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Israel's International Relations:
The Evolution of Israel’s Africa Policy

by Mitchell G. Bard


International Relations: Table of Contents | U.S.-Israel Relations | With Arab States


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Long before the State of Israel was established, the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, had looked to Africa and recognized parallels between the black and Jewish experiences. In his book Altneuland, published in 1902, just five years after the Zionist conference in Basel formally initiated the drive for a Jewish state, Herzl wrote that “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”(1)

Almost immediately after the redemption of the Jewish people, Herzl's interest in helping the Africans was taken up by the leaders of Israel. Their idealistic and egalitarian attitude toward Africa was typified by the architect of Israel's Africa policy, Golda Meir, who believed that the lessons learned by Israelis could be passed on to Africans who, particularly during the 1950s. were engaged in the same process of nation building. “Like them,” she said, “we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves.” Israel could provide a better model for the newly independent African state, Meir believed, because Israelis “had been forced to find solutions to the kinds of problems that large, wealthy, powerful states had never encountered.”(2)

While there is no doubt that Israeli leaders have always had philanthropic attitudes toward Africa, their primary interest in the continent rested on the more tangible grounds of Realpolitik. Just as Africa was the scene of a battle of influence among the superpowers, so too has it been a battlefield between Israel and the Arabs. This battlefield was particularly important during Israel's first 2 decades because the United States had not yet proven itself a reliable ally nor for that matter had the Soviet Union proven itself as the guarantor of its clients in the Arab world.(3) Thus, it was not necessarily hyperbole when Dan Avni, the Deputy Director of the Africa Department in Israel's Foreign Ministry, described the struggle in Africa as “a fight of life and death for us.”(4) Thus, even small African nations like Togo become pawns in the effort to obtain an advantage on the continent.

Although Meir denied that Realpolitik was Israel's primary motive, Israeli concern for nations like Togo rested largely on the fact that their votes at the United Nations General Assembly counted equally with those of the United States or Russia. Since Israel already faced a large, hostile voting bloc from the Arab and Muslim states, it was important for Israel to try to win as many African votes as possible if it was to have any hope of avoiding constant censure in the General Assembly. From the perspective of the African states, however, it made less sense to side with Israel than with the Arab states because the latter bloc's votes were needed in international forums like the United Nations to exert pressure on the major powers to protect their own interests. Israel has only one vote at the U.N. and is not represented in the Organization for African Unity (OAU), whereas the Arabs have 18 members in the U.N. and six in the OAU.

After 1967, the Arab states also enjoyed a propaganda advantage in Africa because of Israel's “occupation of Arab territories,” which was seen by Africans as a possible precedent for the expansion of South Africa or Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The Africans were also less frightened by Arab designs after the death of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser because his successor, Anwar Sadat, was far less interested in pan-Arabism -- the movement to unite the Arab world -- which was perceived as a threat to African independence.(5)

The issue of South Africa and apartheid actually provided a good example of Israel's priorities in Africa. In denouncing apartheid for the first time in the early 1960s, despite the presence of a very large South African Jewish community, Israel risked its relations with a country that had been friendly. There is no question that Israel found the apartheid system abhorrent, but its condemnation was also meant to attract support from the more numerous black African states. It was not until the 1970s, after the black African states severed their ties with Israel, that Israeli-South African relations became close. But reports exaggerated the degree of closeness.

No Israeli policy sufficed to offset the image that her enemies presented to the Africans: that Israel was a nation of white Europeans who had expelled more than a million people from their homeland in furtherance of imperialist efforts to retain a foothold in the Middle East. As an African state which shared the Muslim religion with much of the continent, Egypt held a major advantage in its competition with Israel (prior to the 1979 peace treaty). “The people of Africa will continue to look up to us, who guard the northern gate of the continent, and who are its connecting link with the world outside,” Nasser wrote. “'We cannot, under any condition,” he added, “relinquish our responsibility in helping, in every way possible, in diffusing the light of civilization into the farthest parts of that virgin jungle.”(6)

