x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israel quick to protect its sub-Saharan African interests

Arrival of Israeli military advisers in Nairobi a day after Islamic militants took over a shopping mall show the country's commitment to its long-term ally.

JERUSALEM // History, diplomacy and hard-eyed economics mean Israel’s involvement in attempts to end the Nairobi mall siege come as no surprise.

Only 3,700 kilometres from Tel Aviv, Nairobi maintain ones of the strongest business, intelligence and military relationships with Israel of any nation in the region.

“Kenya is one of the most important countries for Israel in all Africa,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa. “There are significant historical and economic ties between them, and I would put its importance close to Egypt and Nigeria.”

Those relations have even grown stronger than ties with South Africa, once a staunch ally of Israel that has increasingly become a critic of its policies towards Palestinians.

And the Westgate is partially owned by Israelis, making it a target for Al Shabab Islamist militants from neighbouring Somalia.

The relationship between the two countries was not always so cosy.

Kenya broke off ties with Israel in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, ending a budding relationship in medicine and agriculture.

That also complicated a daring Israeli mission in 1976 to rescue the hostages held at Entebbe airport in neighbouring Uganda, then led by the pro-Palestinian dictator Idi Amin.

Carrying commandos from Israel, a fleet of C130 Hercules cargo planes required refuelling before attempting to free primarily Israeli and Jewish hostages whose Paris-bound El Al flight had been hijacked by Palestinian and German radicals.

Ultimately, Nairobi gave permission to refuel. What followed was a rescue mission, known as Operation Entebbe, that became the stuff of lore in Israel.

Israeli commandos managed to land at the airport and then fight their way to the 106 passengers still held hostage by the hijackers, who had released most of the non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers. Only three of the hostages died in the rescue. Several dozen Ugandan soldiers and all seven hijackers were killed during the operation, which ended with the freed hostages being flown to Nairobi.

The death that made headlines during the operation was that of Yonatan Netanyahu, a decorated soldier and commander of the Entebbe team who was the only commando killed.

Netanyahu holds legendary status among Israelis. His reputation still rivals – if not overshadows – that of his brother Benjamin, the Israeli prime minister.

Even though their diplomatic ties were not restored until 1988, Kenyan-Israeli relations began to improve, and eventually flourish, under Daniel arap Moi.

Kenyan president for nearly 25 years, Mr Moi oversaw a dramatic deepening in commercial and political ties in which the two countries become partners in diplomatic and military matters.

The year he left office, in 2002, Islamist militants attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing three Israelis and 10 Kenyans. At almost the same time as the attack on the hotel, militants fired two surface-to-air missiles at a Tel Aviv-bound aircraft operated by the Israel-based Arkia Airlines. The plane narrowly avoided being hit shortly after taking off from the city’s Mombasa’s international airport.

After the Mombasa attacks, the Israeli military immediately sent three Hercules aircraft to evacuate dozens of Israelis from Mombasa.

The speed of Israel’s reported involvement after Saturday’s mall attack suggests its interests and ties with Kenya appear as robust as ever. And so too, it would seem, is its willingness and opportunity to shore them up when necessary.

hnaylor@thenational.ae