In 1956, diplomatic relations were established with Ghana, followed by most countries south of the Sahara; by the early 1970s, Israel maintained full diplomatic relations with thirty-three countries in the region. These ties were an expression of African affinity with Israel, itself a young state that had achieved independence in 1948 and was eager to share its experience and expertise with the newly independent African states. Mutually beneficial economic ties were also developed, including many joint ventures. In 1958, then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir sent Jewish technocrats to help newly independent African countries get on their feet.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Israel helped establish agricultural cooperatives, youth training programs, medical infrastructure and joint industrial enterprises in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan countries. In 1962, Newsweek called the Israeli program “one of the strangest unofficial alliances in the world.”
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, followed by the global oil crisis, most of the Sub-Saharan countries severed diplomatic ties with Israel, due to two prime factors: promises of cheap oil and financial aid, and compliance with the OAU (Organization of African Unity) resolution, sponsored by Egypt, calling for the severing of relations with Israel. Only Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland maintained full diplomatic relations with Israel, while a few other countries sustained contact through interest offices in foreign embassies. Commercial ties did, however, continue to some extent; African students participated in training courses in Israel; and Israeli experts were active throughout the continent.
Since the 1980s, however, diplomatic relations with Sub-Saharan countries have been gradually renewed, gaining momentum as peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors progressed. By the late 1990s, official ties had been reestablished with forty countries south of the Sahara.
Today, Israel and the Sub-Saharan countries are engaged in an ongoing political dialogue, expressed in reciprocal visits by heads of state and government ministers. Furthermore, dynamic activities exist, including economic and commercial ties, cultural and academic contacts, a variety of joint agricultural projects, medical assistance, professional training programs and humanitarian aid in times of need.
Israel, which was regularly invited as an observer at OAU meetings, has followed with interest the process of political and economic integration in Africa and the creation of the African Union. As an expression of friendship and solidarity, Israel has reiterated its commitment to work together with the emerging institutions and organizations in Africa, adding another chapter to its unique relations with this continent.
In 2014, the world experienced a terrible outbreak of the disease Ebola, which spread from Africa and killed over 10,000 people in 8 different countries in the span of less than 2 months. To help combat the spread of Ebola, Israel sent teams of medical professionals along with pop-up emergency clinics to the affected countries, as well as sterile inflatable tents manufactured by Israeli company SYS Technologies to assist with quarantine. These special inflatable isolation tents were installed in countries hit hardest by the outbreak such as Guinea and are extremely effective in isolating the patient and protecting their surroundings and the people around them from the disease. One of the main symptoms of Ebola is an elevated body temperature and fever, so Israel also provided African airports with infrared cameras to measure body heat of people travelling in and out of the country. It was reported in late December 2014 by UNICEF that Israel made per capita the greatest contributions to fight the 2014 outbreak of Ebola. In total Israel pledged $8.75 million to fight the spread of Ebola during 2014’s epidemic and additionally sent many fully trained medical staff members and fully stocked mobile medical clinics.
Muslim Religious leaders from various African countries arrived in Israel on March 14, 2016, to explore cooperative possibilities with the state of Israel. The nine Imams and other leaders visited Israel courtesy of the Africa Division, the World Jewish and Interreligious Affairs Bureau of the Israel Foreign Ministry, and the American Jewish Committee. During their trip the African leaders held meetings with their Israeli counterparts as well as politicians, visited holy sites, and toured Israeli cities. Immediately upon returning from his visit to South Africa, Foreign Ministry Director General Dr. Dore Gold held meetings with the African delegation.
Various African religious leaders from the Vuka Africa Foundation and the Institute for Christian Leadership Development, among others, visited Israel in late July 2016. The leaders gathered in Jerusalem and met with Israeli government officials to discuss cooperation along religious lines.
Leaders and representatives from many African countries met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2016. The latest in Israeli innovation and technology was presented to the African leaders from Israeli companies, such as Energyia Global Capital. Following these meetings, Energyia Global’s CEO Yosef Abramowitz announced plans to invest $2 billion in Africa by 2020.
