Netanyahu’s Africa tour: A spit in the face of those Israel helps oppress

The Israeli public and its government need to internalize that ‘Israel’s pride,’ its wildly successful military export industry, has been an unending nightmare for the people of Africa. How can Netanyahu look the Rwandan and Ugandan people in the eyes?

By Itay Mack

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart Uganda on their way to Kenya, July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart Uganda on their way to Kenya, July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on a tour of African states of Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

For decades, Israel’s relationship with the African continent, from South Africa to the Sahara, has been almost entirely based on military and arms exports that have fueled oppression, civil wars and murderous dictatorships.

Until 1967, the State of Israel was recognized in many circles as a success in the anti-colonialist struggle. Independent African states received military and civil aid from Israel, and in return, voted with it in the United Nations. Jerusalem even condemned apartheid, racism and discrimination at the time. Israel’s ties with African states became even stronger following the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion developed the “Periphery Doctrine.”

According to that doctrine, in order to weaken the surrounding enemy Arab states, Israel needed to establish alliances with states in the periphery of the Middle East, like Ethiopia, and establish alliances with minority groups in enemy Arab states, like the Christian rebels in southern Sudan. It was in the framework of the Periphery Doctrine that Israel built its strong alliance with Uganda, which at the time — and to this day — served as a channel for the flow of Israeli military aid to South Sudan.

After the 1967 war and the ensuing Israeli occupation of Syrian and Egyptian territory, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the birth of the settlement enterprise, criticism of Israel began to grow in volume. In the eyes of much of the world, the State of Israel had become an occupying and colonialist regime. At the same time, Arab states began sending money and oil to fragile African states.

Soon after the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, many unaligned states, and almost all African states, cut their diplomatic ties with Israel. And as Israel became more isolated, it started building security-based relationships with some of the most brutal regimes in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean.

Cold War, cold economic interests

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart Kenya on their way to Rwanda, July 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart Kenya on their way to Rwanda, July 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The logic behind the military exports to many of these countries was purely economic, like with Burundi and the Central African Republic. Other relationships served clearer strategic interests of Israel and the United States as part of the Cold War, such as with Zaire and Chad. Yet other relationships ran far deeper, like that with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In other cases, Israel sold arms to both sides in a conflict, like the civil wars in Angola and Nigeria.

By 1973, Israel’s impressive civilian projects in Africa in the 1950s and 60s were long forgotten — they became nothing more than one drop in a sea of weapons and military exports. That was especially true in the 1990s, when many African states began re-establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. What is the actual benefit for Guineans of an Israeli-built hospital when Israel is also arming and training the security forces that are murdering and torturing them?

One can presume that while in Rwanda Netanyahu will visit the Genocide Memorial Centre, but will he mention that the genocide was carried out partly with Israeli weapons?

How will Netanyahu look into the eyes of Rwandans while Israel continues its military exports even in recent years, even as Rwanda supports murderous militias in neighboring states, and which is considered to be one of the worst states in Africa with regards to domestic freedoms, in which opposition activists, human rights activists and journalists are kidnapped, tortured, killed and disappeared? Will Netanyahu visit the refugees in Uganda who came from South Sudan fleeing the Juba government’s security forces and militias, which use Israeli weapons and surveillance systems to carry out crimes against humanity?

Will Netanyahu apologize to the citizens of Ethiopia for the aid Israel gave the military junta that murdered hundreds of thousands there? Will he try and explain why Israel still provides the oppressive, one-party regime there military and security assistance? What will Netanyahu say to the citizens of Kenya, who suffer at the hands of Israeli-supported, notoriously corrupt security forces, which are known to murder, torture and disappear civilians? Will Netanyahu apologize to the citizens of Uganda for the military aid, for Israel’s contributions to the country’s corruption and its forces of oppression in recent years? Or perhaps for Israel’s responsibility, directly or indirectly, for the rise of Idi Amin in 1971, and for the widespread oppression and violations of human rights even before that?

Propping up a murderous dictator

Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan welcome Uganda President Idi Amin at Lod International Airport, Israel, 1971. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)
Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan welcome Uganda President Idi Amin at Lod International Airport, Israel, 1971. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)

Israel adopted Idi Amin and helped him consolidate his power ahead of the revolution he led in January 1971. During the coup and immediately afterward, Amin carried out a murderous cleansing campaign, including of sick people snatched out of their hospital beds. Amin’s security forces tortured, disappeared and murdered massive numbers of citizens, sometimes entire families, displaying extraordinary cruelty. Among other atrocious acts, prisoners’ heads were shaved with broken glass and then beaten with water pipes and hammers. Kidnapped people were buried alive, ears and limbs were amputated, and bodies were defiled. Family members who approached authorities hoping to discover the fate of their loved ones were often tortured and murdered themselves, others were released only after their limbs were chopped off. Women were kidnapped and brought to military bases where they were systematically raped, only some of whom were ever released alive.