Egypt tried to use its geographical advantage to extract political condemnation of Israel from the African states at every opportunity, but, with the exception of the Asian-African conference at Bandung in April 1955, had little success. The reason for this, Michael Brecher has suggested, is that “there was no emotional disposition to favor the Arab cause: some Africans had had no contact with either Jew or Arab while those who knew the Arabs recalled the slave trade above all.” “Indeed,” Brecher notes, “for many Africans, Israelis were Europeans, but this was not automatically a symbol of derision, as it was for many Asians.”(7)

The Bandung conference had a tremendous impact on Israel, however, because the fact that Israel had not even been invited indicated that after 7 years the nation was still isolated in its own region. To combat this isolation, Israel sought to establish diplomatic relations with African states and to offer them aid. Unlike the aid from the superpowers, Israel's came without strings attached, not so much because it did not hope to obtain support in exchange, but because it was in no position to demand it. In addition, Israel feared that if it failed to give aid, then Egypt would step in and fill the vacuum. “Our aid to the new countries,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told the Knesset in 1960, “is not a matter of philanthropy ... We are no less in need of the fraternity of friendship of the new nations than they are of our assistance.”(8)

The labor and socialist movements in Israel made the first contacts with the Africans and, in 1958, the Histadrut (Israel's labor federation) inaugurated Israel's formal instructional program with an international seminar in cooperation.(9) The first Israeli embassy in Africa - only its eighth overall - was opened in Accra, Ghana, in November 1956. Two years later Golda Meir made a 5-week trip to Africa and had the first high-level discussions with African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, William Tubman, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny that helped to show Israeli interest in the African liberation movements as well as to stimulate African interest in Israel.

Trade with Africa has always been one-sided since Israel's major imports, such as oil and grain, are, for the most part, not available from that continent; consequently, the aid that Israel provided its African friends was of greater value than the economic advantages it reaped. As noted above, however, Israel was more interested in political than economic advantages.

One of Israel's main contributions to Africa was military aid, which was provided in the form of conventional and paramilitary training and, to a lesser extent, by the sale of arms. By 1966, 10 African states had received some direct military assistance from Israel and, in each case, the aid was provided to individuals who were either influential or potentially influential. For example, Israel trained Mobutu Sese Seko, the General of the Congolese army, who, two years later, became that nation's President.(10)

The Arab League continued to pressure the Africans to expel Israeli advisers and technicians and to recognize the threat that Israel represented. “The danger lurks under the glittering surface of 'trade and aid' offered by Israel to some emerging states during the last few years,” a League statement said in 1963. “Tel-Aviv's offers have been, in reality, a facade for neocolonialism trying to sneak into Africa through a back window after the old well-known colonialism had been driven out through the front door.”(11)

African leaders viewed Israel's efforts differently. For example, during a 1962 visit to Israel, President Decko of the Central African Republic remarked: “You have not tried to create us in your image. Instead, Israel has contented itself with showing the new African nations its achievements, in helping them overcome their weaknesses, in assisting them in learning. In so doing you have conquered Black Africa.”(12)

This effort to “conquer” Africa by providing trade and aid is only one facet of Israel's strategy for obtaining an advantage in its conflict with the Arabs. A second aspect of Israel's policy involves a strategically located African country -- Ethiopia -- which the Israelis were already cultivating for all the reasons discussed above.

In the 1950s, Israel hoped to form an alliance with the United States, but Secretary of State John Foster Dulles advised President Dwight Eisenhower against any formal agreement. Consequently, Israel began to look for other allies that might help encircle her enemies with a ring of friends. In late 1957 and 1958, Ben-Gurion sent agents to three non-Arab countries - Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia -to explore possibilities for an alliance. As non-Arab states with long historical ties to the Jewish people and strategically important geographic locations, these nations were potentially valuable allies.

