Israel’s ongoing siege on Gaza, which followed Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, threatens to nullify several decades of concerted efforts from Israel to establish diplomatic ties with African nations.
On 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel, marking the commencement of the Yom Kippur War. One often overlooked consequence of this war was Israel’s significant diplomatic setback in Africa. During and following the war, 20 African nations severed ties with Israel, a move that remains one of the most profound diplomatic catastrophes in Israel’s history. This decision was particularly impactful, considering that in the 1960s, Israel had cultivated deep relationships and established a substantial presence across the African continent.
Fifty years later, on 7 October 2023, Israel was once again taken by surprise. Hamas commandos stormed Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, resulting in over 1,400 Israeli casualties and 200 hostages. Following the attack, Israel declared war on Hamas, bombarding and invading the Gaza Strip. Unlike 1973, however, this time, the African response is deeply divided and is reflective of the current state of Israel’s alliances on the continent.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack by Hamas, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, South Sudan, Zambia, Togo, Cameroon, Malawi, Gabon, and Madagascar expressed sympathy with Israel and strongly condemned Hamas. Rwanda expressed sympathy with Israel but in late October, the country also provided humanitarian aid to Gaza. On the other hand, several of Africa’s Arab League members, notably Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Djibouti, have placed the responsibility for the conflict on Israel. South Africa was one of the few non-Arab League members in Africa to clearly condemn Israel. Also critical of Israel was the AU Chairman, Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat, who accused Israel of ‘war crimes’. The rest of the continent maintained neutrality, either expressing general calls for de-escalation or showing complete silence. Some of those states also included countries with strong bilateral ties with Israel, such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Angola. Tanzania, which had two of its citizens abducted by Hamas (one of them was recently confirmed dead), also maintained a neutral stance.
Another test for African position vis-à-vis Hamas’s attack and Israel’s siege on Gaza occurred at the United Nations. On 27 October, the international community voted on the question of a ceasefire and the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It included language that Israel and its allies criticized for its failure to condemn Hamas. Africa’s vote was split again: Cameroon, Cabo Verde, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Zambia abstained; several African countries (among them, Rwanda, Togo, and Liberia) did not cast their vote (a move that is often interpreted as abstention). However, most African states, including Kenya, the DRC, and Ghana—nations that are usually supportive of Israel—voted in favour of the resolution which called for an ‘immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce.’
On the same day, the UN voted to ratify a Canadian amendment that included condemnation of Hamas. Here, Israel’s interests were more favourably considered. Cabo Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and South Sudan supported this pro-Israeli amendment; Angola, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Togo abstained. Some countries, including Israel’s allies Cameroon and Zambia, did not cast a vote, a fact that turned out to be crucial, as the draft only lacked three votes from being adopted by the required two-thirds of the assembly. Israel’s critics in northern and southern Africa objected to the amendment. Interestingly, they were joined by some countries with long-standing relations with Israel: Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, and the Central African Republic. In early November, Chad and South Africa escalated their censure of Israel and called their diplomats back from the country for ‘consultation.’
ISRAEL’S AFRICAN DIPLOMACY IN THE NETANYAHU ERA
In the last few decades, Israel has made substantial efforts to strengthen its relations with African states. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been at the helm of Israel’s government since 2009 (with a brief one-year break), was particularly dedicated to expanding Israel’s presence and alliances on the continent. In recent years, Israel established three new embassies in Africa (in Accra, Kigali, and Rabat), in addition to the nine existing embassies, and opened two new economic attachés (in Nairobi and Accra). Netanyahu has visited Africa five times, more than any other Israeli prime minister.
Most importantly, Netanyahu’s goal of expanding national recognition and normalization of relations between Israel and the Muslim world (recently under the logic of the Abraham Accords) significantly manifested itself on the continent. Under Netanyahu, Israel renewed or established ties with South Sudan (2011), Guinea (2016), Chad (2019), Morocco (2020), and Sudan (2020-23). According to various reports from the last few years, Israel (directly or through the US) was negotiating normalization with several other Muslim-majority African states, among the possible candidates, Mauritania, Somalia, Libya, and Djibouti were mentioned.
ISRAEL’S UNCERTAIN STATUS IN AFRICA
Despite Israel’s expanding relations with African states in recent years, Israel’s overall diplomatic position on the continent has been challenged on several fronts. Nine African nations continue to steadfastly refuse either recognition of the State of Israel or the establishment of diplomatic relations with the country. These states are predominantly Muslim and are situated in North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria), the Sahel region (Mauritania, Mali, and Niger), the Horn of Africa (Somalia and Djibouti) as well as the Comoros. Despite the recent efforts, there seems to be no advancement in new normalization deals with those countries, and the ensuing Israel-Hamas war critically undermines those efforts.
