As a country where genocide was committed just over two decades ago, Rwanda looks to Israel as a model of how to build a modern country out of the ashes of racial extermination, Rwanda’s Ambassador Joseph Rutabana told The Jerusalem Post.
Rutabana’s comment in an interview in his Herzliya Pituah office on Wednesday comes on the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to four east African countries at the beginning of July: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Rwanda is on the list, according to one Israeli diplomatic source, because it is arguably Israel’s closest friend on the continent.
“Israel’s achievements are really spectacular,” Rutabana said. “It is a country that in less than 70 years has become a first-world state. We want to learn how they achieved it.”
Rutabana said there were similarities between the two countries, both relatively small – Rwanda is a country with a population of just over 11 million – and both with people who have suffered mightily.
“We know that the Jewish people suffered a lot,” he said. “But their resilience has allowed them to achieve a great deal. The same thing is true of Rwanda. Twenty-two years ago we suffered a lot, we had the most cruel thing happen. The state was almost a failed state, and we are trying to build a modern state out of the ashes of genocide. Having some models to follow is good.”
An estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days in 1994 in Rwanda, in what the UN has officially called the “Genocide against the Tutsi,” during a civil war that ravaged the country.
Immediately after the war, when a new government was formed, it looked to quickly reestablish ties with Israel.
“Rwanda can learn from your experience,” Rutabana said. “That you believe in something, and you don’t stop until you achieve it. Our leadership wants to show us that we cannot be complacent, that we cannot think that we can rely on someone else. Because we saw what happened. Our people were killed, and the whole world was watching. We need to continue, and Israel is a model of a people who are resilient, and who feel that they need to rely on themselves to solve their problems, and are not relying on others to achieve what they need to achieve.”
Rwanda and Israel established diplomatic relations soon after the former Belgian colony gained independence in July 1962, but those ties were severed later in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War when most African states – under Arab pressure – broke relations with Israel. With the reestablishment of ties in October 1994, Rwanda sent an ambassador to Israel, but had to close the embassy because of budgetary constraints some six years later.
The embassy was reopened with Rutabana’s appointment as ambassador in the summer of 2015, and is one of its 35 embassies around the world (21 outside of Africa). Israel is served in Rwanda by a nonresident ambassador operating out of Addis Ababa.
In 2014, when it was one of the 10 rotating members of the UN Security Council, Rwanda was essential in preventing the Palestinians from passing a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw to the pre- June 1967 lines by late 2017, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Rwanda, as well as Nigeria, abstained on the vote, depriving the Palestinians of the nine votes they needed to pass the motion.
Rutabana said that decision was taken at the highest levels, and – a day after the vote – Netanyahu singled out for thanks Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whom he referred to as “my friend.”
He also gave special mention to then-Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, with whom he developed close ties.
Jonathan has since been voted out of office.
Explaining the reasoning behind Rwanda’s vote, Rutabana said that “Israel is our friend,” and “we were convinced” by Israel’s position.
He said that the vote did not cause harm between his country and the Arab world, even though some countries “were not happy with it.”
Rwanda generally abstains on UN votes regarding Israel- related votes, such as the 2011 UNESCO vote to admit “Palestine” as a state, and the 2012 General Assembly vote granting the Palestinians the status of a non-member observer state.
At times, however, it votes for Israel, as in a crucial vote last September at the International Atomic Energy Agency when it was one of four African countries that voted with Israel and against an Egyptian resolution calling for international monitoring of Israel’s nuclear facilities.
The other African countries to vote with Israel were Burundi, Kenya, and Togo. Another 15 African countries, including Ethiopia – where Netanyahu is also traveling in early July – abstained.
Netanyahu will fly to the Rwandan capital of Kigali on July 6 from Kenya, for a visit expected to last no more than eight hours. But regardless of the length, Rutabana sees the high visibility of the visit as something extremely significant, and something that presents an opportunity to expose Israelis and Israeli businessmen to his country.
Rwanda, he said, is very keen on attracting not only Israeli businessmen and investors, but also tourists. “We know Israelis travel around the world,” he said. “Rwanda is a beautiful country that is a good tourism destination.”
It is also safe, he said, not bedeviled by some of the Islamic terrorism plaguing other parts of the continent.
“We want to tap into Israeli technological know-how,” said Rutabana, “especially agricultural know-how. More than 60 percent of the country are farmers. Israel has achieved a lot in terms of irrigation, and horticulture for export. We want to diversify our farming and our economy by applying and studying what is being done here.”
Rwanda also wants to benefit from Israeli water management expertise, he said.
“Israel has no water resources, but has developed other technologies toward recycling and water desalination that has made it self reliant. In Rwanda we have lots of rain, but are still suffering from shortages.”
Israel also has “post-harvest technology” that Rwanda wants to benefit from, he said, explaining that this means the storage and preservation of fruits, vegetable and flowers – after they have been cut – to facilitate export.
Rutabana, who came to diplomacy from the military, also said the two countries are exploring military cooperation, and he highlighted as areas of special interest Israel’s expertise in “bomb disposal,” border protection and protecting the country’s national energy grid.