In late November 2016, eleven African diplomats representing seven African nations met with Israeli government officials and toured sites beyond the 1967 lines including the Western Wall and the City of David. The representatives, from Ethiopia, Zambia, Cameroon, Ghana, Angola, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, had lunch with Israeli officials and Knesset members after being taken to a closed-off area underneath Robinson’s Arch where they touched the foundation stones of the Western Wall and took time for personal reflection.
The government of Israel announced a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Power Africa program in November 2017. The United States has diplomatic representatives in every African country, and the Israeli government will use this clout to negotiate energy contracts where there is no official Israeli presence.
As of April 2019, Israel had full diplomatic relations with 41 out of 46 sub-Saharan African countries and embassies in 11 out of 54 African countries: Rwanda, Senegal, Egypt, Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Cameroon.
On February 3, 2020, Sudan’s military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and agreed to work toward normalizing relations. One explanation for Sudan, a member of the Arab League, to recognize Israel is the hope that it will help Sudan’s campaign to persuade Washington to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Innovation Africa, an Israeli organization dedicated to improving the lives of rural villagers in Africa, has provided the people they serve with access to many Israeli technologies. Solar panels have been installed in Malawian, Ugandan, Tanzanian, and South African villages by Innovation Africa, allowing residents to light their homes and school buildings, as well as refrigerate food and medicine. The solar panels also facilitate connectivity and improve dissemination of information, allowing residents to charge electronics like cell phones and laptops. Israeli drip irrigation systems have been installed in villages by Innovation Africa, which has dramatically improved water management, and driven down the price of produce while providing for larger crop yields. A manual pump that makes all types of water, even sewage, drinkable without the use of electricity, has been installed in many villages to guarantee safe water. Since its establishment in 2008, Innovation Africa has brought electricity, clean water, food, and improved medical care to over 1 million individuals. The organization was founded by a woman and features a mostly female leadership team.
David Bisnowaty was born in Israel, but spent much of his childhood in Africa and moved to South Africa in the 1980’s. After the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Bisnowaty and his wife decided to move to Malawi, where they settled and raised children. In May 2014 Bisnowaty was elected to the Malawi National Assembly, although he believes he is the only Jewish person in the country of more than 16 million.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu, along with a large group of Zambian government ministers, arrived for a 5-day visit to Israel on February 27, 2017. At a joint press conference with President Lungu, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that Israel would soon be sending experts to the African country to help with alternative energy, with water and other areas. Zambia is one of the few African countries with an official attaché in Israel; the Zambian embassy in Israel opened its doors in 2015.
Israeli specialists arrived in Zambia in January 2018 to assist with a serious outbreak of cholera. The Israelis brought with them clean water technologies, as well as food, aid, and medical supplies.
In June 2004, Israel and Ethiopia signed an agreement for cultural, educational and scientific cooperation, as well as a convention eliminating double taxation.
In 2011, Israel formalized diplomatic relations with the newly established country of South Sudan.
Israeli firm Gigawatt Global, in coordination with Norfund and Scatec Solar, began a project to increase solar energy capacity in Rwanda during February 2014. With the help of these innovative companies the first major solar-power farm in East Africa was finished in July 2014, just a few months later. Construction of the plant provided jobs to 350 locals, and increased Rwanda’s power generation capacity by a full six percent. During its first year in operation the plant produced 15 million kilowatt hours and brought power to over 15,000 underserved Rwandan residents. The power plant is monitored by professionals in Oslo, Norway.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia during the first week of July 2016, with hopes of fostering stronger ties with the African nations and forging alliances in the United Nations general assembly. Netanyahu met with leaders of seven African countries at a summit in Uganda to discuss cooperation in the counterterrorism, energy, agriculture, and water technology sectors. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told Netanyahu that he would work with other African leaders to grant Israel observer status in the 54-state African Union once again. While Netanyahu was in Africa visiting other African leaders, the Tanzanian government announced that they would be opening an embassy in Israel. Following Netanyahu’s visit, it was announced that Kenya would be working with Israeli counter-terrorism officials to build a 440-mile wall along its border with Somalia, to prevent the spread of terrorism. The visit was the first ever visit of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister to Kenya, the first ever “high-level contact” between leaders of Somalia and Israel, and the first visit of an Israeli leader to sub-Saharan Africa in 30 years.
