Africans see hypocrisy in US policy on Israel in Gaza

6 min read
13 November, 2023

Among the many diplomatic risks for the United States amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, further alienating the Global South - including Africa - is high on the list.

It is difficult to generalize about African public opinion, especially given the absence of continent-wide polling data regarding the present violence.

Yet after African governments’ initially divided reactions to the round of conflict that began with Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, there are now numerous indications that most African governments, key African political factions, and substantial portions of African publics are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and appalled at the current Israeli military campaign in Gaza.

Many African governments have historically supported an independent Palestine. In recent decades, however, Israel has increased its diplomatic presence on the continent, although not always in a linear fashion. Mauritania, for example, recognized Israel in 1999 before suspending ties in 2009. Amid the current crisis, however, African governments have virtually all been opposed to Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza.

"Most African governments, key African political factions, and substantial portions of African publics are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and appalled at the current Israeli military campaign in Gaza"

For example, on 23 October, a Jordanian resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” passed in the United Nations General Assembly by a vote of 120 for, 14 against, and 44 abstentions.

Thirty-five African states (counting North African states) voted for the resolution, including Morocco and Sudan, which are signatories to the Abraham Accords that normalized their relations with Israel in late 2020. No African state voted against the resolution, although some did not vote, while a handful of others, such as Cameroon and Ethiopia, abstained. Support for such resolutions went directly against American wishes.

At the diplomatic level, the African Union continues to support a two-state solution and, on 15 October, joined the Arab League in a statement calling for peace and decrying “collective punishment” — a reference to the high civilian toll resulting from Israel’s heavy bombing campaign.

Meanwhile, at least two African countries have recalled their diplomats from Israel: South Africa and Chad. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), even before coming to power in 1994, was a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause and, in particular, the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat, whom the ANC’s Nelson Mandela called an “outstanding freedom fighter.”

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On 6 November, Pretoria summoned its ambassador back from Israel, citing civilian deaths in Gaza and what Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called “collective punishment” of Gazans by Israel and what her government has also framed as “genocide.”

Two days earlier, Chad had recalled its chargé d’affaires from Tel Aviv, calling for a “ceasefire leading to a durable solution of the Palestinian question.” Chad’s move was particularly significant because it only recently upgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel and opened an embassy just this past February.

Some African countries that initially appeared highly supportive of Israel immediately after Hamas’s 7 October attack have since taken more nuanced stances as the death toll from Israel’s response mounted: Kenya, for example, initially made a strong statement of “solidarity” with Israel, but has since backed calls for de-escalation

Despite their UNGA votes, African governments have been somewhat more cautious when it comes to allowing mass pro-Palestinian mobilizations on their own soil. The caution reflects at least two factors: such demonstrations could be used by their domestic political opposition, and some governments hope to quietly maintain their ties with Israel.

Over 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children, have been killed by Israel in Gaza since 7 October. [Getty]

In North Africa, pro-Palestinian protests have been stronger than in sub-Saharan Africa, with even Morocco - a signatory to the Abraham Accords and a partner of increasing importance for Israel - permitting huge protests.

In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, even the governments of some Muslim-majority countries have been reluctant to allow protests to proceed: on 28 October, for example, Senegal denied permission for the National Alliance for the Palestinian Cause in Senegal to hold a rally, although a protest did eventually go forward in Dakar.

South Africa, meanwhile, has unsurprisingly seen some of the largest protests south of the Sahara, given the historical solidarities mentioned above, as well as the presence of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an outspoken party to the left of the ANC. Another significant protest theater is Nigeria, both among Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims.

"In the Global South, the idea of a 'rules-based international order' rings increasingly hollow for many governments and their publics as Western governments (with few exceptions, such as Ireland) offer virtually unqualified support to Israel's military offensive"

Expressions of condemnation of Israeli policy in different parts of the African continent come against the backdrop of a largely failed push by the United States to cajole African governments into taking sides on the Ukraine war. Before and after the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in December 2022, Biden administration officials have found even longstanding allies, such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, unwilling to break completely with Russia.

Given the massive financial, diplomatic, and military support that Washington is currently giving to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Israel Defense Forces, lining up African governments against Russia - or on other globally relevant conflicts - may become an even tougher sell.

In the Global South, the idea of a “rules-based international order” rings increasingly hollow for many governments and their publics as Western governments (with few exceptions, such as Ireland) offer virtually unqualified support to Israel’s military offensive.

Those actions are in clear violation of international laws against collective punishment, the targeting of civilians, the targeting of journalists, and the cutting off of food, water, and electricity, according to major Western-based international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and major media freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders.

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In The Continent, an influential South African magazine, one prominent commentator accuses the US (and Germany, among others) of deep hypocrisy when it comes to Palestine — for example, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s public apology in Tanzania earlier this month over genocidal-level colonial repression landed awkwardly for some Africans.

One Kenyan writer laments that the United Nations is toothless, the US government seems “blasé” about Palestinian deaths, and “Western media…appears to have become a mouthpiece for US and Israeli propaganda”.

Meanwhile, amid both the Ukraine war and the crisis in Gaza, some Africans feel that the continent’s own conflicts and tragedies (in Sudan, Ethiopia, and beyond) have been ignored, a dynamic that veteran observers have warned about as well. Washington may thus find it increasingly difficult to convince Africans that the United States represents a particular set of universal values.

In Africa, the situation of Palestine evokes numerous solidarities: ethnic, religious, political, and more. Those solidarities are growing amid the present conflict, undoing some of Israel’s diplomatic gains and posing long-term challenges to Washington’s own diplomatic clout.

Alex Thurston is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute

Follow him on Twitter: @sahelblog

This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.