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Why Israel Deserves a Break

Why Israel Deserves a Break

May 18, 2010

Social Sciences & Humanities

On Madaraka Day [June 1: the day Kenya obtained self-rule from the British], in a sharp departure from its past neutral positions on Middle East issues, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a widely circulated statement harshly condemning Israel for its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla.

Characterising the Israeli use of force as blatant, grossly callous, brazen and illegal, the ministry stated it wanted to reinforce the message of the international community. Of course it is regrettable that deaths occurred when members of the Israeli Defence Force boarded the ship.

But it is both legal and legitimate, according to international practice, to enforce a blockade in times of recognised conflicts. Several countries have done that without attracting any condemnation. An example is the well-known US naval blockade of Japan during World War II.

Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza are in conflict, after the well-known position held by Hamas calling Israel’s destruction. The blockade is merely aimed at preventing entry of military hardware, as civilian supplies can be channelled through the Israeli sea-port of Ashdod.

If you live in southern Israel, the fact of Israeli-Hamas conflict is obvious. As a Kenyan living in the Israeli region bordering the Hamas-controlled Gaza, it is hard not to notice some of the peculiarities of the place. Those who reside on the Israeli side of the Gaza border feel quite besieged by Hamas.

Why would Kenya want to change its foreign policy with regard to Israel? The Israeli-Kenyan relationship has a long history that goes beyond the foundation of either of the two modern states. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the then Colonial Secretary and empire builder declared after visiting Kenya that a Jewish homeland should be founded in the Greater Uasin Gishu and Mau region.

A huge chunk of Rift-valley and western provinces (Western, Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces which were then part of Uganda) were to be hived off for Israeli settlement with the approval of the international community.

In Europe, Theodore Herzl (the Zionist leader) and Jews singing Psalm 137 refused, while locally, Lord Delamere, in a series of articles to local and British newspapers, denounced the plan. He spared us from a land crisis that would have had far more repercussions than the situation that currently obtains.

It was Tom Mboya who would be the architect of Kenya-Israeli relationship one year before Kenya’s Madaraka. In a visit to Israel in 1962, he delivered an acclaimed speech at the iconic Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The following year, Israel would honour Kenya by being the first country to construct its embassy in Kenya; the foundation stone was laid by Jomo Kenyatta and Prime Minister Golda Meir.

This marked the beginning of a cultural, technical and security collaboration that exists between Israel and Kenya to this day. With its flexible travel requirements and open doors, generations of Kenyan tourists and honeymoon holiday-makers have visited Israel.

There are no ridiculous educational or other dubious requirements for Kenyans. And for religious pilgrims, Jerusalem is about the only place in the Middle East where you would find the Lord’s Prayer engraved in large letters in Kiswahili. Prior to the 2002 attempted missile attack on an Israeli airliner carrying tourists, Jews had visited Kenya in droves.

In the related attack on Paradise Hotel, terrorists killed 13 Kenyans and Israelis. The aftermath of these events showed terrorists had achieved their purposes. El Al withdrew from our route, rupturing the only direct flights between Kenya and Israel. One wonders who is the loser.

Dr Osanjo is a research fellow, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.