By Florence Gichoya
President Uhuru Kenyatta is scheduled to visit Israel on a State Visit at the end of this month. His visit will boost bilateral ties and strengthen security cooperation between the two countries. It will be the second state visit by a Kenyan Head of State, since Moi’s visit in 1994.
Kenya and Israel enjoy cordial relations spanning for over fifty years. Israel was the first country to establish a diplomatic mission in Nairobi. The embassy’s foundation stone was placed on December 10 1963 by the first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta – just two days before Kenya’s independence. Jomo Kenyatta formalized partnership with Israel, in the role of offering specialized training to young Kenyans involved in nation building, after the British colonial government closed shop.
But the diplomatic ties were severed after the Yom Kippur war, between Israel and Egypt in October 1973. Kenya stood in solidarity with member states of the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU) and downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel.
Despite the severing of ties, Israel is indebted to Kenya for the assistance rendered to its security forces, during the hostage rescue mission in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. President Jomo Kenyatta allowed Israeli jets to land and refuel in Kenya in the rescue mission dubbed ‘Operation Thunderbolt’. Palestinian militants had hijacked an Air France flight with 248 passengers on board. They rerouted the plane to Entebbe Airport, Uganda with cooperation from former dictator Idi Amin.
The diplomatic ties officially resumed in December 23 1988. And Kenya’s diplomatic mission in Israel was established in 1994, shortly after President Moi’s visit.
Israel’s contribution to Kenya’s development
Over the years, both countries have cooperated in the area of agriculture, security, education, health, technology transfer, irrigation development and water management. The famed National Youth Service (NYS) was modeled after Israeli’s Gadna program. Gadna recruits thousands of youth annually, they go through a military training and are encouraged to embrace patriotism and volunteerism.
Despite having a pre-dominant semi-arid topography, Israel is a leading producer of agricultural products. Kenya has partnered with Israel in efforts to improve food security in the country. The Galana Kulalu irrigation project located in Kilifi and Tana River counties is a model setup that shows how an arid area can be transformed to be a productive arable land. Green Arava, an Israeli company was awarded the contract to implement the ground-breaking initiative. According to National Irrigation Board (NIB), Galana Kulalu which occupies 1.75million acreage was acquired by Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) in 1989 to act as a buffer zone between local communities and Tsavo East National Park.
The six year project will cost over 260 billion shillings, and is funded by Kenya government and Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV). During the launch of the project, on January 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that the program would address food security in the country. “We aim to produce enough food crops, livestock and fish to feed our people while generating revenue and employment. We are here to address challenges of food security associated with high cost of living, rising food driven inflation, poverty and growing social and political instability.” Uhuru said.
The government has embarked on farming maize, sugarcanes, horticulture, variety fruits and cattle for beef and dairy products. NIB has set ambitious plans of building a dam to hold water that will irrigate 500,000 acres.
Kenya and Israel have suffered numerous terror attacks in the past. After a series of kidnappings on tourists and western nationals, Kenya Defence Forces moved to Somalia to confront Al shabab terrorist group on October 16th 2011. A month later, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited Israel to request assistance on the war on terror. Israeli’s Prime Minister Netanyahu offered support and declared that, “Kenya’s enemies are Israel’s enemies.”
Deputy President William Ruto visited Israel on October 13th 2015 and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Premier who is nicknamed ‘Bibi’ reiterated his support on Kenya’s war on terror. Israel committed to cooperate in sharing intelligence, supplying police equipment and training of Kenya’s security forces. “The ongoing terror attacks are a disease. We are fighting fundamentalists and we must not allow them to succeed. Kenya is our ally in this war.” Netanyahu said.
Kenya’s strong tie with Israel has made the country a soft target of terrorists over the years. Major terror attacks in the country have been leveled at Israeli owned premises. The first terrorist attack was launched on Israeli owned Norfolk Hotel. It was bombed on New Year’s Eve in 1980, 20 people died and over 80 were injured.
The Israeli owned Westgate Shopping Mall was attacked on September 21 2013, by four Al shabab gunmen. 67 people died and 175 were injured.
On November 28 2002, Israeli interests in Mombasa were the target of terror attacks. Israeli owned Paradise Beach Hotel in Kikambala, Mombasa, was bombed by three suicide bombers, 13 civilians were killed and 80 wounded.
A simultaneous attack planned to take down an Israeli chartered flight, Arkia Airline, aborted. The Israeli carrier with 261 passengers on board had taken off from Mombasa International Airport. Minutes later, terrorists launched two surface-to air missiles that narrowly missed the plane, which was en-route to Tel-Aviv. This led to the indefinite cancellation of Israel – Kenya direct flights.
But last year, Kenya Airways launched direct flights to Israel, after bilateral talks were held by both countries. Former Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Liberman, termed the resumption of direct flights as a “victory of life over terror.”
Kenya was almost the Promised Land for Jews
Kenya – Israel relations were cemented way before the establishment of the state of Israel in April 14 1948 and Kenya’s independence in December 12 1963.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Kenya was a British colony going by the name, British East Africa Protectorate. The colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, proposed to the Jewish Zionists, a Jewish settlement in East Africa dubbed ‘Uganda Scheme.’
The autonomous 3.2 million acre territory, currently located in Uasin Gishu County, was to be a safe haven for Jewish émigrés fleeing persecution and anti-Semitism from across the globe.
The founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, presented the idea during the sixth session of the World Zionist Congress, held in 1903 in Basel, Switzerland. The offer was initially supported by majority of the delegates. However, two years later, they politely turned down the British offer, and opted to pursue the creation of an independent Jewish State in their ancestral homeland.
Nevertheless, some Jewish immigrants chose to settle in Kenya and ventured in agriculture and business. In 1904 the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was established.