Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel has been met with many different reactions from the international community. Given divergent stances on the Palestinian cause and ties with Israel and/or Palestine, countries and regional blocs have variously condemned the Gaza conflict or supported Israel’s right to eliminate Hamas. Within the African Union (AU), member states had several different responses to the conflict based on the traditional, historic, economic, and geopolitical interests of those countries.
AU member states split into three groups with regard to their stances on the Israel-Gaza conflict: states backing Israel (Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), states backing Palestine (Algeria, Tunisia, and South Africa), and neutral states (Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda). The diversity of stances within the African bloc is a product of to the non-obligation on member states to adopt a common foreign policy.
Countries in the AU are not required to adopt the same foreign policy positions. Their stances may differ greatly depending on their own political and geopolitical interests. Although sixty years have passed since the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was first launched in 1963 to foster common Africa positions on global issues, regional integration remains incomplete and will require further effort.
The African Union passport, which was officially launched at the 27th AU Summit in July 2016, has not yet become a reality. During the UN General Assembly vote on 2 March 2022 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than half of AU member states abstained or were absent. Likewise, when the UN Security Council previously approved a no-fly zone and intervened in Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011, member states in the bloc struggled to reach a consensus on their response.
The African Union has displaced a similar lack of unity in response to the Gaza conflict. Most African countries ignored the AU’s call in February 2023 to end all direct and indirect commercial, scientific, and cultural exchanges with Israel. Currently, 44 of 55 AU member countries have recognized the state of Israel.
From the beginning, African nations have been sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle due to their own experience with colonialism and the bitter taste of foreign occupation. After the 1973 war, OAU members expressed their support for the Arab and Palestinian cause, and all but a handful of sub-Saharan African countries unilaterally cut ties with Israel.
However, the situation has changed over time as a result of several factors. The 1978 Camp David Accords, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 1994 fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and Arab-Israeli normalization have made clear to African nations that they cannot avoid ties with Israel. These developments have led African nations to prioritize the potential economic benefits of Israeli technologies, financial resources, and investments, as well as better relations with the US, over political ideologies and commitments.
There are many reasons that Africa cannot abandon or scale back ties with Israel, including economic-commercial interests and military-intelligence cooperation. This perhaps explains why nearly 30 African countries have opened embassies or consulates in Israel.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa in 2016, he famously said "Israel is coming back to Africa, and Africa is coming back to Israel." This has since led to a deepening strategic relationship between the two sides, including implementing Israeli technologies in the fields of agriculture, water management, cybertechnology, and climate and food security across various African countries.
In a major step, Israel launched the IMPROVATE 2020 initiative in Africa to develop agriculture and improve food security. The agricultural sector in Africa provides about 35 percent of the continent’s GDP and the livelihood of more than 50 percent of the population— more than twice the world average.
Developing the African agricultural sector is a top priority for the continent due to its current lack of technology. African farm yields have been low and the agriculture sector is the least productive in the world, with an average productivity rate of 36 percent.
In recent decades, Israel has established strong trade networks with Africa. In 2021, trade between Israel and sub-Saharan African countries reached over $750 million USD. South Africa, one of Israel’s fiercest critics on the continent, made up nearly two-thirds of this trade volume, followed by Nigeria at $129 million.
Israel’s relationship with Africa stretches beyond trade and economic interests. Combatting terrorist and separatist groups in Africa provides clear opportunities for close military-intelligence cooperation between Tel Aviv and African nations.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, and Uganda received weapons from Israel during 2006-10. Israeli arms exports to Africa rose 40 percent in 2014 and in 2015-2016, Israel reportedly exported $275 million in arms to African clients. In 2021, Africa accounted for 3 percent of Israeli defense exports.
Economic and military interests have taken precedence over political and ideological factors in African relations with Israel. African ties with Israel are variously shaped by economic, geopolitical, and ethnic considerations as well as traditional and normative interests.
However, Algerian and South African stances towards Israel have been respectively shaped by fighting Israel since 1948 and battling apartheid. Meanwhile, Rwanda and Cameroon’s positions on Israel-Palestine have been influenced by Israeli investment in those two countries. The Israeli company Gigawatt Global developed the first utility-scale solar photovoltaic facility in East Africa in 2015 in Rwanda, while Israel-based NUFiltration installed water purification systems in 2018 in Cameroon. Ethiopia’s stance on Israel is shaped by an Ethiopian Jewish community of around 140,000 people, while Kenya has sought to buy arms from Israel in recent years for its battle against al-Shabaab jihadists from neighboring Somalia.
Africa and Israel’s interconnected economic interests have led African countries to exercise caution regarding the Gaza conflict, but their present silence does not mean they approve of Israel’s actions.
The brutal Israeli air and ground attacks on Gaza have led to increased bloodshed and civilian casualties. This has provoked reactions from the international community. On 11 November, French President Emmanuel Macron called on Israel to stop killing civilians. Like the rest of the international community, African countries cannot continue to sympathize with Israel as the war progresses.
African civil society has also demanded that African governments condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria to demand their rulers take a clear position in favor of Palestine following the brutal Israeli attacks. In response to recent developments, South Africa and Chad both recalled their ambassadors from Israel, while Tunisia has debated a bill that would criminalize normalization with Israel. The Algerian parliament also authorized the president to enter the war in support of Palestine.
Collective action by the African Union could shape the individual responses of African countries in condemning the Israeli attacks. Moussa Faki, the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), condemned Israel’s actions and 56 years of Israeli occupation. Collective action by the AU previously led to the February 2023 suspension of Israel’s observer status at the AU, while Palestine has retained observer status since 2013. AU collective action could become a factor in restricting Israeli economic and political activity across Africa.
African responses to the Gaza conflict should be understood separately from the AU’s collective response to the crisis. Depending on their national interests, African countries have pursued ties with Israel in recent decades, and consequently remained silent or neutral on Israel’s attack on Gaza. However, if the war drags on, the current appeasement could end, and African countries might push back more strongly against Israel and the bombing of civilians and hospitals in Gaza.