Jerusalem casts shadow on Africa's Arab neighbors

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ISR251118002AG.jpegCAIRO – Israel is moving quickly to fill a security vacuum in Africa as the United States reassigns forces from terror-plagued Africa to allies on the frontiers of China and Russia.

The latest example of the shift came on November 25 when Chadian President Idriss Deby visited Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear Israeli eagerness to join the fierce wars against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Africa.

“Chad is a very important country,” Netanyahu told Deby in his welcoming remarks. “It's an important country in Africa. It's an important country for Israel.”

Using Israeli technology and aid to address Chad’s security and economic development challenges were among the issues discussed by the two leaders. Chad’s army reportedly is already using Israeli satellites to eavesdrop on terror groups operating in the north of the country.

Reports have also said that Chad has purchased armored equipment from Israel, though neither Deby nor Netanyahu responded to questions about those arms sales.

The expected collaboration came after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced a 10 percent cut in troop strength for the U.S. Africa Command, saying "great-power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

Chad, like its neighbors the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Niger consistently ranks near the bottom –186 out of 189 –in the United Nations’ yearly Human Development Index of countries’ health, education and income.

Those conditions make the continent ripe for a jihadism, said African leaders who cite the rise of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram as a sign of the ideology’s appeal. Last year, Chad joined the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, a coalition of impoverished African countries.

Israel is not a formal member of the coalition because it includes Arab League nations such as Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon. They don’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

Chad severed ties with Tel Aviv in 1972 when the the Organization of African Unity urged its 53-member states to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to reclaim lost lands.

But Deby opted to come to Jerusalem anyway, saying Africa needed to forget anti-colonial rhetoric and focus on counter-terrorism efforts. “We have a shared struggle, against the sickening evil of this century, which is terrorism," said Deby at the Jerusalem press conference.
Washington may appreciate Israel’s assistance in counter terrorism training and technology in Africa.

But Arab leaders are concerned. They see Israel’s involvement in the region as an encroachment that might incite Muslim hate.

“Cooperation between Chad and Israel gives a strong pretext for extremist Islamic groups to align with the Chadian rebels to expand in Africa,” said Aadelsatar Hetieta, an Egyptian author who writes about regional conflicts like Libya and Yemen. “Israel's presence will give al-Qaeda justification and encourage further action and deployment in the countries of the continent.”

The issue especially impacts the messy security situation in Libya, said experts.

Tribal leaders in the south Libyan desert bordering Chad believe President Deby is preparing to enlist Israel in exploiting natural resources in disputed border areas where nomadic groups are involved in smuggling arms and illegal migrants.

“It is a rough terrain,” said Easa Abdelmegeed leader of the Tabu Congress, a council of non-Arab tribes concentrated in southern Libya with branches in both Chad and Niger. “But Israeli companies are seeking gold and uranium exploration in northern Chad. It’s likely Israel will be asked to help Chad’s army move out terror groups in the area and the fear here is that these elements could end up in Libya.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitics lecturer at the Université de Versailles near Paris, believed Chad’s openness to Israel came after Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pressed Deby to cut ties with Qatar. With the US pulling back from the region, unstable Chad needed a new patron who could provide military assistance.

“France supports Chad, but that assistance is not going to grow much and, meanwhile, the U.S. military are interested in withdrawing. When you look at all those trends taken together, Chad is seeking — perhaps even begging for — new regional sponsorships,” Harchaoui said.

Chad closed its border with Libya in January in the hope of barring the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and anti-Deby militants from entering. That effort failed to stop the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic from attacking the mining town of Kouri Bougoudi in August.

“Chad is under pressure—economically, ecologically and security-wise,” said Harchaoui. “This year, a Chadian rebel group based in Libya carried out the first significant cross-border attack against Idriss Deby’s government since 2009.”

But in the capital N'Djamena, Deby’s new ally, Netanyahu, is not universally embraced.

"Chad should only resume ties with Israel after it stops its aggression against the Palestinians and end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, especially the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem," said Mahamat-Ahmad Alhabo, leader of the opposition Freedom and Development Party, a group that has criticized Deby for human rights abuses.

In its latest report from Chad, the rights monitoring group Amnesty International called out Chadian authorities for banning peaceful assemblies and arresting activists and journalists.

“Israel is only looking after its own interests and intends to use Chad as a Trojan horse through to use as a forward base to establish ties with other African nations," Alhabo said Wednesday even as officials in neighboring Sudan denied reports by the Israeli Channel 10 claiming Jerusalem officials had secretly met with Khartoum’s top intelligence officers in Istanbul, Turkey in an effort to establish ties.

“This information is false and fabricated,” said Sudan’s Information Minister Bushara Gomaa. “We have deep and ongoing political, ideological and religious disputes with Israel.”

Outside observers tend to downplay Arab denials and objections about the growing Israeli diplomatic and security footprint in Africa.

“The United States is reducing its presence in Africa, Gadhafi is dead, and Libya is no longer an influencer in African projects nor politics,” said Frank Corsini, a global energy entrepreneur who served as an economist in the Ford White House. “I can only opine that Israel as the U.S. proxy is better than no one taking charge.”

Photo: Nov. 25, 2018 - Jerusalem, Israel - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the president of Chad, Idriss Deby. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chad President Deby met over dinner together with their entourages. Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the start of their meeting: "President Déby and I had the opportunity to discuss the relations between our two countries and the way we can cooperate for the benefit of our peoples and for peace and for security. And I'm delighted that my wife Sara and I can welcome you to our home and your delegation. We will continue our discussions and I think they are going to be very fruitful. I think the historic visit of President Déby to Israel marks a new era, a new era for security, for cooperation and for peace. I welcome you in this spirit to our home here in Jerusalem. Welcome."
Credit: Courtesy of Amos Ben-Gershom/ Government Press Office (11/25/2018)

Story/photo publish date: 12/12/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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