OKWANY: What is at stake for Kenyan foreign policy in Israel-Palestine conflict

Taking sides and supporting Israel is likely to trigger al Shabaab reaction and sporadic attacks.

In Summary
  • Kenya should be a champion of such historical peaceful efforts, joining the AU's neutral voice in championing a two-state solution.
  • Just like Turkey, Kenya is at the heart of international relations; more so, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Saturday October 7 2023, Hamas, a Palestinian violent extremist organisation (VEO) and a political party that emerged from the Egyptian Brotherhood doctrine in the 1940s, launched a terror attack on the south of Israel, capturing Israelis as hostages, and killing both civilians and soldiers.

The number of Israeli casualties has risen to more than 5,000 since the Hamas Saturday attack. About 1,450 died in the attack and 5,000 so far been injured by October 20. About 200 Israelis have been abducted by Hamas militia and more than 200 are missing. Israel retaliated after the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that Israel was at war a few hours after the attack, pointing out that the Hamas attacks had consequences.

The retaliation has already led to Israel attacking more than 300 locations in Gaza, more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed, more than 12,500 injured, and more than 2,000 bodies are believed to be buried under the rubble by October 20.

The Israeli military bombed Al-Ahli Arab Hospital on October 17, in the Gaza Strip a day before, killing more than 500 civilians. More than 300,000 Palestinians have been displaced, from the Israeli attacks and tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers are amassing in Gaza as the conflict escalates in its second week.

The Israeli Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, pointed out a complete siege, saying that Israeli authorities would block fuel and food supply, and cut electricity. This has led to the Israeli state's violation of International Humanitarian Law, which stipulates Jus in Bello—justice in war or reducing the suffering of civilians.

Kenya, which is the focus of this writing, already faces the uncertainty of possible al Shabaab attacks after President William Ruto chose a stand in solidarity with Israel and condemned Hamas attacks.

Al Shabaab is a VEO, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia and has been carrying out attacks in Kenya. Further comments from the Ruto administration are expected in the coming days which are likely to impact Kenyan’s security.  

What is the international stance on the conflict?

The Hamas action and Netanyahu’s reaction came to the international arena, indicating the sensitivity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many have condemned the Saturday act with different international actors taking different sides.

President Joe Biden, ‘Blinked’ on Sunday, October 8, and affirmed on October 10 the US's support to Israel, projecting a hawkish posture. Countries such as Germany, Britain and France have taken a firm side on Israel, calling for Israel’s right to defend itself under Article 51 of the United Nations charter.

The Arab world condemns Hamas’ action but takes a firm side of Palestine. The Kremlin in Moscow is in support of Palestinian rights, blaming the US for meddling in the issue, and Iran has also taken sides supporting Palestinian rights. As such, the Saturday attack and Israel’s retaliation are showing the East-West divide in the international arena.

The European Commission took a non-alignment posture, calling for Israel to defend itself responsibly under Jus in Bello. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, condemned the Hamas terror attack but also recognised the grievances of the Palestinian people, calling for humanitarian assistance.

Pope Francis appealed for a ceasefire against war, violence and terrorism, pushing for peace. Turkey has taken a balanced posture—being neutral to the conflict, pushing for the silencing of the guns and calling for peace talks.

Biden’s ‘Blinking’ took a turn with a ‘wolf on sheep skin’ sympathy to the Palestinians. This led Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, refusing to meet Biden in the scheduled talks on October 1, by the Amman administration.

Abbas’ refusal came after the Israeli military bombed Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. The Israeli bombing of al-Ahli attracted further international attention. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union chairperson, condemned the attack on the hospital and called for a long-term two-state solution in relation to the Oslo Accord.

Brazil, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League also condemned the bombing of al-Ahli Arab Hospital, and some of the Western powers also shifted their thoughts in condemning Israel.

How is the conflict going to create consequences for Kenya?

Kenya has strong ties with the West, but its foreign policy posture has been a non-alignment—being in solidarity with the West but also taking a cautious side of the East when it comes to international issues of such a nature.

However, there has been a shift in Kenyan foreign policy behaviour from a non-alignment posture to a positive skew towards looking West. The current administration has a good relationship with its Biden counterpart. President Ruto has already shown he is an ‘eye’ in the Horn of Africa, following Biden's ‘hawkish’ behaviour towards the Sudan crisis.

