Geldof says Israeli aid to Africa is ‘noble’

At IsraAid conference in Herzliya, visiting rockstar-activist lauds fact that ‘country born in misery and suffering aspires to assist Africa.’

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
May 29, 2011 17:34
4 minute read.
Bob Geldof

Bob Geldof 311. (photo credit: Shimi Nachtailer)

 
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Israel’s efforts to alleviate poverty and develop local economies in Africa is noble yet it needs to do more, Irish singer-activist Bob Geldof said at a conference on Israel and Africa held in Herzliya on Sunday.

The former Boomtown Rats front man, known for his role in fighting poverty in Africa, addressed hundreds of people at the event organized by the relief group IsraAid with the help of the Melbourne-based Pratt Foundation.

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“There’s something noble about the fact that Israel, a country born in misery and suffering, aspires to assist Africa,” Geldof said. “The Israeli government needs to start spreading resources to support friends that would assist us down the road. Israel has agriculture, hi-tech and information that are needed in Africa now. They need Africa.”

Geldof said the unsolved conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and other neighbors need not preclude the Jewish state from reaching out to the impoverished continent.

“I know we’re preoccupied with our problems in the region, but just because you’re stuck in the gutters doesn’t mean you can’t watch the stars,” he said.

Hundreds of people attended the conference, which examined the sometimes complicated ties between Israel and Africa. The participants included several prominent Israeli figures with connections to the continent.

“We had journalist Itai Engel and singer Idan Raichel, who spoke about their experiences in Africa, as well as people from [Israeli drip irrigation company] Netafim who spoke about the vast amount of cooperation and work in Western and Eastern Africa,” IsraAid head Shachar Zahavi said. “We brought our lawyer from Rwanda talking about partnership with the Hebrew University on human rights and refuge.”



Most attendees at the Daniel Hotel were too young to remember the golden age of Israel in Africa. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the Jewish state was one of the biggest per capita providers in the world of aid to developing countries – at one point second only to France. An extensive network of Israeli technical advisers and agricultural experts fanned out across Africa, cultivating ties with new nations that, like Israel, had only just gained independence from colonial rule.

Yehuda Paz, chairman of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development and one of the speakers at Sunday’s conference, was one of those Israeli advisers.

“Every aid project has a political element and a financial one,” the 80-year-old Brooklyn- born resident of Kibbutz Kissufim said. “These are worthy things, but that’s not why Israel got involved in Africa.

“First, it had to do with what Israel should be in the eyes of the world. It’s hard to understand today, but Prime Minister Ben-Gurion wanted to show the world we were founded on mutual aid and justice. We thought that after 2,000 years Israel will be based on values, not just interests,” Paz said.

“Second, Israel was seen as an example in the fields of agricultural and rural development.

Third, Israel was a leader in the cooperative movement with hundreds of thousands of members worldwide as well as in the labor union movement.”

In 1974, however, relations soured significantly. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the majority of sub-Saharan countries sided with the Arab states and severed ties with Israel. A feeling of betrayal has lingered and Israeli aid to Africa has never returned to its pre-war levels.

“It was terrible and was caused by two things,” Paz said. “First, the oil crisis; the Arabs used oil as a weapon and the prices skyrocketed to $20 [a barrel]. The Arabs promised aid to African countries, but they never fulfilled their promise. The second was the political power of the Non- Aligned countries.”

During those years, Israel also strengthened its ties with apartheid South Africa, partly as a reaction to its treatment by the rest of the continent, creating yet more tension with sub-Saharan states. Still, Israeli experts never entirely left the region.

“The now defunct Afro-Asian Institute I headed had ties with 50 countries including in Africa all that time,” Paz said. “In later years most African leaders admitted they had made a mistake cutting ties with Israel. I know several leaders of African states who not only personally expressed regret but some of them even expressed shame.”

Israel is now increasing its involvement in the continent through several projects, albeit not on the same scale as in the past.

“Africa as you know is undergoing a great boom, it is slowly accelerating its economic development although Israeli involvement there isn’t always beneficial – but that’s another issue,” Paz said. “One has to remember that less than 1 percent of Israel’s imports and less than 5% of its exports are with Africa.”

One factor motivating greater Israeli involvement in Africa is that the continent’s problems are now showing up on its own doorstep. In recent years a growing number of people from Sudan, Eritrea and other African countries have illegally entered Israel seeking work and refuge. But solving that problem might be beyond Israel’s capacity, Paz said.

“For Israel to stop migration it needs to be an impoverished nation,” he said. ”You have to understand there are a billion people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day. One person in eight is hungry. It’s not that they aren’t eating enough steak, they’re starving. They have no future, no hope for their children and they will do everything they can to give them hope.”

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