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Israel-Hamas Conflict - Where Do African Countries Stand?

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Following Hamas's unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7, claiming the lives of about 1,200 Israeli civilians and military personnel, and the taking of over 200 Israelis hostage in Gaza, the region has once more been immersed into a precarious geopolitical dilemma. In response to the horrific Hamas attacks, the Israeli government has retorted with heavy bombardment of the densely populated Gaza strip, which houses 2.2 million people, and recently launched a ground offensive operation intending to eliminate Hamas and reduce its capacity to carry out such attacks again on Israeli territory. The military response and confrontation from both Hamas and the Israeli defence forces has resulted in the death of 11,000 Palestinians lives and about 4,060 lives as of the time of writing. This conflict between Hamas and the Israeli forces has generated widespread reaction and action from states around the world, either in support of Israel or the Palestinians' cause. African countries were not spared in reacting to this conflict, and this article aims to understand what informs the reactions of African nations and how this produces action towards the conflict as it rages on.

African countries' stance towards the conflict is divided, which came as a surprise for a continent that has undergone colonialism, occupation, and apartheid, which is why it is imperative to understand their positions regarding the issue. Since the war broke out, several countries in the continent have publicly voiced their support for either Israel or Palestine or maintained a neutral stance towards the situation. According to an SBM analysis, five countries in Africa supported Israel, five countries also echoed support for the Palestinians, and five countries remain neutral countries, like Nigeria, a major powerhouse on the continent, and Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Morrocco maintained a neutral stance and called for a ceasefire. In contrast, countries like Ghana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Zambia have echoed their support for Israel. The majority of the countries in northern Africa have sided with the Palestinians, excluding Morrocco, so what informs each country's decision from sub-Saharan Africa to the north that has decided to align to one party against the other publicly?

In sub-Sahara Africa, the majority of the countries, as earlier outlined, supported Israel, prioritising the protection of their strategic interest over a glaring Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and a violation of the International Humanitarian law in the current Israeli offensive. Those who stayed neutral are simply doing so not to upset their allies in the West, and this support can tied down to the increasing economic and security relations with Israel. In the past few years, the Israeli government has increased its diplomatic, economic and security foothold on the continent, with 44 of the 54 AU countries recognising the statehood of Israel, and around 30 have established consulate and embassies in Tel Aviv.

Primarily, the security ties between the Israeli government and African nations have been facilitated by the export of technology, referred to as “spyware diplomacy”, which most African countries have used to attack, spy and monitor dissidents with Israeli technology. In late 2020, a report published by the University of Toronto citizen lab titled “Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm Circles, identified several African countries, including Nigeria, Morocco, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Equatorial Guinea, as users of the surveillance platform employed in the telecommunication systems. This enables telephone calls, SMS, and location services interception. In the case of the Pegasus software scandal, three African countries have been implicated in purchasing the software from the Israeli company NSO group, which includes Ghana, Rwanda, and Morrocco. Similarly, a report from Reuters stated Israel supplied the Chadian army with military weapons and equipment to help contain the fight against rebel groups in the north of the country, which in part explains their neutrality or support towards the conflict.

Over the recent years, there has been a growing economic and trade partnership with Israel, expanding its market and forging strategic trade partnerships. In 2021, the total trade value between sub-Sahara Africa and Israel accounted for approximately $1.2 billion, while Israeli exports accounted for $750 million and imports $450 million. In the same year, South Africa and Nigeria emerged as the most significant trading partners, followed by Ghana. Nigeria, on its part, has been an important trading partner with Israel in the West Africa region. Trade transactions are valued at $129 million, and Ghana has also appeared as an essential trading partner with Israel. Being the first sub–Saharan African state to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, their relationship is rooted in history, with the 2019 trade valued at $29 million in 2019.

Far to the East Africa region, Kenya has emerged as a close partner of Israel, with Kenya's exports to Israel exceeding $9.3 million and imports reaching $45.3 million. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Kenya ranked as the fourth largest Israel trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia to the Horn of Africa and The DRC to the central Africa region trading value with Israel in 2022 amounts to $69.4 million and $7.44 million respectively.

In addition, it shows how the protection of critical economic, strategic interests has bent most sub-Saharan to either support Israel in the ongoing conflict or remain neutral, except South Africa, which, despite its significant trading relationship, has chosen to be a leading anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian voice in the sub-Saharan region.