In the case of Ethiopia, the nation is located in the Horn of Africa and has a coastline along the Red Sea. The approach to Ethiopia was made after the Suez War and the Gulf of Aqaba had been recognized as an international waterway. Hence, Israel saw Ethiopia's port as a gateway not only to Ethiopia but to the rest of Africa. In addition, as a predominantly Christian nation, Ethiopia is, along with Israel, the only non-Muslim riparian state and therefore a deterrent to Arab efforts to make the Red Sea either an Arab or an Islamic lake. When Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran in 1956, it became particularly clear to Israel's leaders that it was necessary to have a friend on the Red Sea coast in order to avert any future blockades. That waterway would become progressively more important as the amount of Persian Gulf oil moving to Israel from its new friend in Iran increased. It became even more significant in the 1970s after the Suez Canal reopened and traffic resumed between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

In addition to Ethiopia's strategic location, Israel believed that Ethiopia's stability was a key to the stability of the Horn of Africa, and that it was in Israel's interest to prevent Ethiopia's subversion by Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The most overt threat to Ethiopia came from Somalia, which Israel had also approached in the hope of establishing diplomatic ties, and by which it had been consistently rebuffed. That predominantly Muslim country, moreover, joined the Arab League, thereby convincing Israel of the need to solidify its relationship with Ethiopia.

From Ethiopia's perspective, the alliance with Israel was also advantageous since the late 1950s was the period of Nasser's greatest influence and, hence, most threatening to Ethiopia. There were also long historical ties between Ethiopia and the Jewish people, and personal ties between Emperor Haile Selassie and not only the Jewish people but also Palestine.

Haile Selassie considered himself “the Lion of Judah,” a direct descendant of the Jewish people. Moreover, after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, Haile Selassie and his family as well as many other Ethiopians spent part of their time in exile in Jerusalem. Six years later, when he returned to Ethiopia, the Emperor established the first modem links with the Jews of Palestine.(13) The first Israeli delegation arrived in Ethiopia in 1955 for the celebration of the Emperor's Silver Jubilee. The following year the Israeli consulate opened to handle not only the diplomatic activity, but also the commercial relations which had begun when Israel built a meat-packing plant in Asmara.(14)

In 1958 Israel could not expect to obtain the cooperation of the three pro-Western nations in its periphery alliance without at least the tacit support of the United States. Hence, David Ben-Gurion wrote a memo to Eisenhower on July 24 in which he offered the proposal:

Our object is the creation of a group of countries, not necessarily a formal and public alliance, that will be able to stand up steadfastly against Soviet expansion through Nasser and might even be able to save the freedom of Lebanon and, perhaps, in the course of time, Syria too ... we can carry out our mission ... since ... it is a vital necessity for us, as well as a source of perceptible strength to the West in this part of the world.(15)

Ben-Gurion asked the President to provide political, financial, and moral support, and to convey to Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia that the United States backed the Israeli initiative.

The memo was neatly phrased to appeal to the primary concerns of Eisenhower and Dulles; that is, the threat of Soviet expansion, rather than Israel's conflict with the Arabs. Eisenhower's initial reply came the day afterward: “I am deeply impressed by the breadth of your insight into the grave problems which the free world faces in the Middle East and elsewhere ... you can be confident of the United States' interest in the integrity and independence of Israel.”(16) This equivocal response was accompanied by a promise that Dulles would respond in more detail. When Dulles did respond, he told Ben-Gurion that the United States supported the Israeli plan and encouraged him to establish the peripheral pact.

By 1959, the trilateral alliance was informally in place, and Haile Selassie derived an almost immediate benefit when Israel helped save his reign. In December 1960, when Haile Selassie was visiting Brazil, a coup was attempted in Ethiopia. On December 14, supporters of the Emperor sent out signals to alert the Israelis. Ben-Gurion ordered a plane to pick up the Emperor and transport him to Asmara. Here he rallied his forces and smashed the rebellion.(17)

Despite the alliance, official diplomatic relations were kept in low profile until May 1962, when the Emperor announced the Israeli consulate would be upgraded to an embassy. Prior to that, there had been some hesitancy to associate openly with Israel. One of the main reasons for Ethiopia's earlier reluctance to establish ties with Israel relates to the issue mentioned above regarding the need for Arab votes in the U.N. As long as the future of Eritrea remained in doubt, Ethiopia could not afford to alienate the Arabs. In addition, Ethiopia hoped to obtain U.N. support for its claim to Italian Somaliland, but that territory became independent Somalia in July 1960.

