Why Israel-Palestine conflict is a diplomatic hot potato for Kenya

Deep ties

Observers have noted President William Ruto's historical affinity for Israel, dating back to his tenure as Kenya's Agriculture Minister. His commitment to strengthening ties with Israel has seemingly remained steadfast since assuming office. First Lady Rachael Ruto, through the Mama Doing Good Initiative, recently partnered with the Israeli embassy to establish "Zion Gardens" in Machakos County.

The first couple also made a much-publicised visit to the Western Wall, also known as the "Wailing Wall", earlier this year. Accompanying the delegation, the Rabbi of the Western Wall was quoted in media reports, reserving high praise for President Ruto:

"I have witnessed numerous presidents and world leaders come here to pray, but let me tell you, none of them have prayed for as long as you have," he said.

Due to its harrowing experiences in grappling with terror attacks orchestrated by groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, Kenya's kinship with Israel on the subject of terrorism is deeply rooted and shared by only a handful of nations on the continent. In the aftermath of the devastating Al-Qaeda-coordinated bombings on August 9, 1998, which tragically claimed the lives of over 220 people, Israel swiftly dispatched a team of 160 rescue workers to Nairobi.

Furthermore, it is believed that Al-Qaeda was responsible for a two-pronged terror attack in 2002 in Mombasa that targeted Israeli tourists. The audacious assault on the Paradise Hotel led to the loss of 13 lives. The terror attack also involved an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter plane using surface-to-air missiles. The Paradise Hotel was the sole Israeli-owned establishment in the area.

Kenya's anti-terrorism police unit has issued a call for heightened vigilance in response to concerns that Al-Shabaab might launch attacks as an expression of "solidarity" with Hamas.

"Conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza impacts global security. Terror groups like Al-Shabaab may conduct attacks in solidarity with Hamas to remain relevant. Kenyans need to be vigilant & report terror activities to police for action," read a statement posted online.

This perspective finds resonance with Rashid Abdi, a noted expert on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East security matters.

"Hamas has raised the bar for all Islamist terror groups. Brace for terrorist learning and copycat," he emphasises.

Shifting positions

Kenya's shifting position has raised questions about its alignment with the African Union and the purpose of its statement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an African Union diplomat told The Standard that Africa's stance firmly aligns with the people of Palestine. They noted that divisions only arise when countries like Kenya and others provide 'knee-jerk' statements influenced by their interests without due consideration of previous AU statements regarding the conflict.

In May, Ruto visited Israel on his first tour as President. He met with the country's leadership and signed bilateral agreements. Under former President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya sometimes supported Palestinian causes by endorsing resolutions that Israel viewed as unfavourable. However, under President Ruto's leadership, Kenya's voting patterns have shown inconsistency.

This change is apparent in Kenya's voting history on resolutions related to the Israel-Palestine conflict at global multilateral bodies. For instance, in November 2022, just two months after President Ruto took office, Kenya voted in favour of Palestine's request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. However, a month later, Kenya reversed its stance at the United Nations General Assembly by voting against Palestine's request for an ICJ opinion on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation. This flip-flop sparked questions about Kenya's diplomatic direction on the Middle East.

On May 24, Kenya abstained from a World Health Organisation vote on health conditions in occupied Palestine. The health resolution was passed with 76 votes in favour, 13 against, and 35 countries, including Kenya abstaining during the 76th World Health Assembly, singled out Israel as a violator of health rights.

Kenya in June this year, alongside the United States, Togo, Eswatini, and Liberia, condemned the open-ended nature of the UN Human Rights Council investigation into alleged human rights violations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Economic considerations also wield significant influence over Kenya's current foreign policy. Israel's agricultural assistance will play a key role in Kenya's strategy to revitalise its agricultural sector, with a specific focus on reducing dependence on rain-fed farming methods.

Furthermore, Nairobi has much to gain economically from fostering friendly relations with other countries that share an affinity with Israel, such as the US. In September 2020 it was revealed that a free trade agreement with the US was conditioned on support for Israel.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting that South Africa, despite being Israel's largest trading partner on the continent, has steadfastly maintained a principled stance. This is exemplified by Pretoria's call for Israel to be labelled as an "apartheid state."

