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Africa Stands with Palestine at the UN

Given important economic and diplomatic ties to the US, Israel's strong ally, why did most African countries back Palestine in the UN vote?
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Palestine's new seat at the United Nations. Photograph by Ragnhild H. Simenstad/Norway UN.

In a landmark vote at the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, member-states overwhelmingly endorsed an upgrade of Palestine’s status at the UN to that of non-member observer. The upgrade was opposed by Israel which accused the Palestinian representatives of seeking “shortcuts” to statehood, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas characterised it as an opportunity to “breathe new life” into the peace process.

Of the 193 members, 138 voted in favour and 9 against. There were 41 abstentions and 5 countries’ representatives were not present. Within Africa, which makes up over a quarter of UN members and was thus a highly significant bloc, support was overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution. 46 voted for, while 5 abstained (Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, and Togo) and 3 were not present at the vote (Equatorial Guinea, Liberia and Madagascar).

As ever, a variety of reasons stood behind various nations’ level of support for Palestine’s bid.

Africa’s relationship with Israel and Palestine

African countries’ relationships with the actors in the Israel-Palestine conflict are complex. There are significant links between Africa and the area – with the border in Egypt being a physical point of interaction. For North African countries in particular, strained relations with Israel have been a key feature of contemporary foreign policy. Egypt was somewhat of an exception to this under Hosni Mubarak, but this looks set to shift to an extent under the new government.

Most interaction between Israel and Africa takes place on the diplomatic or trade level, though Israel appears to see some areas as security threats; for example, many believed Israel was responsible for air strikes on alleged weapons facilities in the Sudanese capital Khartoum this October.

Israel is also home to large numbers of African immigrants from all over the continent. Many of them are vulnerable populations earning low wages and are immediately affected by volatility in the region. Notably, this includes a large group of Ethiopian Jews who have settled in Israel in recent decades.

Israel’s diplomatic engagement with Africa has been turbulent. Israel established diplomatic ties with newly-independent African nations as they gained independence; by the early 1970s, Israel had formal diplomatic relations with 33 nations. However, at the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa severed ties with Israel. Egypt also sponsored a resolution that called for the ending of relations with Israel through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU).

By the 1980s, diplomatic relations between Africa and Israel began to improve again with 40 African countries maintaining formal ties with Israel by the 1990s. But in this time, many countries had also established formal ties with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Thus, in the contemporary situation, most African countries recognise the diplomatic and economic benefits of relations with Israel while continuing to express support for Palestinian self-determination.

US-Israeli influence

Despite widespread support, however, the Palestinian delegation was not able to secure the backing of the entire continent at the UN vote, with abstentions representing a rejection of explicit support. In these cases, the abstaining countries’ links to the US and Israel might offer some insight. With the US and Israel being so closely allied, it is possible the US’ staunch backing of Israel on the international stage may have influenced the decisions of its African allies.

Notably, the abstainers from Africa included Malawi and Rwanda, which were unlikely to openly vote against Israel – and by extension the US - for different reasons. In the case of Rwanda, the US has generally been a strong ally of President Paul Kagame, and Rwanda has maintained strong supporters in the US government despite widespread criticism over its alleged support of rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In recent months there have been hints of a shift in this supportive attitude, with the likes of the UK suspending aid, and Rwanda may be being careful not to further alienate its powerful allies.

The situation in Malawi is slightly different. Towards the end of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s rule, which ended in April when the president passed away, Malawi’s economy underwent significant turmoil and the country saw itself become diplomatically isolated. When Joyce Banda took over, she faced the difficult task of restoring diplomatic relations and rescuing the struggling economy. Since then, the US has become a strong ally of Malawi and President Banda, providing vital aid. A day after the UN vote, a Malawian newspaper announced that Israel had made verbal commitments to partner with Malawi on development projects.

Despite these important concerns, however, Rwanda and Malawi, along with fellow abstainers the DRC and Togo, have extended diplomatic recognition to Palestine. This suggests that their votes were a matter of self-interest on this issue rather than one of deep ideological commitment. This is further reinforced by the fact that the Palestinians had overwhelming support in the General Assembly, making any opposition a purely symbolic gesture.

Ideological commitments

Not all African countries’ support for Palestine at the UN, however, can be explained as a rejection of the Israeli position, or of US power and hegemony. African votes may equally express genuine support for Palestinian aspirations and a sense of solidarity over issues of land and self-determination that continue to resonate in many post-colonial African nations.

These sentiments were expressed by the representatives of Mauritius, Tanzania, and South Sudan who chose to speak in explanation of their votes. In South Africa, whose apartheid struggle has been likened to the Israel-Palestine situation, the ANC government has issued statements condemning attacks on Palestine and Israel’s “Bantustanation policy” – referring to the division and control of Palestinian populations. There has also been a large show of solidarity by South Africans for the Palestinian cause in the form of protests across the country during the most recent conflict in the Gaza Strip. And in statements to the General Assembly, the South African representative made reference to the events in Gaza, as well as the broader issues of self-determination and land, saying that settlement-building and restriction of Palestinians’ movement was a hurdle to negotiations.

Namibia’s representative also spoke against the confiscation of land and destruction of homes in favour of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, adding that Namibia would work in solidarity with the people of Palestine as long as they were denied their right to independence.

Although there are many factors that influence Africa’s support for Palestine, solidarity with their liberation struggle seems to be the driving factor – especially given the fact wide international support for the Palestinian bid made individual votes largely symbolic. Additionally, during the debate, a number of African nations were vocal about recognising Palestine as an independent state. Many issued statements in support of full statehood for Palestine and a two-state solution. While economic and diplomatic interests inevitably govern much of the foreign policy decisions of African nations, it is significant that the continent largely stood on the side of liberation and self-determination on the issue of Palestine.

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