Ethiopia was also concerned over the threat posed by Nasser, but after his military defeat in 1956, Ethiopia recognized that Israel could help it right communist and Nasserist subversion. Thus, when 2 Israeli representatives approached Haile Selassie after the Suez War to discuss the possibility of joint political and economic cooperation, the Emperor was amenable. Soon after, in fact, an Israeli consulate was opened in Addis Ababa and an Ethiopian consul was sent to Jerusalem. By the time the Emperor gave Israel de jure recognition in 1962, the Israeli secret service Mossad had sea agents to train the Ethiopian police, and economic and cultural relations between the 2 countries had begun to flourish.(18)

While Nasser vowed to expel Israel from Africa, Israel's presence in Ethiopia grew. In fact, Israel's military mission became second in size only to that of the United States.(19) Israel also ran a variety of foreign assistance programs in the fields of education, agriculture, industry, banking, and urban planning. Nevertheless, the number of Israeli experts in Ethiopia never exceeded 100. As for trading benefits, however, Ethiopia was not a very useful trading partner since it could not provide for Israel's most pressing needs. Consequently, trade between Israel and Ethiopia never grew beyond small quantities of marginal goods.

The beginning of the decline in Israel's relationship with Ethiopia might be traced to the civil war in Eritrea. Asrate Kassa, appointed as Eritrea's enderase (regent) in 1964, advocated close relations with Israel because of his concern am pan-Arabism and the politicization of Islam in the Horn of Africa. Kassa had 10 to 12 Israeli advisers on counterinsurgency working closely with him to build and strengthen his police force and commandos. The Ethiopian army, according to one Israeli military official, was efficient only in killing innocent civilians and was succeeding only in alienating the Eritrean people. As Kassa's influence waned, he was eclipsed by his rival, Prime Minister Habta-Wald Akilu, who opposed Ethiopia's de facto alliance with Israel and preferred to solve the Eritrean problem by appeasing the Eritreans' Arab allies and by eliminating the rebel organizations through military force. As Akilu's influence increased, Israel's diminished; at the same time, the Arab and Muslim influences in Addis Ababa also increased.(20)

Israel and Ethiopia continued to share common interests such as sending weapons to the Anya-Aya rebels in the Sudan. But Akilu's pressure an Haile Selassie to sever relations with Israel intensified. In May 1973, Libya used the OAU meeting in Addis Ababa to press Ethiopia to sever its relations with Israel. In the following months, Saudi Arabia also increased the anti-Israel pressure. Similar pressures applied to the no of black Africa finally resulted in all of Israel's friends on the continent severing their ties with the Jewish state.

The Arab members of the OAU achieved their goal by threatening to move the organization's headquarters from Addis to another capital such as Cairo. Ethiopia caved in to this threat, and formally severed relations with Israel an October 23, 1973, thus breaking the Ethiopian link in Israel's periphery policy. At the same time, the Arabs blockaded the strait of Bab al-Mandeb, thereby obtaining the strategic advantage over Israel that the alliance with Ethiopia had been designed to prevent.(21)

Although the Arabs put great pressure on Ethiopia to sever relations, Chanan Aynor, a former Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia blames the United States for Haile Selassie's decision and the subsequent rebellion that ended his reign. According to Aynor, the Emperor went to the United States in the spring of 1973 to ask President Nixon for urgently needed aid to counter the Somali threat to Ethiopia. Since Nixon was already embroiled in Watergate. however, the Emperor's mission was a failure. Haile Selassie told Aynor that Ethiopia would have to break relations with Israel because it did not have the anus for defying the Muslims. He denied being hostile to Israel, but complained that he had no money, and his supply of arms would last only a few days. The Emperor's subsequent effort to finance Ethiopia's anus requirements by raising taxes precipitated Ethiopia's social revolution.(22)

