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President Uhuru Kenyatta’s official visit to Israel this week raises serious questions about Kenya’s foreign policy. The regime in Tel Aviv is arguably the most racist and islamophobic in Israel’s history. Israeli leaders have advocated for the murder of Palestinian children, the expulsion of refugees and even the banning of books that portray Arab-Jewish couples.

A few years ago, a mentor of mine gave me a lesson in Kenya’s diplomatic rule of thumb. “We always side with the bully.” My mentor went ahead to give me fine examples: the Kenya government’s reluctance to boycott the apartheid South African government, our enthusiastic support of the US-led global war on terror and, perhaps most odiously, our happy friendship with Israel.

This rule couldn’t be closer to the truth in the wake of President Kenyatta’s three-day trip to Israel, the first by a Kenyan head of state since 1994. Taking place during an intense period in the West Bank, where close to 160 Palestinians and 28 Israelis have died from stabbing attacks and retaliations by the Israeli government, any other leader from this side of the Equator would have shied away. Not so for Kenya. Complex and intractable conflict or not, we must make our beds.

Kenya’s relationship with the state of Israel dates back to our country’s independence. Israel, already feeling the heat of regional isolation 15 years into its existence after the vicious war of expulsion and genocide of Palestinians in 1948, was keen to establish close ties with newly independent states in the African continent. The ‘natural friendship’ between Kenya and Israel persists even though both countries have no historical or ideological similarities whatsoever. Whereas Kenya engaged in a bitter struggle for independence and self-determination, ultimately attaining self-rule by a majority black population, Israel’s was a struggle of changing masters, from British to Jewish against a terrorised and oppressed Palestinian people.

It goes without saying that Kenyans have fundamental historical similarities with Palestinians who continue to live under apartheid and segregation (when it comes to the West Bank settlements), discrimination (in the case of Arab citizens of Israel) or in an open-air prison in Gaza (which is similar to the forced villagisation and siege many Kenyans endured during the darkest days of British colonial occupation).

Granted, Kenya’s relationship with Israel is not without its ups and downs: Kenya severed ties with Israel in 1973 when Arab countries leveraged their massive oil wealth to compel pro-Palestinian solidarity in the wake of the Yom Kippur war. However, Kenya and Israel were back to friendly terms in 1988 when the Moi regime needed an infusion of weapons to battle the pro-democracy movement and its erstwhile Western partners were unwilling to supply them.
In researching for this piece, I encountered an unprecedented level of opacity in the historical record. For instance, I hadn’t been aware that President Moi made a trip to Israel in 1944. Perhaps this is another rule in the foreign policy docket of our government: keep as much information about our foreign affairs away from the public as possible. Since 1988, Kenya has received weapons, training and ‘intelligence cooperation’ from the Israeli government. It’s a relationship that suits our elites: as a major player in the arms market, Israel cultivates close ties with countries that cannot procure (better) weapons from pro-democracy Western nations who require anti-corruption, governance and human rights safeguards that are deemed too strict by the likes of the Myanmar military junta or unaccountable Kenya Ministry of Defence. Kenya’s defence budget, a wild figure that is out of touch with our modest means, is said to be a major conduit for corruption and embezzlement.

Israel’s supposed training of Kenyan security personnel is even more nefarious. With training and intelligence cooperation, Kenya has increasingly adopted Israel’s racist counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) policies including the controversial policy of targeted assassinations of radical Muslim clerics. Although this policing tactic has become prominent in Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategies, its effectiveness (as with CT and COIN in general) has been unproven and might even contribute to the entrenchment of terrorism as a global problem.

This week, President Kenyatta travels to meet with what is arguably the most racist and islamophobic government in Israel’s history, which is saying a lot. High profile Israeli leaders, including members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet have advocated for the murder of Palestinian children, the expulsion of refugees and the banning of books that portray Arab-Jewish couples.

In his ‘Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel’, Max Blumenthal reported that anti-black racism is so steeped in Israeli society that diplomats from African countries requested for extra security in after continued harassment from the public. To date, Israel has established an internment camp for refugees in the Naqab (Negev) to specifically serve African refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution in countries such as South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea while they awaited their ultimate refoulement. Last year, Israel and Rwanda signed an agreement whereby the Rwandese government would receive refugees expelled from Israel for a fee. Kenya had initially been offered this opportunity by Israel but refused based on its own large refugee community and, presumably, its own increasing animosity towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Over half a century of Kenya-Israel relations have eroded any values-based diplomacy by our government. Today, Kenya happily invests itself in the Israel colonial model outside the areas of security and defence adopting Israeli ‘land reclamation’ tactics steeped in a legacy of occupation and land-theft, toying with the idea of taking in rejected asylum applicants from Israel, even opening doors for Israeli companies to compete in sensitive tender matters such as passport control and food security. More worryingly, Kenya is abandoning its previous tendency to criticise certain Israeli policies in the international arena. For instance, in September 2015, Kenya voted to bar inspections to Israeli nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Kenyan citizens passed a Constitution in 2010 whereby the country’s foreign policy must conform to constitutional values and principles. Kenyans must demand accountability from its leaders on how it behaves on the international arena. A first step would be to demand an answer on Kenya’s wavering commitment to the independence and self determination of the Palestinian people.

* Kenne Mwikya is Secretary General of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement.



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