President Ruto faces criticism over Israel-Palestine conflict statement

President William Ruto during the Kenya Forest Service recruits pass-out parade at the National Youth Service in Gilgil, Nakuru County on October 11, 2023. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

President William Ruto made a comment in the midst of the ongoing war between the Palestinian Hamas group and Israeli forces that has created a flurry of responses and prompted inquiries about Kenya's position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

The conflict erupted when Hamas, deemed a terrorist group by Israel, launched rocket attacks in response to what they consider Israeli aggression and occupation. While several African leaders have remained silent on the issue, those who did speak up found themselves navigating a delicate balance between supporting the Palestinian cause and condemning Hamas' actions. 

President Ruto, in a statement released on Saturday evening, chose to stand in solidarity with the State of Israel. He unequivocally condemned "terrorism" and the attacks on innocent civilians, extending Kenya's deepest sympathy and condolences to all the victims. 

Ruto emphasized Kenya's strong belief that there is no justification for terrorism, highlighting its threat to international peace and security. 

However, Ruto also called for the de-escalation of violence and urged all parties to exercise restraint and avoid further military action. Despite these calls for peace, Kenya's stance has generated substantial controversy and debate. 

Critics argue that Kenya's statement reflects a pro-Israel bias, raising concerns about the nation's diplomatic positioning in the Middle East. 

A senior Kenyan diplomat questioned the need for Kenya to take sides in a conflict that does not directly involve its interests, highlighting the perception that Kenya has been leaning towards Israel. 

Kenya's official policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict promotes a two-state solution, yet pundits contend that this stance is inconsistent and lacks the clarity of nations like South Africa, which openly condemns Israel for its actions in occupied territories. 

Observers have also noted President Ruto's historical affinity for Israel, dating back to his tenure as Kenya's Agriculture Minister. Ruto's influence as the country’s diplomat number one, some suggest, could impact Kenya's future policies in the Middle East especially the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

The African Union, of which Kenya is a member state, and Palestine has an observer status, appealed for an end to the conflict which has killed hundreds on both sides. 

The chairperson of the continental body’s commission Moussa Faki Mahamat noted that this escalation has been caused by the “denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, particularly that of an independent and sovereign state”. 

Hamas launched a stunning attack Saturday that involved dozens of fighters who entered Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip amid heavy rocket fire with the violence raging on Monday. 

At least 700 Israelis were killed and over 1,500 injured in the attack, while several soldiers and civilians were captured by Hamas and taken back to Gaza. 

Following the outbreak of violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to use all of Israel’s strength to destroy Hamas's capabilities and “take revenge for this black day”. 

The Iranians, who have been accused of supporting Hamas in this attack characterized the group's attack as an act of self-defense. Iran is an arch-enemy of Israel. 

The Hamas attack came as Israel marked the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war that brought Tel Aviv to the verge of a catastrophic defeat. 

Kenya in a shocking move, on May 24, abstained from a World Health Organisation (WHO) vote on health conditions in occupied Palestine. 

The health resolution was passed with 76 votes in favor, and 13 against, and 35 countries, including Kenya abstained at the end of the draft bill discussions on the health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem. 

Within the UN forums, Kenya under former President Uhuru Kenyatta supported the Palestinian cause at times by backing some resolutions that were viewed by Israel as unfavourable. 

Kenya in November 2022, two months after Ruto became president, voted in favor of Palestine’s request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion relating to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. 

But a month later Kenya backtracked at the general assembly and voted against Palestine’s request to have the global court of justice give an opinion on the legal consequences of Israeli occupation. 

During the African Union summit in February 2023, Israel sought to be re-admitted to the continental body on an observer status. Nairobi, according to immediate former foreign minister Alfred Mutua, did not object to this request though the African Union issued one of the scathing commentaries on Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians. 

Israel previously held observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) but was long thwarted in its attempt to get it back after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the African Union. 

The continental body has asked member states to cut scientific or cultural ties with Israel until the Jewish nation stops “colonial” practices against Palestine. 

And though Kenya’s policy on this conflict aligns with that of the African Union, the Nairobi regime which came to power one year ago riding on an economic-focused manifesto seems to be getting closer to Israel.

The President visited Israel for his first state visit in May and met the country’s Prime Minister and President. 

Bilateral agreements were signed during this visit. 

Israel President Isaac Herzog appreciated Ruto’s friendship in international forums, perhaps referring to Kenya’s change of voting policy at the global bodies. 

Domestically, the economy is an important factor in Kenya’s foreign policy because Israeli assistance in agriculture is geared towards its improvement. 

Nairobi has also gained economically from other Israeli-friendly states such as the United States by maintaining cordial ties with Israel. 

In September 2020, Washington “bullied” Nairobi to publicly support Israel or forget about a free trade agreement between Kenya and the US. 

The US argued the free trade deal should “discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel”. 

Washington has for decades been an ardent supporter and defender of Israel on the global stage and in the volatile Middle East.

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