In September 2016, over one-hundred Rwandan agronomists and agronomy students travelled to Israel to participate in an 11-week internship program through the Kinneret Academic College and Agrostudies Center. Agricultural mechanization and irrigation were the main focuses of the program, but trainees also learned skills dealing with cattle milking and the milk value chain, sheep husbandry and poultry production, fruit-tree framing, vegetable harvesting, and post-harvest techniques. Upon their return, the Rwandan government expects the agronomists to increase the country’s capacity for food exports, and generally expedite agricultural development.
Israeli relief teams coordinated by the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation provided and distributed over 6 tons of food aid to drought-stricken South Sudan in August 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Kenya on November 28, 2017, for a whirlwind one-day trip including meetings with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia as well as the Presidents of Gabon, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Botswana and Namibia. Netanyahu arrived in Kenya just hours after the country’s re-elected President, Uhuru Kenyatta, was inaugurated for his new term. Upon the Israeli Prime Minister’s arrival Kenyatta personally received Netanyahu at his residence, and the two sat next to each other during Kenyatta’s post-inauguration luncheon.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited Ethiopia with a delegation of business and community leaders in May 2018, the first ever Israeli Head of State to do so. Rivlin met with government officials to discuss cooperation in various areas, and also held meetings with Falash Mura community members waiting to emigrate to Israel.
Israel opened its first embassy in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 1, 2019. “Rwanda is a true friend of Israel and is one of the mainstays of Israel’s long-standing friendship with the continent,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement announcing the event. “Like Israel, Rwanda is a small country with great capabilities and aspirations. The opening of the embassy reflects the continued strengthening of relations between the two countries and will enable the expansion of cooperation in many fields, including education, women’s empowerment, science and technology, innovation and agriculture.”
The Rwandan national airline RwandAir announced it will be operating three flights a week from Kigali to Tel Aviv, which will encourage tourism, especially for Christian pilgrims, and strengthen trade ties between the business communities.
Chabad has opened its first center in Kigali, Rwanda, which becomes the African nation’s first synagogue served by a permanent rabbi. They serve under the auspices of Chabad of Central Africa led by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Trauma and Intensive Care Unit at Benjamin Mkapa Hospital (BMH) in Tanzanians saved the lives of more than 2,000 people, who were admitted to the health facility while in critical condition since its establishment in 2018. Without the facility, BMH Executive Director, Dr Alphonce Chandika, said, “we could have lost 70 per cent of the people who were received to the Trauma Unit, while in critical condition.” Israel set up the health facility through Mashav and doctors from Israel continue offering training to their counterparts at BMH.
In April 2008, a trade agreement signed signaled a significant upgrading of Israeli aid to Africa. The joint declaration on trade and economic cooperation was signed in Jerusalem by government ministers from the African nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Benin and Liberia and Israel’s Minister of Trade and Industry Eli Yishai and includes an Israeli commitment to help the African countries build infrastructure and technology, while also seeking to open new export markets for Israeli industries.
Israel renewed it ties with Ghana after nearly four decades of no formal diplomatic relations, in September 2011.
In November 2012, Israel provided the University of Ghana with a $217 million loan to construct a 600-bed teaching hospital at Legon. Ernest Aryeetey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, said the project would be a model of the Sheba Medical Centre in Israel.
The Israeli Embassy in Senegal inaugurated a drip-irrigation farm project in the Senegalese city of Fatick in December 2014. This project will be run by a group of Senegalese women and was undertaken at the request of the first lady of Senegal, Marième Faye Sall. The Israeli drip-irrigation system will be hugely beneficial to fighting poverty in the drought-stricken country, as it helps farmers better regulate their water usage and saves more crops from going bad. It is estimated that 75% of Senegalese citizens are farmers in at least some capacity, so this irrigation system will have a large impact on life in Senegal when it is adopted more widely. The first phase of the project involves twenty farm plots stretching 500 square meters. Many important Senegalese figures attended the inauguration of this farm, including Senegal’s Minister of Women, Family and Children, Anta Sarr, the Mayor of Fatick, the District Governor, and the Israeli embassy staff.
