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Sunday 14 July 2024


Parallels and puzzles – role of African and Arab regimes in Palestine and apartheid SA

8 June, 2024
A boy holds a Palestinian flag during a demonstration to express support for the people of Palestine, in Cape Town, South Africa, October 9, 2023 [Esa Alexander/Reuters]
A boy holds a Palestinian flag during a demonstration to express support for the people of Palestine, in Cape Town, South Africa, October 9, 2023 [Esa Alexander/Reuters]
A major factor that distinguishes the South African liberation Struggle from that of Palestine was the support the SA movement received from the larger Arab and African communities.

As South Africa celebrated 30 years since the end of apartheid in April, the Israeli version of this cruel system is unrelenting in its drive to eliminate the Palestinian population. Many have compared the scale of Gaza’s devastation to what Nazi Germany did during WW2.

But what is equally shocking is the aversion of major Arab regimes to put serious pressure on the United States, the sole veto-wielding power in the UN Security Council that has consistently blocked all attempts to institute a ceasefire in Gaza. 

The puzzle is why were African leaders able to defy Western bullying and isolate apartheid South Africa back then, while major Arab regimes are now cosying up to apartheid Israel and the West?

Apartheid was officially developed and later implemented by the former National Party in South Africa after it won the “whites only” election on 5 June 1948. This was the same year the British allowed their mandate over Palestine to expire, after which the Zionists declared the founding of Israel and the commencement of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

But this narrative gives short shrift to the much longer Zionist effort to take over Palestine. 

Columbia University’s Professor Rashid Khalidi’s 2020 book titled, “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” points to a much longer period of dispossession and the making of apartheid in Israel.

A united strategy against South Africa

Despite the parallels between these apartheid systems, there were and are important differences between the two historic liberation struggles. A major factor that distinguishes the South African liberation Struggle from that of Palestine was the support the SA movement received from the larger Arab and African communities.

Post-colonial Africans, including North Africans, gave the South African Struggle unreserved assistance despite most countries being poor. Egypt provided a moral voice for much of Africa via the “Voice of Africa” beaming from Radio Cairo.

Libya stood out in providing resources for the liberation struggle, while other Arab states in the Middle East voted in favour of sanctioning South Africa at the United Nations. Others, including the newly liberated Algeria (1962), offered military, diplomatic and moral support. 

But the countries that paid the highest price in opposing Pretoria were the frontline states of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Botswana.

Not all sub-Saharan leaders were on the right side of history either. 

The Hastings Banda regime in Malawi recognised the racist regime as legitimate and had the shame of being the lone independent African country to establish diplomatic relations with Pretoria at the height of the Struggle.

Others, such as Ivory Coast, were engaged with Pretoria in a less significant fashion. 

But Nigeria’s 1975 response to the American effort to seduce African governments to work with South Africa most poignantly captured Africa’s commitment to liberation. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was on his way to Nigeria when his invitation was cancelled due to American policy towards South Africa.

The early phase of Arab unity against Israel

Similarly, Arab governments were committed to the liberation of Palestine, but that devotion dissipated among Arab regimes after the end of the 1973 war. 

The first Israeli confrontation with Arab states was during the Suez Crisis in 1956 when France, Britain and Israel invaded Egypt to recapture control of the Suez Canal from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolutionary government.

US President Dwight Eisenhower intervened and compelled the invaders to withdraw from Egyptian territory. 

Eleven years later, the next major confrontation between Israel and the Arabs took place as the former preemptively attacked once Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran (on the Red Sea) in 1967. Jordan and Syria immediately joined the war.

But within six days, the Arab militaries were utterly defeated and Israel conquered the last remaining Palestinian territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River and Qaza, along with Egypt’s Sinai and Syria’s Golan Heights.

From here on, Israelis began to systematically establish illegal Jewish settlements and displace Palestinian natives in East Jerusalem and the newly occupied territories. 

Over 700,000 Jewish settlers now occupy the West Bank and have turned the rest of the Palestinian territories into what the renowned Israeli scholar, Ilan Pappe, labelled as “the biggest prison on Earth”.

From the early years of African independence until the aftermath of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, a significant majority of African countries established diplomatic relations with Israel. However, that changed in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when Arabs called on their African friends to isolate Israel.

Six years after their humiliating defeat, Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked the Israeli military in October 1973. Egypt made some progress into Sinai while the Syrians did not advance in the Golan Heights. 

Shocked by this development, America urgently airlifted a massive volume of weapons ($2.2-billion) to Israel. 

The Arab oil-producing states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – who were deeply worried that public uprisings might unhinge their dynasties – retaliated and imposed the first Arab oil embargo on America.

The Arab betrayal

Most of the major and wealthy Arab regimes have dropped their commitment to Palestinian liberation in the last 50 years. 

Egypt normalised its relationship with Israel after the Camp David Accord. As a result of this pact, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. 

Subsequently, Egypt became the second largest recipient of American aid in the world. Further, Egypt has been a partner of Israel in the total blockade of Gaza since 2007.

Syria, hobbled by an authoritarian dynastic rule and its own civil war, has been neutralised. 

King Abdullah of Jordan has been the most outspoken Arab leader against Israel. However, his rhetorical critique is a consequence of two political realities in the Kingdom. First, Jordan has the largest Palestinian population in the region outside Palestine. Second, the regime is significantly dependent on American aid to sustain its economy.

This means that the Jordanian dynasty is verbally critical of the Israeli regime to appease its Palestinian population, but without alienating its American backers. 

Iraq was neutralised after the US illegally invaded it over two decades ago.

The Gulf states (except for Qatar) of Bahrain, UAE and Oman are itching to recognise Israel. Saudi Arabia was on the cusp of establishing full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv before October 2023 but has postponed that decision until the current crisis passes.

The dynasty in Morocco recognised Israel in 2020. 

In contrast, Algeria, given its settler colonial history, has been a champion of the Palestinian cause, while Libya has been missing in action due to its political fragmentation.

In a nutshell, the major oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and so on, have two weaknesses that inhibit them from challenging the status quo. First, all these countries are governed by dynasties protected by American power. Second, most of their money is in Western banks and is vulnerable to American sanctions.

It is not only key Arab regimes that betrayed the Palestinian liberation struggle. 

Many sub-Saharan African states have re-established relations with Israel. In some instances, countries like Malawi went further and allowed some of their citizens to move to Israel as guest workers, thus replacing Palestinians. 

Recently, the president of Kenya, William Ruto, announced that Kenyans will be able to secure jobs in Israel amid the war in Gaza.

Finally, the debate on Israeli-African relations came to a head last year at the African Union when South Africa challenged Israel’s observer status at the continental body.  


An ancient Somali proverb says “you do not eat filth because you are hungry”. The moral of the proverb is that human dignity demands profound sacrifices to realise salvation. 

Except for a handful of small countries, most sub-Saharan states chose dignity over Western patronage and tenaciously confronted Pretoria and its allies until liberation.  

Similarly, all Arab states supported the liberation of Palestine until the 1973 war. However, their commitment to the Palestinian cause has waned since 1979.

Subsequently, some of the most influential and wealthiest Arab regimes abandoned Palestine as they craved Western acceptance and/or patronage.

The moral clarity and formidable tenacity that characterised Arab and African support for South African liberation is tragically lacking among these Arab dynasties and many of the new breed of African leaders when Palestine needs it the most.


The article was first published in DM and republished with the kind permission of the author.