South Africa echoing its support for the Palestinian and vehemently publicly opposing the Israeli government occupation and its current military campaign in Gaza comes as no surprise. This dates back to its colonial past and experience of apartheid and segregation, which a parallel comparison has always been drawn in the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Similar colonial experiences made the popular liberation figures on both sides develop a friendly relationship between Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela, and the famous saying of Nelson Mandela, “Our freedom is not complete without the freedom of the Palestinians”, has been the backbone of their support towards Palestine. During the recent conflict, South Africa has blamed the Israeli government occupation to be the motivation for Hamas attacks, comparing the occupation to apartheid policies. It has since October 7 opposed the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Consequently, President Ramaphosa attended the pro-Palestinian Cairo summit for peace on 21 October. Additionally, there have been tense diplomatic ties with Israel when the South African government recalled its diplomatic mission from Israel after expressing concern over indiscriminate attacks affecting women and children and referring Israel to the International Court of Justice for investigations into war crimes.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, countries that have remained neutral, like Nigeria, have done so not to inflame ethnoreligious tension in the diverse region not to trigger an internal division. For countries like Tanzania, its neutrality can be understood from its foreign policy posture of non-alignment, racial equality and its long-time staunch support for the two-state solution. This neutrality has been maintained even after it was confirmed that Tanzanian citizens were killed and captured by Hamas.

In North Africa, most countries have publicly supported Palestine, except for Egypt and Morocco, who remained neutral due to strategic state interests. Algeria and Tunisia remain the prominent Maghreb countries that have mainly been vocal against the Israel occupation and have demonstrated their unrelenting support for Palestine. Algeria’s pro-Palestine foreign policy is rooted in its colonial history and struggle against French colonialism and occupation, with this colonial perspective informing its decision to be regarded as one of the leading traditional pro-Palestine voices in the continent. In the late 1980s, the declaration of the independent state of Palestine by the PLO leader Yasser Arafat was announced in the Algerian capital, and this has been reflected in its foreign policy throughout the decade, with the state still holding no diplomatic ties with Israel. Likewise, the Tunisian reaction to the conflict has reiterated its support and solidarity for Palestine. As Israel continues its deadly military campaign into Gaza, the Tunisia parliament has drafted a law criminalising the normalisation of ties with Israel. The current president, Kais Saied, has been a strong opponent of the Israeli government, calling for the boycott of Israeli products in a show of unwavering support for the Palestinian resistance.

Morrocco's neutrality came been seen from the perspective of protecting the national strategic interest and not upsetting allies; in 2020, Morrocco, through the Abraham accord, was among the Arab nations that normalised ties with Israel, and, in exchange for relations, came with the United States and Israel recognition of the Morrocco sovereignty over the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. Since the normalisation of ties, relations have deepened between the two countries particularly increasing security ties through Israel's sales of drones, tanks and spyware to Morrocco. Conversely, Egypt has posed itself as a mediator, calling for the cessation of hostilities from both sides. What informs Cairo's neutrality has been to maintain Western support for the current El-Sisi regime, as it has been receiving heavy military and political support to sustain its regime and also to keep the other side of the Gaza border closed in Israel’s interest.

After analysing the motives that influenced the decisions of these African countries, it is also essential to understand that the pro-Israel position and stance on the continent might be changing, as seen in Europe from France, Spain, and Belgium. As the conflict rages on and Africans are tuning in on international news media and social media feeds, they begin to view the horrific and indiscriminate attacks of Israel against the innocent Palestinian population. Thus, a probable shift in pro-Israel posture might be occurring.

The opinions of African governments are of crucial concern here - as the Israeli military continues to target residential buildings, refugee camps and hospitals indiscriminately, emotive power is taking hold, and this might change the views of major state actors across the continent. We are currently witnessing this take hold in Europe as traditionally pro-Israeli nations like France now call for a permanent ceasefire after seeing a devastating humanitarian situation affecting the Palestinian population; the same may happen across Africa. For example, in the Kenyan government, pro-Israeli supporters now also call for a permanent ceasefire to hostilities, and this nuanced shift from state actors can also be observed by the overwhelming vote of African countries during the United Nations resolution through Jordan, where 35 countries including Morocco and Sudan who are signatories to the Abraham Accord.

Public opinion and widespread street protest may force governments that had initially supported Israel or stayed neutral to change their position, particularly in North Africa, which has witnessed massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the streets of Cairo to Rabat, Tunis, and Algiers. Anger towards national governments is exploding onto the streets as protestors attack their representatives for not taking significant action whilst deeming the West hypocritical for its double standards in comparison with its reactions towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whilst holding unconditional support for Israel.

It is crucial to emphasise that as Israel carries out its military operation in the strip, leading to a significant number of civilian casualties, it should be mindful of its diminishing support within the international community.


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