Africa is a symbol of the future and Africa stands with us," declared Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in July 1975 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Twenty-seven years later, as the OAU stood on the threshold of being reborn as the African Union in 2002, the Palestinian struggle icon was besieged by Israeli troops at his headquarters in Ramallah. Arafat sent his envoy, Farouq Kaddoumi, to attend the final OAU meeting in Durban, South Africa. Through Kaddoumi, Arafat appealed to African leaders for the AU to continue supporting and advocating for Palestinian freedom.
The AU did not fail the Palestinian people; it has been one of Palestine's most important and loyal allies in the past 19 years.
Israel's colonisation, illegal occupation of Palestine, and oppression of the Palestinian people have featured prominently at AU summits. The AU, and the OAU before it, has consistently condemned Israel's use of lethal, unlawful force against Palestinian civilians, its violations of international law, and annexation of Palestinian land.
At its last summit in February this year, the AU specifically called on its members to respect the international legal status of East Jerusalem as occupied and as the capital of the future Palestinian state and reiterated the illegality of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights.
Supported by AU members and its leaders, African nations have regarded the Palestinian struggle as an African issue. This is a reflection of the bonds between Africa's liberation and anti-colonial struggles and those of the Palestinian people.
It is within this context, then, that the decision by AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to unilaterally accept the credentials of Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Aleli Admasu, is all the more bewildering. The move undermines the anti-colonial values that underpin the AU.
Mahamat said Israel's diplomatic relations with AU member states justified his decision to grant Israel AU observer status. But this decision is not about whether Israeli diplomatic missions exist in African countries.
This is about the type of political and diplomatic recognition — and normalisation of colonialism — that comes with attaining observer status in an institution that serves as an anti-colonial beacon.
Gaining observer status brings Israel into a formal relationship with the AU. That is a privilege that Israel — a violent occupying power whose actions violate the spirit, objectives, and principles of the AU — simply does not deserve at this moment.
Now the AU risks following the example of much of the international community's inaction.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine has entered its 54th year, while the ongoing violent displacement of Palestinians to make way for the creation of Israel (known as the Nakba) is in its 73rd year. That is 73 years of Israeli colonial policies that manifest through crippling sieges, land theft, and systemic violence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israel has been able to sustain this illegal situation only because of the world's inaction.
It is unthinkable that some AU member states, which themselves have emerged from painful histories of colonialism and occupation, openly support the presence of a modern-day colonial power such as Israel at the AU.
As long as the international community — now, shockingly, including the AU — continues to welcome Israel with privileges and distinctions, it effectively gives our Israeli colonisers permission to continue the occupation. Words without actions are meaningless.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has collectively objected to Mahamat's decision to grant Israel observer status. SADC's position is in line with the positions of Mauritania, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Comoros, and Djibouti that have also lodged formal objections with the AU. These countries serve as a lodestar for other African nations in how to develop meaningful solidarity with Palestine by moving beyond words and recalibrating their relations with Israel.
It is also inspiring to see the outpouring of support from dozens of political and civil society groups, trade unions, student networks and religious formations throughout Africa. Coming together as the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network, they have collectively rejected Mahamat's decision. These groups are showing their governments what genuine solidarity looks like, and remind Palestinians that the African people still stand with us in our struggle for liberation.
When the issue of Israel's observer status comes before the AU executive council in October, member states must act together to send Israel a clear message that it cannot occupy a people for 54 years, perpetuate apartheid practices, and then be given the privilege of joining the African family for a few hollow words about peace, aid, and investment.
In 1975, the OAU declared that "… the racist [Israeli] regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at the repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being".
In the 46 years since that declaration, the regimes in then-Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa were dismantled through internal resistance that was supported by an intensive international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. Neither regime was welcomed at the OAU until it ended its apartheid and colonial practices. So how, then, can the apartheid regime occupying Palestine be rewarded with observer status at the AU while it continues its lawlessness and violations?
Until it ends its occupation, colonisation, and apartheid against the Palestinian people, Israel must not have a place at the AU.
This article first appeared in Mail&Guardian on 2 September 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.