A firm decision and taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have consequences for Kenya, creating sensitive tensions because the country has a huge number of Muslims mostly in the coastal and Northeastern part, and these communities have a solidarity with the Muslim world.

Historically, Kenya has had good relations with Israel, having helped Israel during Operation Entebbe of 1976 in Uganda, an Israeli counter-terrorist mission which resulted in consequences. Kenya helped Israel’s operation to rescue hostages, which led to the deaths of 45 Ugandan soldiers and 245 Kenyan citizens in Uganda, including an exodus of more than 3000 Kenyans from Uganda.

The mission was to help Israel rescue flight Airbus A300 operated by Air France, which was hijacked by the Palestinian militant group. The flight landed in Entebbe and the hijackers were supported by the Idi Amin administration in Uganda. Their mission was to compel Israel to release the militant Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages.

In addition, Kenya has been a victim of al-Qaeda’s jihadist extremist attacks such as the August 7, 1998, US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam killing more than 220 people in the former city. The 2002 attack killed 13 people at the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, and the attack was a mission of an al-Qaeda wing in Somalia targeting the Israeli business in the country.

The attackers also fired two missiles at an Israeli chartered plane. Currently, Kenya is part of the African Transition Mission in Somalia  fighting al Shabaab; the mission to fight the VEO led to Kenya receiving help from Israel's intelligence and equipment but being denied assistance from the Gulf States. As such, the denial was hyped by the al-Shabaab narrative magazine titled Gaidi mtaani, claiming that Kenya supports the Zionist mission.

Al Shabaab has conducted many attacks in Kenya killing several civilians including police and military personnel from 2013 to date, with the major attacks being the Westgate shopping mall in Westland, Nairobi, the two Mpeketoni attacks, sporadic Mandera attacks, the Garissa attack, El-Adde attack in the Gedo and Kulbiyow region in Somalia, and the Dusit 2 Complex attack in Nairobi, and the attack on the Africom, a united states-African military command in Camp Simba in Mamba bay Lamu county.

These attacks have been motivated by Kenya’s mission to Somalia but also Kenya’s strong ties with the US and Israel. The Dusit attack in Nairobi exemplifies such motivation; it came after the US transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A week after the Biden statement against the Hama’s attack, the US Embassy in Nairobi and the Kenyan police issued an intelligence warning on possible alShabaab attacks as a sign of solidarity with Hamas.

What will neutrality of Kenya’s foreign policy posture mean?

Hamas's action against the Israelis would serve as a motivator for an attack in Kenya by al-Shabaab. Thus, Kenyan foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestine conflict should have a neutral posture—non-alignment; condemning the Hamas action, recognising Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

This includes Israel's self-defence action to defend itself under international law but also calling for military responsibility under the International Humanitarian Law, calling for Jus in Bello. Furthermore, Kenya’s non-alignment posture should call for a peaceful solution.

Israelis and Palestinians need safety, and international voices should call for such. The peaceful negotiation between Palestine and Israel should be called back in reflection of the 1993 Oslo Accord, a framework for peaceful talks between Palestine and Israel.

The accord aimed at achieving the United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 of 1967 to end the six-day Arab-Israeli war, and Resolution 338 of 1973 a joint proposal of the USSR (today Russia) and the US calling for a ceasefire on the fourth Arab-Israeli war.

Kenya should be a champion of such historical peaceful efforts, joining the AU's neutral voice in championing a two-state solution. Just like Turkey, Kenya is at the heart of international relations; more so, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two countries have populations supporting both sides of the conflict.

Therefore, a non-alignment posture towards the conflict creates a neutral ground for Kenya which is countering al Shabaab in Somalia. Taking sides and supporting Israel will trigger an al Shabaab reaction and sporadic attacks in northeastern and coastal Kenya, with a possibility of attacks in Nairobi. Thus, the Ruto administration should focus on a neutral ground.


The author is the 2023 Peace Fellow at Åland Islands Peace Institute. He is also a Fellow at Raad Peace Research Institute, and the Political Science and Public Administration Department, at the University of Nairobi. His work focused on Ontological Security, territoriality, Pastoral Community Armed Groups (CBAGs), and Violent Extremist Organizations in the Horn of Africa

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