Breaking relations with Israel hastened Haile Selassie's fall because the withdrawal of his Israeli military advisers disrupted the military. According to Professor Haggai Erlich, the Israelis served as the only communication link between the lower- and higher-ranking soldiers. Since the top Ethiopian officers were not in the least concerned about the mood of the lower ranks, the departure of the Israelis prevented the top officers from learning of the lower ranks' growing disaffection which soon expressed itself as a revolution. Erlich also claims that when the Emperor expelled the Israelis, the Ethiopian people saw this as an indication that the Emperor was becoming senile, for they regarded this action as a betrayal of their history and tradition.(23)

Haile Selassie was deposed, a bloody revolution ensued, and a Marxist council came to power. Although the Dergue, as the council was called, did not restore diplomatic relations with Israel, the two nations remained friendly. Thus, for example, Ethiopia abstained from voting for the Arab-sponsored “Zionism is racism” resolution at the United Nations in 1975. Under the Marxist regime, Israeli involvement and trade with Ethiopia gradually increased. Israeli “ports to Ethiopia, for example, more than doubled from 1975 to 1979.

The Arab world continued to support the Eritrean rebels who were now fighting their fellow Marxists, while Israel continued to support the central government. Recognizing this, the revolutionary government under Haile-Mariam Mengistu secretly invited Israeli military advisers to return to Ethiopia in December 1975. By the middle of 1977, probably no more than 25 or 30 Israeli military advisers had been posted to Ethiopia, and they were providing only low-level military training for the Ethiopian troops.(24) They were also carrying out intelligence work for the Mossad, probably with the blessing of the United States whose influence in the country was waning.

Having begun selling the new government small amounts of arms, Israel succeeded in negotiating an exchange of arms for Ethiopian Jews in 1977. That agreement was shattered when Moshe Dayan revealed the secret Israeli arms pipeline to Ethiopia in a press conference in February 1978. Thereupon, the furious Ethiopians expelled the Israelis. Within four years, however, the Israelis were back in Ethiopia and were once again selling arms to the Ethiopian government. In the interim a significant change had taken place in Ethiopia, with the government shifting its loyalty away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union.

The United States had signed a 25-year military assistance agreement with Ethiopia in 1953 and had established an important listening post at Kagnew station. By 1976, the United States had provided Ethiopia with over $200 million in military aid, more than half the total U.S. military aid to all African countries during the period. Although the amount of military aid was small, the amount of economic aid which the U.S. provided to Ethiopia exceeded that which it supplied to other African states.(25)

The United States, like Israel, believed that the stability of the Horn could be maintained by keeping Ethiopia strong and stable. For that reason, as well as the Emperor's own position, the U.S. opposed Eritrean independence.(26)

Although Ethiopian stability remained important to the United States, the Kagnew base's usefulness to the U.S. declined with the increasing availability of satellite intelligence. Gradually, the United States reduced its operations at the base, intending to close it down in 1977. The United States also became increasingly concerned over the behavior of the Ethiopian government, especially in regard to its reported abuses of human rights. In addition, America's friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia had begun supporting the Eritreans.

On February 24, 1977, President Carter announced the United States was cutting off all military aid to Ethiopia because of its human rights violations. The unstated reason was the U.S. desire to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to lure Somalia's from the Soviet camp, an effort which was ultimately successful.(27)

Ethiopia retaliated by closing the American consulate in Asmara, the Kagnew station, and the United States information programs. The following week, the Dergue abrogated the military assistance agreement.(28)

While the Israelis foresaw that these actions would give the Soviets their long sought opening, they were still able to retain the favor of the Ethiopians by continuing the Israeli opposition to Arab and Muslim expansionism and to the rebellion in Eritrea. When Menachem Begin made his first trip to the United States after being elected in the summer of 1977, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Carter to resume aid to the Ethiopians.