Secondly, Israel’s position in southern Africa is relatively weak. Mostly due to historical alliances with the Palestinians, countries like South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique (whose long wars of liberation paralleled to a large extent the post-1967 Palestinian struggle) tend to be vocal in their criticism of Israel, while maintaining minimal official relations. While this stance is more pronounced in southern Africa, several other African states also maintain minimal or hostile relations. One of such is Eritrea, where Israel’s embassy has been closed since 2022. In countries with a significant Muslim population, like Senegal and Nigeria, criticism of Israel occasionally emerges, though it is worth noting that different administrations within these countries can vary sharply in their attitudes. It seems that anti-Western feelings and rapprochement with Russia in other parts of Africa also somewhat affect attitudes towards Israel. The Central African Republic (CAR) is a case in point. The CAR, like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, have turned to Russia as an alternative to Western allyship, and are now more likely to act and vote against Western interests. In addition, some African states have adopted a dual policy toward Israel, maintaining strong bilateral relations while often voting against Israel in international forums, such as the UN and the African Union. When voting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the UN, most African states, even those with close ties to Israel, tend to vote against Israeli interests. Since the late 1980s, most African countries have also officially recognized the State of Palestine, much to Israel’s chagrin. Israel has also encountered challenges in maintaining observer status at the African Union. It was readmitted to the organization in 2021 but suspended in 2023, primarily due to opposition from South Africa and Algeria.
MOTIVATIONS BEHIND SUPPORTING OR OPPOSING ISRAEL
African states differ in their relationship with Israel due to diverse reasons. Religion, history, security and economic ties, and current international alliances are prominent factors. Christian-dominated states, especially those led or influenced by Pentecostal or other Evangelical leaders, tend to be more supportive of Israel. Among them, those facing militant Islamist threats, such as Kenya or the DRC, combine their religion-inspired sympathy for Israel with close security collaboration. As historian, Elizabeth Schmidt, contended, the logic of the ‘War on Terror’ has played a strong role in galvanizing relations between some African governments and non-African countries. History also plays a role in attitudes towards Israel, most prominently in the case of southern Africa, where several states deeply remember Israel’s past collaboration with their former oppressors in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, Israel’s long-standing ties in Western and Eastern Africa—starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s—have burnished its reputation in the region.
Geopolitics and international alliances matter as well. One of the most significant factors shaping attitudes toward Israel in Africa is African states’ relations with Washington. Supporting Israel has often been seen as a means to improve relations with the US, and recent and historical normalization efforts with Israel have typically been accompanied with American benefits. The closer a state aims to be to the US, the more likely it is to express support or, at the very least, maintain neutrality toward Israel.
Comparing the positions of African states on the war in Ukraine to their stances on the Israel-Hamas conflict reveals some similarities. Among the states that recently condemned Hamas, Kenya, the DRC, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia also condemned Russia back in March 2022. South Sudan and Madagascar abstained from condemning Russia but did condemn Hamas (Cameroon and Togo did not vote at all in March 2022). Conversely, the states who expressed the most vocal condemnation of Israel tended to be less critical of Russia (South Africa and Algeria are prominent examples).
Israel has avoided a repeat of the October 1973 diplomatic debacle in Africa by steadily improving diplomatic relations with African nations. In recent decades, Israel’s relations with many African states have been based on two main pillars: counterterrorism and a close association with the US. These pillars have maintained their relevance during its ongoing siege on Gaza, encouraging Israel’s allies on the continent to stand by Israel, or at least keep a neutral stance, despite the growing international criticism. However, Israeli diplomacy tends to neglect Africa during crises, focusing instead more on major Western powers, whose support is deemed crucial for Israel’s international legitimacy and military capabilities. This neglect undermines Israel’s position even amongst its closer allies on the continent, as demonstrated by the UN vote on 27 October.
This diplomatic neglect compounds Israel’s pre-existing vulnerabilities in Africa. Israel’s failure to rehabilitate its relations with post-apartheid South Africa significantly impacts its position on the continent. In addition, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has significantly hindered the process of normalization with Muslim-majority states in the northern part of the continent. It appears that Israel’s ultimate objective in Africa is to avoid complete severance of relations by any African state, especially those with whom they have renewed or established relations in recent years. While this goal is currently being achieved, its long-term sustainability remains precarious⎈
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