NAIROBI — The escalation of hostilities between Israel and Palestine following an unprecedented large-scale attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas has elicited a wide range of reactions from African countries. Leaders are trying to walk the line between strongly-held principles, diplomatic expediency, and empathy in the wake of unfolding carnage in the region.
Kenya and Ghana issued some of the most strongly worded statements in support of Israel. Kenya’s President William Ruto, seen as a key Western ally, called for the international community to take action against “perpetrators, organizers, financiers, sponsors, supporters and enablers” of what he described as criminal acts of terrorism. Ruto also called for a ceasefire but his statement did not go down well with sections of the Kenyan public, some of whom expressed support for Palestine.
Ghana’s foreign affairs ministry stated that it “unequivocally condemns” attacks by Hamas, and called for the group to withdraw its fighters from Israel. Rwanda issued a similar statement condemning the attacks and said: “The current situation is worrying and needs an urgent deescalation.”
But South Africa’s department of international relations, while decrying the escalation of violence, stated that the conflict had arisen from Israel’s “continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
South Africa offered to lend its mediation and conflict resolution expertise as it pushed for a “credible peace process” that delivers a two-state solution.
Meanwhile, the African Union’s (AU) Chairperson Moussa Faki cited the “denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, particularly that of an independent and sovereign state,” as the main cause of tensions between Israel and Palestine. The AU also called for an end to hostilities and dialogue to ensure a two-state solution.
Several other African countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania, were more guarded in their statements, calling for an end to hostilities and voicing support for dialogue.
“The breakout of renewed violence in Israel- Palestine is regrettable. Why don’t the two sides implement the two States’ Solution?” posed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who also condemned the targeting of civilians.
The reactions of different African countries are informed by their historical experiences, as well as their modern-day economic realities and alignments with various global powers.
South Africa has long held the most strident position on the Palestine question among sub-Saharan African governments because of its more recent history of apartheid which only ended in the early 1990s. It still has key government leaders who were part of the anti-apartheid struggle. This is why it was not a complete shock last year when it called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. It pointed to what it called “glaring examples of violations of international law” towards the Palestinians and drew parallels with its own experience of apartheid.
Dr. Frank Lekaba, a senior lecturer at Wits University’s School of Governance, told Semafor Africa that South Africa had been extremely consistent in support for Palestine.“If there’s one foreign policy issue South Africa has been clear on, it is this one,” he said. Sanusha Naidu of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue further argued that besides the historical apartheid experience, modern-day South Africa resonated with unresolved issues around land and its redistribution, a key crux of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Kenya, on the other hand, has positioned itself as an important African ally of Israel’s biggest backer, the United States. Instructively, Kenya and the United States are currently negotiating a landmark trade deal. It emerged in 2020 that the US had set as one of its conditions for the deal that Kenya support Israel’s political and commercial interests.Kenya also has a history of supporting Israel, including during the infamous Entebbe raid of 1976 — when Israel sought to rescue hostages captured and held in Uganda after a Palestinian-led hijacking of an Air France flight.
“African countries are reacting based on their interests,” said Dr. Xavier Ichani, an international relations, conflict and strategic studies researcher at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. He said while Kenya had historically maintained a cordial relationship with Israel, Ruto’s choice to “look West” for economic growth opportunities, more so than previous administrations, meant the country would back Israel.
Room for Disagreement
“Why people expect Africa to have one position still puzzles me,” wrote Ugandan writer and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo in a post on social media website X.