Cold War, in addition to the pressures facing African governments to achieve prosperity and development and prioritise their interests even if they are with Israel, especially considering the normalisation of Arab countries with it. As a result, about 30 African nations have established embassies or consulates in Tel Aviv; and 44 out of the 54 nations in Africa have recognised Israel as a sovereign state. There have been relations with Israel in areas such as security, defence technology, weapons and agriculture. (15)
It is no surprise, then, that the leaders of countries such as Cameroon, (16) Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (17) have shown their support for Israel and condemned Hamas’s “terrorism” and attacks on innocent civilians. While this might indicate the level of Israel’s increasing influence, it is also a clear declaration of a decline in appreciation for history and colonial experiences and a signal that they are fed up with secret normalisation or conducting dealings with Israel behind the curtain.
In the case of Cameroon, which has expressed steadfast support for Israel since the start of the ongoing war, President Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982, is considered one of Israel's strongest allies in sub-Saharan Africa; and his country was one of the first to resume relations with Israel in 1986. The Cameroonian government still refuses to recognise the existence of the Palestinian state; and Israel has a major role in strengthening Biya’s rule through his personal security and leadership of the elite military unit known as the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Bataillon d'Intervention Rapide [BIR]). (18)
Solidarity with Israel might also have been influenced by the recent strategies of the US and other Western countries to link their financial “aid” and trade deals with the need to recognise Israel. This is confirmed by what was revealed in a report (19) that the US made support for Israeli political and commercial interests one of the conditions of the trade deal with Kenya, one of the West’s trusted allies, which enjoys continued support from Washington. Also, Ghana, whose relations with Israel go back to pre-independence under British colonialism, is looking for investment and ways of financing various related projects, in addition to the Accra Initiative which seeks to combat terrorism that is expanding from the Sahel region and threatening countries like Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo.
In addition, Rwanda is one of the countries that has supported Israel in recent years; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is strengthening its diplomatic relations with it. Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi are among the leaders said to have facilitated the process of recognizing Israel and granting it observer status in the AU in 2021.
Between “neutrality” and silence
There are also other sub-Saharan African countries whose position on the Israel Hamas’s fluctuates between “neutrality” and remaining silent. This may be due to many factors, including the fear of the repercussions, especially as a percentage of some of these countries’ budgets depends on “aid” and/or other interests with the West. It may also be because of their fear of losing their political positions due to the involvement of Israel’s allies in their rise to power. Another factor may be that they do not want to violate their political principles or go against the views of their citizens, thereby avoiding inciting religious and ethnic conflict among their populaces. There are also countries whose internal economic and political crises distract them from paying more attention to what is happening outside their borders, or declaring their positions.
Ethiopia, for example, was one of the African countries expected to declare its support for Israel due to the long historical relations between them. However, Addis Ababa did not clarify a specific position on the crisis. Perhaps what contributed to this is that it only recently emerged from the Tigray War and is currently witnessing another conflict in Amhara, in addition to drought, which has exacerbated its food crises. The US is its largest donor, providing $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid in 2022 alone. (20)
Uganda (21) and Nigeria (22) have called for an end to “hostilities” and the implementation of a two-state solution to end the conflict and condemned the targeting of civilians and non-combatants by Israel and Hamas. In 2021, Uganda exported fish fillets, coffee plants and perfumes to Israel. (23) In 2022, the Ugandan police purchased phone-hacking software from an Israeli company, and the Ugandan government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israeli Ministry of Defence on defence cooperation. (24)
For Nigeria, which the Palestinian ambassador in Abuja expects to play a prominent role with regard to humanitarian issues due to Nigeria’s strategic importance, (25) the country is facing a major economic crisis affecting many Nigerians, especially the younger ones who are leaving the country for Europe in search of job opportunities. The administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is searching for foreign investment and cooperation in strategic areas to support its economic reforms and development programs. Nigeria ranks second (after South Africa) in terms of Israel's trade with sub-Saharan Africa, with the volume of trade between both countries ranging between 200 and 250 million dollars annually. (26)
As for Chad, it denounced “the loss of innocent civilian lives” and called for “a ceasefire that leads to a permanent solution to the Palestinian issue.” Chadian authorities also summoned their charge d’affaires to Israel for “consultation”. (27) The Central African nation severed its diplomatic relations with Israel in 1972 and was considered a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause before resuming its diplomatic relations with Israel in 2019. This “neutral” position is not strange considering that in 2018 and February 2023, both Chadian presidents, Idriss Déby and his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, visited Israel and were hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mahamat Idriss Déby, who came to power in Chad after his father was killed, enjoyed military and Western support and pledged during his visit that his country would open an embassy in Tel Aviv to strengthen bilateral relations with Israel, which he described as “laden with history, and this is the land of civilization, of all the monotheistic faiths”. (28)
The implications of the war
The reactions and positions of sub-Saharan African governments towards the Israel-Hamas war showed that the majority of countries in the region view the war as a continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not as a single or new situation. It also awakened African governments and their people regarding the Palestinian cause, especially since before the Hamas attack the issue had been ignored among many governments in the region except South Africa.
The war has also brought eliminated most of the Israeli successes in recent years with many sub-Saharan African countries, especially as it occurred after the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the African Union last February. Hence, it is expected that the war will also be used to gain sympathy, whether in favour of Israel or Palestine, based on each side’s ability to bring its position closer to the African people and its governments.
Despite the possibility that sub-Saharan African countries will continue to prioritise their interests in dealing with the Middle East and its countries, the huge scale of destruction and death toll as a result of the Israeli bombardment has been used by a number of people in different African countries to remind their authorities of their obligations to condemn Israel and pressure it to accept a ceasefire. It is also expected that the Hamas attack, which revealed the weakness in Israeli defence and intelligence, will negatively affect popular perceptions among some African government officials who had always glorified Israel’s technological and defensive strength and cited the progress of its weapons and military equipment in discussions on combating terrorism and security threats.
Most sub-Saharan African countries agree that the solution to the Palestinian cause is the “two-state solution” proposed by the United Nations. The tremendous momentum and support enjoyed by Hamas and the Palestinians among Muslims in Africa and the inclination of a number of Christians to the side of Israel indicate that many people in the region still view the conflict through a religious lens. The difference in the positions of the AU and its member states and the divisions between these countries reveal the will of each country to take a stand independently and give priority to its interests.
While the position of some African nations is that strengthening their diplomatic relations with Israel does not necessarily mean that they have abandoned the Palestinian cause, the fact that some countries that previously supported the Palestinians are now siding with Israel confirms the difficulty of criticising or going against an economic and political ally when it commits crimes against others.
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