Patrick Gathara, a noted columnist and cartoonist, emphasises that Kenya should give greater consideration to international law when formulating its foreign policy positions:

"Neglecting international law and prioritising short-term gains can put Kenya at risk in the long term. We've seen issues with international law in past situations, like the International Criminal Court and the Somalia case. Ignoring these issues could hinder our ability to seek international assistance when needed," he warns.

The visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to Kenya in July further raised questions about Kenya's diplomatic stance. His visit coincided with an AU mid-year summit, prompting speculation about the purpose and implications of his presence. During his visit, Cohen held meetings with then-Foreign CS Alfred Mutua to discuss bilateral issues and met with other African leaders whose identities were not disclosed.

The circumstances surrounding Cohen's visit generated controversy and speculation, as it came at a time when the continent was divided over the issue of observer status for Israel within the African Union.

Asked by The Standard about the visit at that time and whether Cohen attended the meeting held in Gigiri, Ebba Kalondo, the spokesperson of the African Union Commission, said the summit held in Nairobi was open only to AU member states and invited partners.

The AU, in February this year, asked member states to cut scientific or cultural ties with Israel until the Jewish nation stops "colonial" practices against Palestine.

Cohen's visit also sought to neutralise Tehran's endeavours in the continent.

It came days after President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran paid a state visit to Nairobi, making it clear that Iran's visit caused unease with Israel, which regards Kenya as a strategic partner.

In the midst of this discussion, John Allan-Namu, the acclaimed Kenyan investigative journalist, has emphasised the importance of considering the broader historical context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Namu believes that Africans should be careful not to be swept up by the perspectives of some commentators on the current blood-soaked iteration of the Israel-Palestine conflict that pay no heed to the long lens of history:

"It is astounding how hard some pundits from the West and elsewhere are trying to avoid the broader context of what has happened in Gaza, specifically over the past two decades, and Palestine over the past seven decades. Acknowledging the inhumanity that has been perpetrated for nearly a century against Palestinians doesn't reduce or negate the horrific attack on Israeli concertgoers now," said Namu, commenting online.

He further adds, "Pretending that the collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza is an equitable response to Hamas's terror attack, or categorising the murders there as "deaths" versus the more incendiary killings of Israelis shows just how far they will go to elevate the "real" victims today."

The long lens of history

Drawing on historical lessons, he alludes to Africa's own experiences with so-called "just wars":

"Tomorrow, we in Africa will be goaded to support one side's "just" war. The facts, our conscience, and our own history tell some of us, in our bones, that no peace will come from this. Only a winner's justice," warns Namu.

Complicating matters is the substantial volume of online misinformation, which has fueled anger and reinforced unfounded perspectives about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Alphonce Shiundu, the Kenya Editor at Africa Check, a leading independent fact-checking organisation, emphasises that a key aspect of modern warfare hinges on winning the online information war:

"It was said a long time ago that in war, truth is the first casualty. There are all these reports about the extent of the atrocities committed by both sides, old videos capturing scenes of violence, and lots and lots of incendiary opinions flying all over," he explains.

Shiundu provides prudent counsel, underscoring the necessity for Kenyans to evolve into more discerning news consumers because "their critical-thinking skills will help them navigate the news about the conflict."

Regarding media coverage, Gathara says: "It's crucial to move beyond religious or ideological lenses and focus on human rights and dignity. It's essential to inform the public that this conflict isn't about religion but about human rights and historical context," he says.

In the meantime, the diplomatic landscape is undergoing a transformation akin to a kaleidoscope being vigorously shaken.

In this moment of uncertainty, there are those in Africa who believe that there exists a unique opportunity to chart a more promising future for both Israel and Palestine.

Kenya's Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Korir Sing'oei, shared his perspective online:

"We must have the audacity to believe that a restored brotherhood between Israel and Palestine is possible."