AU declaration on Israel’s observer status draws support

The African Union’s condemnation of Israel’s “colonial” practices against Palestine, its suspension of Israel’s observer status and its request that its 55 member states cut scientific and cultural ties with Israel have drawn vocal support from the academic community in North Africa which also, alongside South Africa, in 2021 protested loudly when Israel received observer status at the pan-African body.

Despite the February declaration by the African Union (AU), some countries immediately afterwards continued relations with Israel within the science and education sphere, signalling that there may be some division between members when a final decision about Israel’s status will be taken in future.

The declaration about Palestine and the Middle East was approved at the African Union Summit held in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, from 18-19 February. At this event, an Israeli delegation was expelled because a final decision about Israel was still pending.

In its declaration, the AU requested member states to “end all direct and indirect trade, scientific and cultural exchanges with the State of Israel”.

“Moreover, to take all measures to stop such dealings in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations, in particular resolution 2334 (2016), paragraph 5, and the relevant decisions of the African Union.”

The AU also condemned what it called “the Israeli colonialist and discriminatory practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Hana Saada, a researcher and assistant university lecturer at the University of Algiers Abou El Kacem Saadallah, commonly called the Algiers 2 University, called the AU decision “historic”.

However, Saada also pointed out that, although the tough language used in the AU decision is only a recommendation and some member states may still defy it, it will have an impact on the rate at which Africa-Israel academic relations are being normalised.

Morocco resumed diplomatic ties with Israel in December 2020, becoming the fourth Arab country to do so after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, in addition to Egypt and Jordan, which had officially recognised Israel by signing peace agreements in 1979 and 1994 respectively.

Israel is also expected to establish ties with Comoros, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean, in future.

Not a binding declaration

Indeed, Saada’s view that individual states may still follow their own course, was supported by Angola’s Minister of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Maria do Rosario Braganca, who visited Israel on 20 February, just after the announcement of the AU decisions.

Braganca was quoted as saying: “The cooperation of Angola and Israel … is proof that Israel has a space in Africa, and my presence here in Israel is [also] proof of that.

“We have very good relationships with Israel and I hope, in the future, we strengthen the cooperation, specifically in the fields where I am, which are higher education and science, technology, and innovation,” Braganca concluded.

Abdennasser Naji, the president of the Amaquen Institute in Morocco, an education think tank, told University World News that official cultural and scientific links were a “powerful” instrument Israel could use to yield influence over countries.

However, he suggests that scientists should only maintain links with Israeli scientists who defend peace and the right of Palestinians to have an independent state.

Whereas Angola was building relations, on 4 February, the Alliance of Professors at Bahri University in Sudan issued a statement rejecting Israel-Sudan normalisation and the National Union of Employees of Higher Education and University Districts in Morocco called on the state to back down from normalisation.

Academics’ views

Although some African academics told University World News they were fearful to speak their minds about the relationship between their countries and Israel, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor of global thought and comparative philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, at the University of London, United Kingdom, said he does not think “any independent academic or, indeed, informed citizen anywhere in the world can deny that Israeli policies towards Palestine are unjust and punitive.

“Above everything else, history has shown that militaristic force and systematic violence are a poor substitute for diplomacy and dialogue.

“There is no evidence that scientific boycotts work if they are not backed up by political action. At the same time, symbolic acts are important, but I’d like to see the AU and other intergovernmental organisations actively promoting a peace process that safeguards Palestinian rights, exactly as international law mandates,” he told University World News.

In Palestine, during 2020-21, 497 attacks were recorded and 417 students and educators were harmed and 66 schools and universities were damaged or destroyed, according to Track Attacks on Education (TRACE) Data Portal – a new tool which applies humanitarian technology to generate reliable, timely data on attacks on education to be freely shared.

Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli in Libya, told University World News: “If you only just watch TV or look to reports describing the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, especially the various ways in which universities have been attacked and educational injustice for Palestinians [caused] by the actions of the occupying forces, you will for sure know that there should be no scientific, educational or other contacts with Israel.”

Professor Zied Ben Amor, the assistant general coordinator and official spokesperson for the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers, or IJABA, told University World News: “All the efforts and decisions taken to put an end to apartheid and discrimination against Palestinians are welcome.”

Walid Gashout, president of the Students Organisation of Private Higher Education in Libya, told University World News the AU took a “brave decision” which aligns with a September 2022 United Nations’ (UN) Rights Commission report.

The UN report called upon Israel to “comply fully with international law and end, without delay, its 55 years of occupation of the Palestinian territories and comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including, specifically, with regard to the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination …”

El Khalil Ould Mohamed Al-Hafedh, a former secretary-general of the General Union of Mauritanian Students, or GUMS, told University World News that he believed the AU decision would be supported by the Mauritanian people.

This article was updated on 2 March.