The battle heats up over Israel's AU observer status

Israeli flag
8 min read
17 August, 2021
In-depth: There is growing opposition to Israel's new observer status at the African Union, with member states and civil society groups citing the country's ongoing occupation of Palestine.

As a modern-day colonial power, Israel offends the anti-colonial spirit of the African Union (AU) and cannot play any role in the organisation until it ends its occupation of Palestine.

This is the message from dozens of political and civil society groups in Africa – who together with several African governments - are protesting the 22 July decision by AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to grant Israel observer status in the continental union.

Unprecedented African solidarity

The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in Botswana and the Labour Economists and Afrikan Democrats (LEAD) in Zimbabwe joined forces with the Socialist Forum of Ghana and Namibia’s Landless People’s Movement and the Centre for People’s Resistance to call on AU member states to reject Mahamat’s decision, and discuss the matter at the next session of the AU executive council.

"Dozens of political and civil society groups in Africa – together with several African governments - are protesting the decision to grant Israel observer status in the African Union"

Other African groups such as the Pan-Afrikan Renaissance group in Uganda, Guinea’s All-African Revolutionary People’s Party, the Economic Fighters League of Ghana, and the Revolutionary Socialist League of Kenya are also part of the movement.

Coming together as the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN), the groups were joined by the Botswana Federation of Public Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU), the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions, Socialist Students and Workers Network in Ghana, the Ghanaian branch of the International Socialist Organisation, as well as Palestine solidarity organisations from Malawi, Mauritius, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa.

Environmental and development activists from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) along with religious groups from Nigeria and South Africa are also part of the collective.

The wide representation of groups from across Africa is unprecedented in terms of Palestine solidarity, and more groups are joining the network, says PAPSN spokesperson, William Shoki. An unintended consequence of Israel gaining AU observer status is the mobilisation of such groups and an outpouring of support and solidarity for Palestine from almost every region of Africa.

Suraya - Israel/AU
Protesters pictured outside of the Pan-African Parliament. [TNA/Suraya Dadoo]

In a strong statement, PAPSN described Mahamat’s decision as “undemocratic and unilateral”, sidestepping the AU’s norms of procedure. This, says Shoki, “risks undermining the stability and credibility of the AU”.

Shoki says that Israel wants observer status not to assist Africa as claimed but to dilute AU criticism of its illegal occupation of Palestine. “By gaining observer status and being part of AU meetings and debates, Israel wants to justify its apartheid policies against Palestinians,” Shoki said.

The AU has strongly and consistently called out Israel’s violations of international law and its use of illegal, lethal force against Palestinians at its summits.

“How can we take seriously Israel’s statements that it wants to help Africa when the Israeli government openly displays its contempt for people from the continent,” Shoki asked, referencing the racism faced within Israel by African asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. “A country which treats African people in such a degrading and racist manner should not be rewarded with observer status at the African Union,” he added.

Perspectives

Protests at the Pan-African Parliament

On Wednesday, South African activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) picketed outside the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) in Johannesburg. PSC took the action at PAP as it is the legislative body of the AU and is intended as a platform for discussions and decision-making.

PSC members handed over a memorandum on behalf of PAPSN to the AU leadership calling for Israel’s AU accreditation to be revoked. According to PSC spokesperson and former South African government minister and freedom fighter, Ronnie Kasrils, the memorandum also asks that the matter of Israel’s accreditation be discussed at the next sitting of the PAP plenary, and that a motion of censure be passed on Mahamat for his unilateral action.

Online protests

With Covid-19 restrictions still in place, pro-Palestine groups in Malawi, Uganda, and Kenya took their protests online, and their petitions have been signed by several thousand Africans. Such strong and visible solidarity in these countries is significant since Israel considers these nations important allies.

“We paid dearly in our liberation struggle to overthrow British colonialism and refuse to associate ourselves in any way with Israel and its murderous regime,” says Zahid Rajan of Kenyans 4 Palestine. He called Mahamat’s decision “an indictment and betrayal by the AU of the African people”.

The Mauritian Palestine solidarity movement, meanwhile, has called on the government of Mauritius to oppose Israel’s observer status, and follow the example of South Africa and other African states that have rejected Israel’s admission as an observer to the AU.