The story of the backing Israel gave Idi Amin has been told no few times, but a 1986 report of the Rwanda Truth Commission reveals additional details about Israel’s deep involvement, which closely resembled the military aid Israel gave the Pinochet regime in Chile and others elsewhere. According to the report, immediately following the coup, Amin asked Israel to help him establish a new Ugandan Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency. That is how Israeli instructors ended up training the Ugandan secret police, which terrorized the country’s population into submission.

Nobody in the world was surprised by sadistic and murderous behavior of Idi Amin when he came to power — he was known as a murderous sadist long before, during his time in the British army serving in Kenya, and after that when he was responsible for mass arrests and mass murders in Uganda in the 1960s. Despite all that, Israel did not seem to care much about the monster it helped put into power. Yet Israel was insulted when in 1972 Amin ordered all of the Israelis in Uganda to leave, and was surprised by Amin’s ingratitude after all of the weapons and training it had given his security forces and intelligence agencies since the 1960s.

The truth always comes out, eventually

Israel’s attempts to push under the rug its support for the men responsible for some of the worst atrocities in recent African history is destined to fail. Just as Israel’s support keeps coming to light in the trials of generals in Latin America, the ghosts of Israel’s past in Africa will also continue to haunt it.

Only recently was former Chadian president Hissène Habré, responsible for the deaths and disappearances of some 40,000 people, sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. In the 1980s, Habré’s security forces and intelligence agencies received support from Israel in the form of arms and military training, as part of the fight against Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi. During the trial of Charles Taylor, the murderous dictator of Liberia, one of his commanders, nicknamed “Zigzag,” testified that a few years earlier he had sliced open pregnant women’s bellies and crushed babies heads, and also how he received specialized training in Israel, even receiving an official certificate from the Israeli government.

The Israeli public and its government need to internalize that “Israel’s pride,” its wildly successful military export industry, has been an unending nightmare for the people of Africa. In no small number of places across the continent, Israeli military exports still stand in the way of transitions to democracy.

Guns, UN votes, and ‘Palestinian diplomatic terrorism’

Soldiers in South Sudan’s army, March 2, 2014. (Punghi /
Soldiers in South Sudan’s army, March 2, 2014. (Punghi /

Despite all that, Israel continues to prefer iron-fisted and oppressive dictatorships that will vote with it at the United Nations instead of taking its chances with public opinion in democratic countries, countries whose peoples who have a long lists of grievances with Israel over its involvement in their oppression — past and present.

At a recent meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, representatives of Israel’s Foreign Ministry complained of the hardships they face in democratic countries in Latin America, and the success of “Palestinian diplomatic terrorism” in those states. In comparison, the Israeli diplomats pointed with great pride to the close relations with the regime in Honduras, a country that had a military coup in 2009, which is undergoing a process of militarization, and whose security forces are known to assassinate human rights activists, workers’ rights activists, and those fighting for indigenous rights.

Considering the fact that Israel’s history in Africa continues to repeat itself to this day, in places like South Sudan, maybe it would have been better if Netanyahu had avoided the costly and embarrassing visit altogether — for the benefit of Israel’s citizens as well as those in the countries he is visiting.

In order to fundamentally change Israel’s relationship with the citizens of Africa, it not only needs to limit the exports of military goods and services to countries that violate human rights and international law, it also needs to change its approach to African asylum refugees that have wound up in Israel. If Israel wants to turn a new leaf with the peoples of Africa, it needs open up its files documenting its illegal and immoral involvement in some of the continent’s worst regimes and their crimes.

The government must open criminal investigations and bring to justice those Israeli arms exporters who aided and abetted war crimes, crimes against humanity, and grave human rights violations — including those Defense Ministry officials who approved such deals and exports. Israel must weigh paying reparations where it is appropriate, and it must directly and unconditionally apologize to the peoples of Africa, who for decades suffered the consequences of its military exports.

During the ceremony at the Entebbe airport marking the death of his brother, Yoni, Netanyahu expected the citizens of Israel — and the world — to mourn with him. But like all of his predecessors in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu appears unmoved by the suffering and loss of life on the continent that has occurred as a result of Israeli exports and destructive foreign policy.

Itay Mack is a Jerusalem-based human rights lawyer and activist, who specializes in public monitoring of Israel’s arms trade. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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