In May 2014, the Africa-Israel Initiative was launched in Ghana, with the expressed goal of lobbying and advocating for Israel’s strength and survival. The Initiative has since become a global player in the Israel advocacy movement. The organization’s mission statement calls members to “raise the importance of the state of Israel and the Jewish people to the community.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf travelled to Israel in June 2016 to receive an honorary Doctorate from the University of Haifa for her work promoting women’s equality and other human rights issues. Sirleaf brought with her to Israel Liberia’s Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Trade Minister, and Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism. During her visit she spoke and met with various Israeli leaders including Benjamin Netanyahu, Reuven Rivlin, and Yuval Steinitz, and also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum.
On July 20, 2016, two weeks after the Israeli Prime Minister’s trip, Israel and the West African country of Guinea announced that they would be renewing diplomatic ties after 49 years. Guinea was the first African nation to sever ties with Israel following the 1967 war but enjoyed cordial relations with Israel even in the absence of diplomatic ties during the subsequent years.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Director General Dore Gold visited the African Muslim-majority country of Guinea during the third week of August 2016, the first ever visit of Israeli diplomats to the country. Gold met with Guinean President Alfa Conde, as well as 10 other government ministers during his visit. Israel has no formal relations with Guinea, and the trip was kept largely secret due to security concerns.
Following a vote at the United Nations Security Council that condemned Israeli settlements as illegal in early 2017, the Israeli government severed aid to Angola and Senegal for their support of the resolution.
After devastating rains and mudslides claimed the lives of 300 and displaced thousands in Sierra Leone during August 2017, Israel was the first country to send international aid teams. Within 24 hours of hearing about the tragic situation in the country, Israeli trucks were in the disaster-stricken areas distributing 20,000 portions of food and other aid.
Approximately 50 individuals living in Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) converted to Judaism in January 2018, in ceremonies facilitated by the Kulanu organization. Kulanu had been in touch with the community since 2012 and had been providing them with materials for worship and religious items. During the conversion process members of the community engaged in ritual bathing and answered questions in front of a Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) with members who came from Israel and the United States. Following the conversions, the Rabbis performed the first Jewish weddings ever held in the country, for six newly converted Jewish couples. Since the community does not have access to kosher meat, they follow a pescatarian diet, and members generally observe Sephardic Orthodox customs.
The Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Israeli government in June 2018, under which fifty students from Ghana will receive a one-year paid internship in Israel training in Israeli modern agriculture practices. Ghanaian Food and Agriculture Minister Owusu Afriyie Akoto stated when they return, they will set them up with greenhouses. We are going to make business farmers out of [the students].
On November 25, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, and other members of his government to Jerusalem. This was the first visit by a president of Chad to Israel. Chad formally cut diplomatic ties with Israel in September 1972. Netanyahu visited Chad in January 2019 and diplomatic ties were restored. The improvement in ties is important for Israel because Chad is the fifth biggest country in Africa. It is also an Arabic-speaking country – even though it is not a member of the Arab League.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) chose Israel as the site of their first ever seminar to take place outside of Africa. Agricultural Ministers and representatives from 13 of the 15 nation-members of ECOWAS attended the 3-day agricultural summit, titled “enhancing sustainable agricultural productivity in arid and semi-arid regions,” in Jerusalem beginning on December 5, 2016. Mali and Niger, the two ECOWAS members who do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, did not send representatives.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu briefly travelled to Liberia to attend the annual ECOWAS summit in June 2017, where he met with 10 African leaders one-on-one for approximately 30 minutes each. During his visit Netanyahu also formally addressed all 15 ECOWAS heads of state, as well as the head of the African Union, for the first time. While Netanyahu held meetings with African leaders, Israeli officials signed a MOU pledging to invest $1 billion by 2021 to advance green energy and power projects in all 15 ECOWAS member countries. The first project under this MOU will be a $20 million commercial-scale solar field at the Roberts international airport in Liberia, which will have the capacity to supply 25% of the country’s power.
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