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Why the African Union should weigh in on the Gaza crisis

Unlike its ambiguous response to the Russia-Ukraine war, the AU’s position on the destruction of Gaza has been clear.

Although not an African crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict does affect the continent. However not all African Union (AU) member states see the need to be involved in searching for solutions. They consider it an external issue despite its global context and the threat it poses to Africa.

Should African leaders play a role in the international effort to silence the guns in Gaza? And could this bolster the AU’s growing global agency?

The conflict already directly and indirectly affects Africa’s economic, diplomatic and security landscape. Solidarity shown by citizens has added to an already tense relationship between security forces and protesters in various countries. In Kenya, police disrupted a pro-Palestine protest with heavy-handedness despite prior permission for the demonstration. Similar protests have been registered in countries like Egypt and South Africa.

On top of the multiple effects of COVID-19, climate change and the Russia-Ukraine war, a protracted Middle East crisis could further impede Africa’s recovery from slow economic growth. This could worsen state-citizen relations and increase weak states’ vulnerability to upheaval, impacting political stability. Already, trade disruptions, oil and gas price volatility and rising import costs are a reality. Egypt’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, remittances and revenues from the Suez Canal, has been hit hard.

The AU has to balance its longstanding support for Palestine with some members’ growing relations with Israel

The Gaza crisis also complicates relations among African countries, between the AU and Israel, and between Africa and Israel’s major allies. As with the Russia-Ukraine war, the conflict is deepening divisions in the AU between those who support Israel’s right to self-defence and those who prioritise protecting Palestinian lives. The AU’s challenge is to balance its longstanding support for Palestine with the strengthening of relations between Israel and some African countries before last October when Hamas attacked Israel.

Another challenge is that the crisis diverts the attention of development partners and the international community away from Africa’s needs. The United States (US), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have been central to diplomatic efforts to resolve Sudan’s civil war, which has killed over 15 000 people and exposed nearly a million to ‘catastrophic hunger.’ Since the Gaza war began, their focus on resolving Sudan’s crisis and other African insecurities has waned.

As attention shifts from Africa’s crises, deployment and funding of peacekeeping operations to parts of the continent could also be hampered. Despite the recent adoption of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2719 and its potential to improve funding for African peace missions, resources for peace and security efforts are bound to be limited.

Increased military spending in support of Israel by the topmost UN contributor, the US, perpetuates military rather than diplomatic responses to the conflict. It will add to the worrying rise in global military spending that hovered around US$2.2 trillion in 2023. The impact is already clear in the US Congress cap on funding for UN peacekeeping and the UN Human Rights Council. The enormous cost of reconstruction in Gaza, estimated at US$50 billion, could have major implications for Africa’s stability and development. 

At the 37th AU summit, leaders condemned Israel’s offensive and backed South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel

The situation in Gaza is unfolding at a time when the AU’s role as a global actor, envisioned in its Agenda 2063 plan, is increasingly gaining recognition. But to solidify this role, the AU must establish its relevance by contributing answers to multilateral questions. Gaza offers an opportunity for Africa to add to the global search for peace and stability.

Unlike its ambiguous response to the Russia-Ukraine war, the AU’s position on the Gaza crisis has been clear. AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned the violence and called for an end to hostilities. He has underscored the need for international cooperation to provide humanitarian assistance to Gazans and end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in line with international resolutions.

This stance was reaffirmed at the 37th AU summit, where the issue received enormous attention. Africa’s leaders condemned Israel’s offensive and backed South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). An AU delegation made an oral submission at the ICJ hearings into the legal status of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. And the AU urged Israel to comply with the ICJ’s decisions, lift its siege on the Gaza Strip and implement a permanent ceasefire.

The Gaza crisis is unfolding at a time when the AU’s role as a global actor is gaining recognition

Despite the AU’s longstanding support for Palestine – arguably hard-wired into its Pan-African identity – the body could play a useful short-term role beyond adding its voice to ceasefire calls. It could engage Hamas and its backers to soften their stance on the release of Israeli hostages. This would go a long way to resolving one of Israel’s fundamental reasons for the war.

The AU could use Israel’s cordial relationship with most African states to soften Tel Aviv’s resistance to adopting a ceasefire. In line with Article 7(k) of the AU’s Peace and Security Council Protocol, the continental body could consider pressing for enhanced international involvement at the UN level through its diplomatic channels, and the three African members of the Security Council. This could involve support for a robust humanitarian response and diplomatic engagements to avert further escalation of the crisis.

These efforts should be led by the AU Assembly and Commission chairs, drawing lessons from the AU’s previous engagements in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The initiative could help avert catastrophe in Gaza and its implications for the continent, as well as boost Africa’s credibility in global affairs.

This article was first published in the ISS’s PSC Report.

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