What’s east Africa’s position on the Israel-Hamas war? An expert unpacks the reactions of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

The reactions of some east African countries to the ongoing conflict in Gaza have been less dramatic than South Africa’s. South Africa’s parliament has passed a resolution calling for the closure of its embassy in Tel Aviv. Algeria and South Africa have been the most supportive of the Palestinians. Thus far only South Africa and Chad have withdrawn their representatives from Tel Aviv.

In contrast, the reactions from east African capitals have been less dramatic. At the outset of the current conflict in Gaza, Kenya’s President William Ruto expressed solidarity with Israel and condemned

terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians in the country.

Uganda and Tanzania condemned all forms of violence and called for

restraint to stem further loss of human life.

As a scholar of Middle Eastern and African history, I have researched the relationship between Israel and African countries including those in east Africa.

It is my conclusion that the reactions of the east African states to the conflict in the Middle East are shaped by two things: the perceived national threat of terrorism by Islamist factions and, for those states with democratic institutions, domestic public opinion.

In my view these three countries are unlikely to change their stance unless the current conflict escalates. On the one hand they will continue to limit their actions to voting in the United Nations for resolutions in support of the Palestinians. On the other they will continue to solicit technical assistance – especially in agriculture and security – from Israel.

The history

Relations between African countries and Israel have been tested before. For example, in 1973, 25 independent African states cut diplomatic relations with Israel after its occupation of Egyptian territory. These included east African states, such as Kenya, which had enjoyed particularly close relations with Israel since its independence from Britain in 1963.

East African countries colonised by Britain sought technical assistance after independence. This was particularly true in agriculture. They viewed Israel as complementary or an alternative to having to seek assistance from the big powers.

When African states cut off the diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973, Kenya was reluctant but had to act in solidarity with other independent African nations. It kept its cooperation with Israel even before the formal ties were restored in 1988. It facilitated Israel’s 1974 rescue operation at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. The operation was meant to rescue passengers of a French jet airliner that was hijacked on its way from Israel to France, and flown to Entebbe.

Tanzania, on the other hand, sought a more neutral course after independence. It found the socialist character of the Israeli Labour governments appealing but Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories following the 1967 Six-Day War complicated relations.

Tanzania was one of the last African states to renew relations with Israel in 1994. That was a year after the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Tanzania was also the first African country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1973 and to host a representative office in its capital.

Uganda has had the most tempestuous relationship with Israel. Under the erratic Idi Amin the country broke off relations with Israel and embraced Libya. Israel and Uganda have had good relations under President Yoweri Museveni. Israeli companies currently operate in Uganda’s construction, infrastructure, agriculture and water management, communications and technology sectors.

Uganda joined most other African countries in renewing relations with Israel just after the end of the Cold War.

Uganda, along with Kenya, has militarily intervened in Somalia as part of an African Union mission.

The ebbs and flows of these relationships have to be seen against the backdrop of the hard work Israel has put in to building diplomatic relations with a range of other African countries too. By 2023 it had ties with 46 of the 55 African Union member states.

National security threat

Kenya has been affected by instability in neighbouring Somalia and has been the victim of terror attacks.

In 1998, al Qaeda attacks targeted the US embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The Nairobi attack resulted in over 200 deaths and thousands of people were injured. Since then, Israel has taken the lead among foreign countries in aiding and advising Kenyan security.

Kenya has suffered attacks since then by al-Shabaab – across its border as well as in Nairobi in 2019.

Tanzania’s security situation has been different. Unlike Kenya, Tanzania has not militarily intervened in Somalia as part of an African Union mission (Amisom). The mission has been operating since 2007 to provide security in that country in the Horn of Africa.

Uganda has its own set of security problems. A terrorist bombing in Uganda’s capital Kampala in 2010 was attributed to al-Shabaab. But a bigger threat to Uganda’s security has come from Islamist rebels known as the Allied Democratic Forces based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Domestic institutions and public opinion

There is one other factor that explains east Africa’s relations with Israel: the religious composition of populations in the region.

Israel is popular with many devout Christians in east Africa, as is the case throughout the continent. If given the opportunity, these Christians would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This factor obviously affects public opinion.

Conversely, Muslims in east Africa have a greater concern for the situation of the Palestinians. All three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – have populations adhering to these two religions.

Given the democratic characters of Kenya and Tanzania, where there have been peaceful transfers of power, public opinion has more of an impact. This explains Ruto’s change of tone after the initial statement strongly critical of Hamas.

Tanzania has remained consistent in condemning all forms of violence. That country calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as do the other east African states.

Public pressure is less important in Uganda, where Museveni is quite autocratic.

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