Since the Soviet Union was rather slow about moving into Ethiopia, Israel was still able to play a role in Ethiopia, primarily by providing spare parts for American weapons. After the Ethiopian army failed to defeat the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in November 1982, Mengistu invited the Israelis back as technical advisers to his intelligence service.(29) Following the Lebanon war, Israel sold Ethiopia Soviet arms which it had captured from the PLO in Lebanon.(30)

Israel sought to repair its relations not only with Ethiopia, but with the rest of Africa as well. The African nations gradually realized that the Arab oil-producing nations were not only unwilling to provide them with promised aid, but were even undermining their economics by maintaining exorbitant oil prices. With this realization came the revival of African interest in resuming relationships with Israel which they had previously found beneficial.


Sources:
1. Golda Meir, My Life, (NY: Dell Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 308-309.
2. Meir, p. 306.
3. Mitchell G. Bard, “The Water's Edge And Beyond: Defining The Limits To Domestic Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1987), pp. 591-637.
4. Samuel Decalo, “Israel and Africa: The Politics of Cooperation, A study of Foreign Policy and Technical Assistance,” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1970), p. 87.
5. Susan Gitelson, “Israel's African Setback in Perspective, ” in Michael Curtis and Susan Gitelson, eds., Israel in the Third World, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1976), pp. 189-190.
6. Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Philosophy Of The Revolution, (NY: Economica Books, 1959), pp. 75-76.
7. Joseph Churba, “U.A.R.-Israel Rivalry Over Aid and Trade in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1957-1963,” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1965), p. 252.
8. Decalo, p. 85.
9. Mordechai Kreinin, “Israel and Africa: The Early Years,” in Curtis and Gitelson, p. 58.
10. Abel Jacob, “Israel's Military Aid to Africa, 1960-1966,” Journal of Modern African Studies, (August 1971), pp. 165-172.
11. Bernard Reich, “Israel's Policy in Africa,” Middle East Journal, (Winter 1964), p. 25.
12. Mordechai Kreinin, Israel and Africa, (NY: Praeger, 1964), p. 5.
13. Louis Rapoport, The Lost Jews, (NY: Stein and Day, 1980), p. 192.
14. Michael A. Ledeen, “The Israeli Connection,” in Michael Samuels et al, eds., The Washington Review, (May 1978).
15. Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion: An Autobiography, (NY: Delacorte Press, 1977), p, 263; Dan Kurzman, Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp. 405-406.
16. Bar-Zohar, pp. 263-264.
17. Rapoport, 1980, p. 192; Haggai Erlich. The Struggle Over Eritrea, (CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983), p. 57.
18. Walter Eytan, The First Ten Years, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1958), p. 178; Bar-Zohar, p. 261; Rapoport, 1980, p. 192; Churba, pp. 140-141; Erlich, p. 57.
19. Jacob, p. 176.
20. Erlich, pp. 58-59.
21. Erlich, p. 59; Raman Bhardwaj, The Dilemma of the Horn of Africa, (India: Sterling Publishers, Ltd., 1979), p. 159; Gitelson, in Curtis and Gitelson, pp. 192-196.
22. Interview with former Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia, Chanan Aynor, April, 1987.
23. Interviews with Chanan Aynor and Professor Haggai Erlich, April 1987.
24. Ledeen, op. cit.: Jack Anderson, Washington Post, (January 2, 1985).
25. Peter Schwab, “Israel's Weakened Position on the Horn of Africa,” New Outlook, (April 1978); Joseph Kraft, “Letter From Addis Ababa,” The New Yorker, (July 31, 1978), p. 60; Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, (London: NLB, 1981), p. 215.
26. Harold Marcuss, Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941- / 974, (CA: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 85-88.
27. Halliday and Molyneux, p. 223.
28. Kraft, p. 60.
29. Foreign Report, (Economist Newspapers, Ltd., January 20, 1983).
30. Africa Confidential, (December 12, 1984); Jack Anderson, Washington Post, (January 2, 1985); The Economist, (November 22, 1984).

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