As Israel and Palestine are exchanging fire, the African Union (AU) and African countries have largely remained silent. Many have shied away from making official statements or otherwise getting involved in the latest conflict. Many seem to display a lack of real interest. This is odd since Africa seems to have direct interests in the region.
Israel shares a border with Africa. Conflict with Egypt’s neighbor should concern the AU and rest of the continent. Egypt is a powerhouse in the African Union and events in Egypt have ramifications for the rest of Africa. If violence there spills over across the border, it will be an African problem. Egypt also plays a central role in Israeli-Palestinian peace-keeping efforts. They have been key peace negotiators or have used military efforts in the past. The majority of Africa’s foreign aid from the United States goes to Egypt and is in the form of military aid because of this conflict. There is a missed opportunity here for African nations to support Egypt as visible agents of international peace.
Nearly 60,000 Africans from sub-Saharan Africa have crossed the border through Egypt in to Israel since 2005. Due to the lack of a proper immigration policy, many Africans remain at the margins of the Israeli state and survive on low wage labor. In fact, so many Africans live in Neve Shaanan, an area of south Tel Aviv, that it is pejoratively nicknamed by Israelis as the underdeveloped town of “SOWETO”. This is a reference to South Africa’s largest Black township – a location made famous internationally in 1976 when Soweto school children protested for their right to be taught in their own language but were met with violent force. Although some Africans have had economic success in Israel, a few of them have recently been targets of random attacks on their small businesses. The AU should have an interest in the well-being of African immigrants to the region.
Israel is also home to an immigrant community of Ethiopian Jews, many of whom were repatriated recently from Ethiopia to Israel through a 30-year immigration program. The ‘Dove’s Wings’ program initiated in order to direct the large numbers of Ethiopian Jews that began fleeing to Israel en masse during the 1980s and during the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict. Nearly 400 of these immigrants reside in transition centers near Gaza that have suffered attacks by Hamas over the years. There have been reports that these immigration centers have been hit several times over the past few days due to the renewed fighting. There safe absorption in Israeli society should be monitored.
Generally, as recent immigrants, many Africans living in the region are vulnerable populations. They will receive limited attention and protection from either side in times of conflict. Africans need to take interest in the lives of African populations in the area. Africa is also host to large populations of Israelis in countries such as South Africa and Kenya. Large populations of uprooted Palestinians reside in countries like Libya. Therefore, Africa and the region have had historical connections. It is in the interest of the AU to pay attention to what is happening there today.
Africa and Israel – Historical Connections
Africa’s has had a long history that is inextricably linked with the region. British territory in Eastern Africa (a region covering modern day Uganda and Kenya) was initially chosen as the site of an Israeli state in what has been come to be known as the Uganda Proposal. Africa has also found itself in the center of the relations between Israel and Palestine. Incidentally, during ‘Operation Entebbe’ in the 1970s, Palestinian and Israelis conflict manifested on Ugandan soil. Uganda found itself in the middle of an international hostage-rescue mission, involving an Air France airplane hijack at its airport in Kampala. Israel has tried to influence Africa through diplomacy: Israel’s eighth embassy in the world was its Ghana embassy in 1956; they have provided military aid to about 10 African nations; and established trade relationships with African nations.
The predominantly Arab North African states have always had a more direct connection to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Palestine has also been recently courting Sub-Saharan African nations in order for Palestine to be granted non-member statehood in the United Nations. Both the North African states and Sub-Saharan states have been historically sympathetic to Palestine. This makes for the formation of a large voting bloc in the General Assembly. Together with additional votes from the rest of the Global South, Palestine feels that they can achieve 115 ‘yes’ votes in order to get this distinction. Therefore it appears that Africa is largely in support of the Palestinian cause. However, Africa and the African Union have largely remained silent. As the principal negotiator, the Egypt government cannot be overtly vocal about its sympathies. However it is clear that the Egyptian people sympathize with Palestine. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it appears that South Africa has been vocal due to growing solidarity movement in that country.
‘Soweto in Israel’ and Israeli Apartheid
The South African government seems to be the only one that has issued a public statement so far. Their government has called for a peaceful resolution to the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prominent leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, remarked that, “once again, the innocent people of Israel and Palestine are paying with their blood to advance the divisive and exclusive agendas of the intolerant few”. Although their calls were aimed at both parties, the large majority South Africans seem to be showing solidarity with Palestine due to South Africa’s own record with apartheid. Many draw parallels between South Africa and Israel. They liken the situation there to apartheid. Incidentally, Israelis admit to living in an apartheid state.
Rallies are being held all across South Africa against Israel and in solidarity with the Palestinians. South Africans feel that they were in a similar situation and benefitted from international pressure to end apartheid. They in turn want to support Palestine. There have been calls by the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance in South Africa and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), for they government to take further action and expel the Israeli ambassador. This has been part of a general growing trend in South Africa to move beyond the rhetoric and take concrete action in its position on Palestine.
In recent years, civic organizations and individuals in South Africa have become more vocal about their stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have been campaigning and boycotting Israeli products in solidarity with other groups that are against the conditions territories such as West Bank and Gaza. South Africa also became the first country to legally require neutral labeling on its country-of-origin labels on products from disputed territories. As such, products originating from this region indicate that they were made in “Israeli Occupied Territory,” – a concession made after the South African Jewish Board of Deputies complained about the label “Occupied Palestinian Territory”. This level of government involvement has been important for their cause and for the African National Congress (ANC) government because it reminds their own voting base of the role ANC played in anti-apartheid movement.
The silence in the rest of Africa during this conflict is peculiar. No continent in the world was as affected by apartheid as Africa – it was Africa’s last liberation struggle. The Israeli comparisons to apartheid alone should make African nations pay attention to the situation there. Particularly, if there is a risk of Africans reliving apartheid-like conditions in Israel. This conflict is on Africa’s borders, Africans live in the region, and Egypt’s involvement is crucial. Even if African nations decisively want to remain neutral, the presence of Africans in the region warrants the AU to look after the interest of Africans in the region. Greater interest on the African connections to this conflict is needed by the AU and African nations. Many lives have been lost by both Israelis and Palestinians in this conflict. There is no doubt that there have been African causalities as well. What is happening between Israel and Palestine affects Africa as well, it is time to end the silence.