Africa Stands with Palestine at the UN
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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.
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.