"By gaining observer status and being part of AU meetings and debates, Israel wants to justify its apartheid policies against Palestinians"

“On what grounds is Israel being given observer status at the AU? Nothing has changed in Israel’s illegal military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory since it was refused this status by the AU [previously],” asked Alain Ah Vee of Solidarite Morisyin Avek Lepep Palestinn (SOMALP) in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alan Ganoo.

South Africa was one of the first countries to reject Mahamat’s decision, and called on the AU Commission head to explain his decision, which was taken without consultation with AU members. Neighbouring states NamibiaLesotho, Botswana and Mozambique have issued similar statements.

On 17-18 August, Africa’s entire southern region collectively objected to Mahamat’s decision at the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. South Africa played a “central role” in lobbying the 16 member states of SADC to issue a unified condemnation.  

“It is significant when you have a regional body of the African Union speaking in one voice on such a matter. It carries weight,” said Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

While Pretoria mobilised Southern African countries, Algeria rallied North and East African countries to request that the matter be discussed at the next AU executive council meeting. The embassies of Mauritania, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Comoros and Djibouti submitted a letter of objection to the AU, arguing that Mahamat’s actions had violated the AU’s procedures and principles.

As a result of these objections, the matter will be discussed at the next meeting of the AU executive scheduled for 13-14 October.

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Notable silence

Some countries, however, have been notable in their silence on the issue.

Continental powerhouse, Nigeria, has yet to publicly comment. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari blocked Israel’s participation at the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2016.

However, relations between Israel and Nigeria seem to be warming, and in 2018 Buhari invited then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to attend Nigeria’s Democracy Day celebrations. Nigeria is expected to quietly oppose Mahamat’s decision when the issue comes up at the AU executive meeting.

Emboldened by Gulf countries normalising relations with Israel, Sudan – once regarded as the “ground zero” of the Arab boycott of Israel – has also established relations with Israel to improve its relationship with Western powers.

African Union HQ [Anadolu]
Israel has long sought AU observer status to help dilute criticism of its policies. [Getty]

Fresh from being removed from the United States terror list and having $14.1 billion of its international debt recently cancelled, Khartoum is unlikely to denounce the AU decision. Neither will Morocco – a former historic supporter of the Palestinians.

In exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara, Rabat also normalised ties with Israel last year as part of the Abraham Accords.  The Morocco-Israel relationship is progressing at such a rapid pace that embassies are expected to be opened in both countries within two months.

According to observers, Morocco, along with Rwanda, is widely seen as being central to Mahamat’s decision to grant Israel observer status at the AU.

The battle for Africa continues

For over a decade, Israel has lobbied hard for observer status at the AU, finding support in west, central and east Africa.

 In April, Aliza Bin-Noun, newly-appointed head of the Israeli foreign ministry’s Africa section, met 30 ambassadors of AU member states at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to gauge their support for Israel’s observer status bid. Bin-Noun’s deputy was back a month later to continue lobbying.

The support of DRC leader, current AU president and vocal pro-Israel advocate Felix Tshisekedi , was crucial. Mahamat is also supportive of Israel being at the AU, judging by an unapologetic statement released on 7 August. Israel, it seems, has support within the highest levels of the AU leadership.

"Israel realises the importance of its admission as an observer to the AU as a means of countering the narrative of Israel as a settler-colonial, apartheid state"

Israel will fiercely protect its accreditation when the AU’s executive council meets in October. That meeting is likely to be heated, says Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg.

“Traditionally, the AU prefers to make decisions by consensus rather than through voting. If that is the case in October, then we can expect that, after much debate, the executive committee will ultimately decide that there is no consensus on the matter and the objections of the states will be upheld,” Jeenah told The New Arab.

But the pro-Israel lobby within the AU will be preparing for a battle. Israel’s politicians realise the importance of its admission as an observer to the AU as a valuable means of countering the narrative of Israel as a settler-colonial, apartheid state.

If the matter does go to a vote, anything is possible, given the AU’s lack of concrete policy on relations with Israel and the double-speak that characterises many African nations’ relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians.

Whatever the outcome of the Executive Council meeting, it is likely that the issue will also be tabled at the AU Summit of Heads of States in January.

The issue of Israel’s observer status at the AU is far from over.

Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo