Unpacking the Israel-Kenya deal to help wage war in Somalia

Israel/Palestine
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Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 14 in Jerusalem (Photo: Israeli Government Press Office)

Kenya’s battle to fight al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist Islamist group in Somalia that has been tied to numerous suicide bombings, is set to be assisted by Israel. The BBC reports:

[The Kenyan prime minister’s office] said Kenya got the backing of Israel to “rid its territory of fundamentalist elements” during Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s visit to the country.

Last month, Kenya sent troops to neighbouring Somalia to defeat al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaeda.

It blames the militants for a spate of abductions on its side of the border.

In a statement, Mr Odinga’s office quotes Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that “Kenya’s enemies are Israel’s enemies”.

There’s an important set of factors driving this deal, and it’s worth unpacking some of them to explain why Israel is assisting Kenya. 

First, Israel’s massive war industry will benefit from Kenyan requests to “help Kenya’s police force detect and destroy al-Shabab’s networks…[and] provide vehicles for border patrols and equipment for sea surveillance to curb piracy off the East African coast.” Israel has sold Kenya military equipment in the past, as ICAHD researcher and independent journalist Jimmy Johnson documents on his new website, but this deal will significantly expand that cooperation. Israeli arms companies will be profiting off a month-long war that has reportedly killed innocent civilians in Somalia.

Second, the deal is another opportunity for Israel to claim that its “enemies” are fundamentalist Islamists akin to al-Qaeda, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed. Netanyahu’s claim is wrong (Hamas has actually cracked down on Islamist fundamentalists in Gaza) but it’s a common trope pushed by the Israeli establishment and U.S. supporters of Israel in order to tie resistance to Israeli occupation to jihadist terrorism.

Third, the help is in line with broader Israeli attempts to “boost military sales in strife-torn Africa.”

There is a history of Israel arming unsavory dictatorships and regimes around the world, from apartheid South Africa to countries in Latin America. As Phyllis Bennis writes in a chapter to Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Israel acted as a “surrogate” for the U.S. during the Cold War in Latin America, Asia and Africa, assisting brutal dictatorships in those regions. Kenya is no dictatorship, but the alleged killing of civilians in Somalia and ongoing investigations into post-election ethnic violence that Kenyan leaders allegedly fomented make clear that Israel has not changed its attitude towards countries that commit human rights abuses–a logical attitude considering Israel’s own war crimes record.

Meanwhile, al Shabaab has slammed the Israel-Kenya deal, and the Associated Press is warning of the potential blow back to Israel Somali militants could inflict. As more innocent Somalis die as a result of Israeli-assisted Kenyan military action, the risk for more bloodshed on both sides increases.

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